Friday, July 15, 2011

Vault by David Rose

Reading David Rose's debut novel "Vault" I didn't quite know what to expect. After all, Rose has been a writer of unusual, terse short stories for decades, and this - his first longer work - is novella length, and described as an "anti-novel." I shouldn't have worried.

At its heart, "Vault" is a noirish thriller, and Rose provides both the tension and the detail that such a description deserves. It strikes me that if you play with genre fiction of any kind - the war novel, the spy novel - then the best way is to play the genre bits as straight as you can. In the hands of a careful stylist, and Rose is certainly that, details are both spare and appropriate. Our lead character is a cyclist, a World War II sniper, a Cold War accidental spy, and defiantly the "hero" of his own life. McKuen is himself a character in a novel, which dramatises the life of this fascinating maverick, yet in "Vault" the "real" McKuen is also commenting on that life, correcting the errors, puncturing the mythical. What might seem a gimmick is far from one. In fact, the dual perspective provides a powerful way to tell a life from two different perspectives. We are given the action scenes through the novelist - who plays up the heroism, creates an atmosphere, and creates an anti-hero. Then, through the narrator, the myth is punctured, the man seeps through.

If not a unique way of telling a story, "Vault" is cetainly more explicit about its dual narrative. Usually it would be the narrator who inflates his own importance, and up to the reader to do the puncturing. A fictional life told through the key moments seems a rich model - it's not so far from Anthony Burgess's "Earthly Powers" or Jim Crace's "Aracadia" after all - but given the subject matter, I think Rose gives his subject a depth and perspective that a less postmodern treatment would hardly do justice to.

After all, this is, ostensibly, a historical novel. Our main character is a minor player in large events. We get a very personal story. His two main skills, as sniper and cyclist seem wonderfully complementary, and in both the war scenes and the racing scenes we get the sense of a talented loner having to learn how to be part of a team effort for the greater good. That's as far as Rose goes in spelling out any deeper meaning, and the novel is the better for it. I've written before about a certain kind of contemporary "mock noir" which takes the conventions of genre fiction and adapts them to other scenarios, and there is an element of this double-take in "Vault", yet at the same time, Rose stays true to his character's life. There is no retrospective analysis; no attempt to contemporarise the past. I'm no cyclist but the descriptions of racing seem lived, real. Isn't sport so often praised for being a metaphor for war? Here the link is made explicit. The myth busting real McKuen never stops mentioning his busted knee and what it prevents him doing.

There's much pleasure to be had in this short novel, and though its easily read in one sitting it seems more substantial than many longer works. What it takes from the short story is a purity of vision. There are no subplots, no side issues. the dual narratives (with chapters named 1a, 1b etc.) is used for a reason, rather than strictly adhered to. Only when reality and fiction are far apart do we get two different accounts of the same story, elsewhere, Rose uses the method to drive forward the story. I wondered about a few of the details in the war scenes, with references to "no mans land" and "trench warfare" being associated with the First, rather than the Second world war; though I imagine they are accurate enough, they cause a jolt with a reader accustomed to certain conventions, and perhaps should have been removed. Generally the war scenes are very powerful. The sniper is such a tiny cog in the big wheel of battle, that his decisions are both "life and death" and hardly relevant to the bigger picture. Chasing through Europe after the German retreat, he comes across latent horrors, and it brings out his own dark side in a way that the tumult of war doesn't. This haunts him in civilian life, and cycling, one feels, is both escape - and in what it takes out of the competitive rider - penance.

There's something of Calvino's appropriation of genre writing in "Vault", and inevitable echoes of Graham Greene; whilst the bleak south east of post-war Britain reminds me of the same landscape in McEwan's noir novel "The Innocent", yet these are echoes rather than signature themes. McKuen listens to Mahler, and there is something musical about this book. The clank of the bike chain, the silence after a sniper's kill; Rose seems acutely aware of the auditory possibilities of the worlds he is documenting. It's a wonderful little book, that is a pleasure to read.

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