Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

I’d never heard of Sarah Hall until late last year, when one of my book groups started reading this book: it had been short listed for the Booker Prize in 2004. By the time I was half way through, I was enjoying it so much I had to give a copy to someone else. Then I managed to take off up north without the book, when I was still well short of being finished. D’oh!

Luckily, she’s a good writer, because it seems she’s not found any other way of earning a living: her other jobs, such as working 12 hours in a meat factory, or for a mail-order fly-fishing outlet, fitting spectacles and selling horrible art have not been satisfying. She credits Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion as giving her both the right sort of style to aim for (“project of vignettes that still retained overall narrative movement and shape “) as well as the inspiration to have a go. Reading various interviews of her, she comes across as a very charming and funny person. Indeed, the more I read of her, the more I like her.

I loved her book: it is certainly not pretty, but she has a fairly lavish (some call it dense) prose form and has taken risks with the story itself – many of the images she presents are not exactly cosy. Several of my book group had to give up, saying the writing became too convoluted. Hall totally agrees! “But that was the style I went for and I resolved to go for it unrepentantly. I wanted to write something deeply descriptive, full of brio, full to bursting with images and adjectives, in a northern baroque style.” Others found there to be too many references to things they found distasteful (“gory, sickmaking”). But, as one member said, there is this dichotomy in tattooing between the pain of the process and the beauty of the result: while I never found reading the book a pain, I certainly go along with it being beautiful. The Guardian in its review said “the shock is an essential part of a serious artistic and - in the best sense - moral enterprise”.

I like what Hall says here about her book:
In examining the good and the bad aspects of life, and how these ultimately influence identity, the latter has to be measured and described, but hopefully the book’s not just hung up on that darker end of things. There’s a lot of love in there too, and light. And it’s as much a novel about healing as it is about pain and wounds. The nature of a scar – damage and recovery.
A serious tone is struck from the beginning:
If the eyes could lie, his troubles might be all over. If the eyes were not such well-behaving creatures, that spent their time trying their best to convey the world and all its gore to him, good portions of life might not be so abysmal. This very moment, for instance, as he stood by the hotel window with a bucket in his hands listening to Mrs Baxter coughing her lungs up, was about to deteriorate into something nasty, he just knew it, thanks to the eyes and all their petty nit-picking honesty. The trick of course was not to look down. The trick was to concentrate and pretend to be observing the view or counting seagulls on the sill outside. If he kept his eyes away from what he was carrying they would not go about their indiscriminating business, he would be spared the indelicacy of truth, and he would not get that nauseous feeling, his hands would not turn cold and clammy and the back of his tongue would not pitch and roll.
This is Cy Parks: it is his story, starting at the beginning of the 20th century. Being a tale of a life, there is little in the way of plot, rather a series of key episodes is provided. At the same time, however, it is a portrait of two particular places facing the same fate – decline: a seedy down-at-heel fallen-on-hard-times seaside resort, Morecambe Bay on the upper North West Coast of England (in the words of the author, it is "harmless, farcical, if slightly uncouth" where "things never went too far"); and Coney Island (“consumer-driven modernism, it was in-vogue anthropomorphism, a swim through the guts and entrails of the world”).

Cy’s mum runs a hotel at Morecambe, not one to which normal holiday makers are particularly attracted, so she builds up a clientele among consumptives. As a sideline, she performs the occasional abortion. She does this not for the money, but because she has a “tolerance”:
None of the other Morecambe boarding houses and hotels were as keen to take consumptives as Reeda. The Bayview Hotel had become known as a sanctuary, though it was not advertised outright in the papers as such… She was immune to the effluent, the slime, the smell and the sense of false hope that hung around their rooms like flies about finished with a corpse. She did not get that weak-kneed feeling when they coughed and spat… She was toad-like in that fashion.
Cy has an early revelation about where his life might go, while carrying a bowl of mucus, blood and spit discharged by one of his mother’s guests:
What if blood could tell you stories? What if blood could lure you into pictures? What if there was something worthwhile underneath the shudder and jitter of a body's mess and spill, some redeeming wonder beyond the grit and gristle and ghastly cavalcade of the flawed and festering human anatomy? He was not entirely sure why, but that thought was oddly pleasing.
There is a very cute story about Cy and his mates as youngsters – they needed to make some money and hit upon the idea of giving visitors tours to see local boggarts, monsters, spirits and wee folk of the area about which they would tell tall tales. Boggarts “ranged from convenient stray dogs, vagrant tramps and drunks, to friends and younger siblings dressed in raggedy clothing with twigs entwined in their hair and mud on their faces”. Sometimes the boys had to draw lots to determine which of them would be boggart for the day. For years, the friendship between these three lads survives such mishaps as a foolhardy game played in quicksand, pissing competitions in which one or other of them is peed on and the introduction of an interest in girls into the mix.

Poor Cy: he asks his friend for advice about one such girl, Eva Brennan:
She was the loveliest thing Cy had ever seen, beside Aurora Borealis and Gaynor’s nipples. She was fourteen. She was blonde. And had freckles on the backs of her arms. She didn’t have tuberculosis. Her mother had made her a flower bonnet to wear in the Easter parade, with blue cornflowers in that it made her eyes seem darker and sadder. In the citrus light of the spring bay parade the hair on her temples had an aura of something fairy spun. For three days Cy tried to tell her that he liked her by giving her an extra helping of cabbage at dinner, and hanging her coat up on the stand whenever she came in. She always smiled at him. As if curious and waiting.
But when he enlists his friend Jonty to talk to her so the three of them can become acquainted, Cy misses “their abbreviated courtship, the giggle of innuendo, the not-so-accidental brush of hands together as they strolled, the sharing of an ice cone – trailing tongues along the paths made in the vanilla cream by each other.”

