Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson

Some spoilers in this one, as its necessary to give a bit of the plot in order to write about it. 

In Ian Parkinson's debut novel, "The Beginning of the End", a Belgian man, Raymond, slowly falls apart. "Like every thirty-something, I gradually gave up, so slowly that I didn't really notice an incremental abandoning of my former beliefs and ambitions." He has worked at Siemens for fifteen years, lives in a nondescript flat, and has little romantic past to speak of. We meet him at "the beginning of the end" of the title - at the start of the crises in his life. There's not a particular trigger for his falling apart, and as he is our narrator, it takes a while to realise that is what is happening.

Finding himself the owner of a dog, after the previous owner, a gay neighbour, had killed himself. He had left the dog with Raymond and we see that Raymond has only the most passive sort of agency. Unable to function in the real world, he goes online, frequenting sex sites. He gives up his job, and flies to Thailand where he meets and marries Joy, a porn actress - or thats what she becomes on returning to Belgian with him. At this point his father dies, and he finds he has inherited a beach side property which in a few years time will be washed away by erosion. The book is punctuated by abrupt deaths, and in Raymond's telling, they have no more impact on him than his marriage, or other friendships. As he goes to live on the beach, occasionally looking through the boxes of his father's possessions but finding nothing, or rather - only clues that he doesn't then follow - Joy stays behind in his flat and becomes a well known porn star. Their relationship is only delineated by sex, which seems to be the one thing that will get him out of his torpor, but also provides him with; little pleasure. In one scene, Raymond and Joy visit another couple. "It was an enjoyable evening: Jan was a nice guy, friendly and relaxed; and Diana obviously loved sucking cock." In one of several deadpan graphic scenes in the novel Parkinson writes a graphic, soulless porn, that seems both to be in Raymond's voice but also to be an attempt to imbue these scenes with the same matter-of-fact ennui as the rest of the book.

For this 2015 novel is a clear descendant of Camus's "The Outsider" or, more recently, Houllebecq's first three or four novels. Yet if in Camus the shock was the insensibility, here we are in a more solipsistic age - there is little agency for Raymond. The occasional brief encounters with other people he shrugs off, as uninteresting - is this his own superiority or a falling into the depressive nihilism of his own personality? Only thoughts of sex - visiting massage parlours, anonymous chat rooms online - pul him from his inertia, and that seems just another form of nullity. He has given up in so many ways, yet with little of his previous life to go on, he seems a cipher to us. In some ways he sits clearly in a line of novels which attempt to illuminate our contemporary neuroses, in a world where everything is available, but where nothing matters. Yet its motives seem a little more  surface than novels such as McCarthy's "Remainder" or Rourke's "The Canal", with depressed inert loners as their central character.

Parkinson's style is literary but minimalist. Our narrator is very particular about his use of language, and there's clarity about everything he says, whether describing the disgusting conditions in the beach house, or sex with Joy, or a lonely trip to the supermarket. Its a sort of anti-style that I probably first encountered in Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures" in the mid-90s, or later in Magnus Mills or Dan Rhodes. Parkinson's book is more crafted than all of them, I think, yet it also hangs on the surface, deliberately refusing to dig deeper, and in its unwillingness to do so, sometimes seems to be  an exercise in nihilism. This wouldn't be a problem in itself, yet there's a lingering sense that its not quite the sum of its intrigueing parts. It's quite easy to see where the novel comes from in a literary sense - and its modern day concerns, loneliness, prostitution, the internet, pornography, are handled well - yet a little like Keith Ridgway's acclaimed "Hawthorn & Child" I found myself wanting something that was a little less arbitrary. I have a sense that the real battle in contemporary fiction is not between the factual and fantastical but between that which feels true, and that which is a second hand fiction. Though at times the novel caught hold of me, and I could appreciate its stylistic nudges, I felt that there was too much that was arbitrary, that seemed an unwillingness to commit to a story or a character. As a short story or a novella, I think I might have been convinced, but over the whole book, I lost interest, the flatness of the characters not giving creating a strain on credibility and our engagement.

As a debut novel it has a quiet power, but is better in its more intrigueing first half. In the beach house he begins to fall apart, yet rather than a Ballardian natural erosion, the first person narration makes it hard to empathise. I realised, writing this review, I was trying to find deeper meaning or themes which just aren't really justified by the text. We are left with just Raymond's breakdown.  Faced with a character who has given up almost on the first page, two hundred pages later we have only more of the same, a collapse that seems inevitable. As we seem to go full circle, and Raymond gets taken away to live alone in a flat, similar to where he began, the beach house becomes his necessary centre, the place he was looking for - to be alone, to end things, to connect with his unknowable dead father.

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