Friday, April 25, 2008

An unearthly whiteness

I've wanted to read Ice, by Anna Kavan, ever since I read about that troubled writer in Doris Lessing's collection of essays, Time Bites. It's been a hard book to find, but it's suddenly available here and there (get your copy now), having been recently (2006) reissued (three cheers for independent publishers, but I do wish they'd invest in a proofreader — on the spine the author's name is spelled "Ann" without the final "a").

I'm not altogether sure what to make of it, but it is weirdly beautiful.

The unaccustomed cold made my head ache as I stared out, straining my eyes in the effort of trying to avoid icy patches, where the car skidded out of control. When the headlights fled over the roadside ruins from time to time, the brief glimpse always surprised me, and vanished before I was sure I had really seen it.

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl's naked body, slight as a child's, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was.

This passage came out of nowhere (the first of many instances like this). The narrator is driving along a road, and suddenly we veer right off, but only for a paragraph or two, and the story picks up again where we'd left off. Is this deviation from reality a dip into his imagination, or his own psychological problems, or a poeticized version of his haunted reality?

And what is this ice, then? A symbol or metaphor? Of what? the girl? the relationship? the world? What?

I was frustrated by this novel early on — had no idea what was going on — even while the language danced hypnotic circles around me. One day on the metro, I found myself formulating the thought, "I don't have time for 'difficult' novels." Of course, I don't really mean that; but every now and then I have to question why someone would choose to eschew typical narrative patterns, when they would serve the purpose equally well. Now, I'm sure there is, in fact, another purpose. And it's only pretentious on the part of the artist when I don't get it.

Anyway, here I was, reading on the metro, not fully getting it. The only way I could describe this book is "trippy" (the more literary among you may prefer the term "slipstream"). And I was a bit pissed off about about not getting it. I happen to like, have always liked, "hard" books. Am I so out of practice? Are my hard books not challenging me enough? Have I deluded myself in my belief that my reading interests are open-minded and far-reaching? I'm a far better reader now than I was 20years ago, thanks to my experience in reading and in life — was this book so far beyond both?

But a funny thing happened. It started to come together. Whether it's because I'd been out of the habit of this kind of challenge and it took a few days to warm up those muscles, or because the narrative style took a turn, I can't say. But things became more obvious toward the end.

Doris Lessing said, "This Ice is not psychological ice or metaphysical ice; here the loneliness of childhood has been magicked into a physical reality as hallucinatory as the Ancient Mariner's."

Ice is not the sf dytopian novel I was expecting. The end of the world serves as a backdrop; apart from whatever metaphor or poetic imagery it may serve, the ice that is descending upon the world allows for chaos, an imbalance in the social and political structures, allowing these characters to move and act as they do.

I'm not sure I'd categorize Ice as dystopian at all (much the same way I don't think McCarthy's The Road qualifies; the wasteland setting is an accident of circumstance, even if essential to propel the characters, but the book's not about that); it's a book about a dysfunctional relationship.

Ice is about a girl and the narrator, their past locked into their present, with no hope of a future.

Then there's the other man, who may be that side of the narrator he doesn't like to look at square on.

In an indescribable way our looks tangled together. I seemed to be looking at my own reflexion. Suddenly I was entangled in utmost confusion, not sure which of us was which. We were like halves of one being, joined in some mysterious symbiosis. I fought to retain my identity, but all my efforts failed to keep us apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him. At one moment I actually seemed to be wearing his clothes. I fled from the room in utter confusion: afterwards did not know what had happened, or if anything had.

Elsewhere: The Times Literary Supplement, and a more scholarly take.

Personally, I did not know what had happened, or if anything had.

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