home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Richard Beard

Richard Beard
London 1998

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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 like this.

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


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