Nonetheless, their friendship remains strong until Eliot Riley comes into his life. Their first encounter is hardly auspicious: Cy is curious about the buzzing noise coming from Riley’s window, so clambers up for a good listen. Only, he manages to put a boot through the window. I love the description of Riley’s eyes – rather than being blue, they are
a guttering glacial blue and unrelenting. They were as pale and transparent and fire-cold as a flame leaping out of a mineral-grained log in a grate. Eyes that you wouldn’t want to have out stare you in an argument, thought Cy, that would make you feel like quarry in a dispute even before a word or curse was spoken, and he returned their gaze, spellbound. The vessels were large and round, containing bad emotion and amusement at once, indications of a personality that would travel the length and breadth of its own deficiencies as well as its redeeming traits, though the former seemed much more likely. And as the eyes observed him upwardly, there was something else to them too: not exactly shock, for here was a man profoundly not put into such conditions easily, Cy read of him, but soft-surprised cognition…
Eliot has noticed the good work Cy has done in writing signs in the local printing shop, and wants him to apprentice as a tattoo artist. It is a long apprentice: Riley is a free-hand engraver, like William Blake – the only difference being that Riley’s medium is human skin. Only a visionary was fit to work with him, but first there would have to be lots of training. Inside the tattoo shop, Riley is clearly a genius, a man with a singing heart, and a decent teacher to boot, when his opinions don’t get the better of him. Outside the shop, he’s a mess – “society’s satirical, ugly cousin. He drank, offended, was loud, misunderstood … He went too far, got obstinate about his courtship of living wrongly and loudly and creating effrontery.”

So, obviously, he is set for some conflict, unless he can keep these contradictory impulses in balance. For eleven years, Cy is caught up in this conflict – he and Riley develop a complex relationship in which Cy can sometimes pull Riley back from the brink of his worst self-destructive impulses but eventually, Riley annoys the wrong bloke and has his hands broken. Within a year, he is dead and rather than carry on his business, Cy takes off for America and lands up at Coney Island where he sets himself up as the Electric Michelangelo.

For all Hall's words, we don’t get any clear picture as to why he flees England, but I think he’s in need of a new sanctuary – the equivalent of his mother’s hotel for the consumptives - and with all its freaks, Coney Island, that "throbbing, pustulous, inflamed amusement-industry boil on the backside of Brooklyn" where anything can happen (such as an exhibition of premature babies in incubators) is the place. Within days, he has his first New York moment – he has been watching the shadow of his downstairs neighbour pass across her room, and then she is followed by something “impossible, something from a pantomime. A horse moved onto the stage after her.” At first he tries to rationalize it, thinking it is simply a strange congruence of inanimate objects, because no-one could keep a horse in her apartment. Yet, this is exactly what Grace is doing.

The last section of the book is dominated by Grace and Cy. As with Riley, Cy first knows her through her eyes, sees the story of her immigration to America and her discovery of the secret of making the transition a successful one. Later, he thinks of her:
She was undoubtedly clever and willful, which was, if he was honest about it, nothing short of arousing to him, and he just plain admired the fact that she managed to house a horse in her room. The idea itself was baffling. That she got away with the covert dressage was brilliant. He had a sense that he liked her, very much, and not so far away from that prospect was the notion that he could love her, perhaps… He could love her. Couldn’t he? There was the potential. There was the rub… It felt like another strangely exotic moment in his life, the pairing of Grace and love, not dissimilar to the day he had agreed to be Riley’s lad… That feeling of being befallen, of something preordained and unavoidable and uncontrollable at work, like the diaphanous flutter of Fate’s lungs, the sluicing of its digestive system, its marrowy brewing of new blood.
She comes to him as a client with a very special task for him, to completely cover her body with tattoos of eyes, 109 of them in total, so that she can take her place in the freak show that is Coney Island. They never have a conventional relationship, although he finds he does love her, loves her enormously, and it is possible that she loves him but then she is injured, before we can ever know – some bastard throws acid over her. The story pretty much stops here: with both Cy and I in tears – her pride means she has to take herself away.

Hall's story is not quite finished, however. After getting involved in a couple of wars, Cy goes back home, to Morecambe. It is now a sad place, thanks to northern industries closing down so that there was no need for a local holiday town by the seaside, plus travel opportunities had opened up so those who could take holidays had better places to go. At the same time, he reads about the big amusements on Coney Island closing down. Although that life is over, on his 65th birthday, Cyril Parks takes on an apprentice tattooist! She sounds a laugh and all:
Nina Shearer waltzed through the front door of Eleven Pedder Street in leather and torn trousers, with purple glitter on her cheekbones and Egyptian kohl around her eyes ... just as he was thinking about retiring. He was vaguely expecting her, at least he was in the habit of expecting unusual and meaningful events on significant calendar days. She herself was in the habit of tutting and sighing before almost every comment she uttered, as if perpetually put annoyed or upon by what he was about to say... Not many people had that variety of astringency, that natural counter-balance, the wherewithal or presence to dampen fire or dry up floods. Only a handful of people he had ever met had the ability, reacting with their environment to take away an extreme quality of it, like pepper with salt or sugar with bitterness.
Eventually, her pose goes, and he can see "a serious girl in admiration of what she saw". So, he gives her a job. Nice.


Blogger lysha said...

hey there...
great blog..
just curious if you could post the page numbers from which you got the quotes...
i'm doing an essay and the quotes you have on your blog are perfect...
but i am having a hard time finding them on my own...
thanks a bunch

7:13 AM  

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