Nick Jenkins, the narrator of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to The
Music of Time series, discovers that, when observed at close
quarters, all people are pursued by their own particular demons.
Henry Mitsui, a disturbed and dangerous young man who stalks
one of the protagonists in Richard Beard’s Damascus, attempts
to control his behaviour by ‘giving’ a life to everyone he encounters
— naming them, placing them, imaginatively employing them…
Beard, whose first novel X20 was generated and structured
by the rhythms of addiction and the arithmetic of giving up smoking,
attempts in Damascus to grapple with questions of identity.
What is a life, what is it made of, how can it change?
Everything takes place on 1 November 1993 — the day on which
we all became citizens of the new Europe (and therefore, everything
changed and stayed exactly the same). Hazel Burns and Spencer
Kelly exist in a perpetual present tense — 1 November 1993 is
the day they are born, the day of their first kiss, the day a
terrible accident befell their respective families, the day they
first meet after a years-long telephone relationship. Today’s
the day; tomorrow never comes.
A concluding ‘Acknowledgement’ reveals that all but twelve of
the nouns used in the novel have been taken from ‘The Times
(London) of 1 November 1993′. So we then ask ‘which twelve?’
One for each of the twelve chapters (barring Chapter ‘nought’)?
One in each chapter? What kind of words would one need
to supplement — what are the words required by a novel and not
by a newspaper? Is there then a hierarchy of words — or is the
point that there isn’t? What about a deficiency of proper nouns?
Decisions, decisions: each question a can of worms, each turn
a garden of forking paths, departing from the mischievous surface
simplicity of Beard’s text. Sensations of this kind reflect the
Perecian influence which Beard welcomes into his fiction, the
fond interest in newspapers, chess boards, cross-word puzzles,
and draw the reader’s attention to compositional method; our speculation
is invited. What kind of databases and file management were involved
in this process? Would it be possible to arrange and dispose
this much material accurately by non-electronic means? Could
it be done long-hand — say, by card index? No? In that case
we find ourselves considering a manifestly computerised novel.
In this respect, Damascus is a tricksy performance all
round, displaying its workings, and wearing its guts on the outside,
a fictional Pompidou Centre.
A disorientated early-twenties Hazel finds herself flirting with
the idea of a career as a novelist:
She quite fancied having well-respected novels published by Viking
or Flamingo or Hamish Hamilton. But whenever she thought up plots
the stories sounded familiar, and she worried about how qualified
she was to claim they were true. It seemed almost dishonest to
present the plot of a life as a simple story, when her own life
had never felt as simple as that.
Engagingly unbelieveable as they are, and clearly keyed into
the author’s fictionalised identity, the status of these characters
— especially Hazel and Spencer — is fraught with difficulty.
Everything is said to happen where it might conceivably be happening,
not where it is definitely, authoritatively happening. If Spencer
Kelly is born ‘in Harlow or Widnes or Swansea or Ayr’ (to take
a simple example) we never know if he is English or Welsh or Scottish.
(The same is assiduously true of Hazel.) Does this not matter?
As Henry Mitsui could tell us, everyone has a life; my small
and incidental details are just as good as your small and incidental
details. They could be almost anything, but they happen to be
Although Spencer could have been born almost anywhere, he happens
to drink out of a Celtic FC mug (not WBA, not Crewe Alexandra,
not Stenhousemuir…) The imperative of detailed specificity
is a crucial component of the realist novel: the strategic abandonment
of specificity is definitely brave, and inevitably partial.
Beard as ever wears his ideas and his formal experimentation
lightly, and the novel has some fine comic set pieces: Russian
roulette with two mugs of chicken soup, one of which contains
a deadly poison; the death of a goldfish, whose fabled three-second
memory makes him an almost heroic figure in this paean to the
present moment. Nor, despite its postmodern preoccupation with
information overload, does the novel shy away from sentiment.
Damascus has the multiplicity of the newspaper from which
it borrows its form and materials — something for the boffins,
something for the rest of us, all this and River Phoenix too.
Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw