Architecture, an amphetamine-fuelled train journey, and obsessive self-doubt: the best new novels
Lee Rourke on fiction by Mathias Enard, David Rose, and Ian Parkinson.
Three very different, but equally striking, novels have caught my attention recently. The first, Mathias Enard’s Zone, I consider to be a modern literary masterpiece. I truly haven’t read anything in the last ten years as astonishing and wonderfully maddening as this 521 page beast. First published in France in 2008, where it gleaned considerable literary acclaim, it has now been meticulously translated into English by Charlotte Mandell and published in the UK for the first time by new imprint Fitzcarraldo Editions. Zone is a one sentence-long account of a sleepless and amphetamine-fuelled train journey from Milan to Rome undertaken by Francis Mirković’s (a Croat working for French intelligence). He is handcuffed to a suitcase containing the "names and secrets" of the numerous perpetrators of the "violent history" of the "zone" – "the Mediterranean region, from Barcelona to Beirut, from Algiers to Trieste" – of which he was himself a part, fighting as a Croatian mercenary in the 1990s. He is banking his future on the sale of these secrets to the Vatican and it is these paranoiac dreams of escape that fuel this mesmerising, haunting narrative. The prison of the rolling train carriage is the perfect vehicle, revealing to him in fits and starts the ghosts of his past and the blurred landscape of his future. The effect is staggering, and it is no surprise Enard’s novel has already been described as "Homeric".
David Rose’s latest novel, Meridian, is a work of idiosyncratic beauty, told through the looping, fragmented interior monologue of a "successful contemporary architect". It is a novel about building, quite literally; whether it be the conversations of the builders erecting the conservatory next door, philosophical ruminations on the theory of architectural dominance and absence, or the building and architecture of language and memory within the novel itself. There is a danger of falling into solipsism when tackling the interior world of an unconventional protagonist, but this is something Rose manages to avoid. His protagonist’s observations are lucid and strikingly modern: "It’s surprising how dirty office walls become. Fingermarks, smudges, dents from rolled drawings. They affect my concentration. I’ve taken to keeping a tin of emulsion in the office cupboard, with a paintbrush and rubber gloves. I retouch the walls every so often. It’s soothing. To the eye, the hand. The texture of the plaster." It is such observations that give this narrative, with all its tightly woven interpolations, its strength. What at first seem like humdrum minutiae, soon begin to build into a spiralling psychology of mind, space and dwelling. I find it difficult to fathom Rose's work hasn’t reached a wider audience and gathered the critical praise it so greatly deserves, so one must give credit to Rose’s publisher (small indie press Unthank Books) for making sure this remarkable novel exists for new readers to devour.
Ian Parkinson’s debut novel, the brilliantly titled The Beginning of the End is a visceral work of fiction steeped in the separate traditions set by Michel Houellebecq and J. G. Ballard respectively (Parkinson has great fun welding both along the way). Raymond, a rather ordinary man who’s been "working at Siemens for nearly fifteen years", sitting at his desk "for seven hours and twenty-four minutes a day" designing "doorbells and washing machines" with a plethora of failed promotions behind him ups and leaves to marry a sex worker in Thailand. He is soon informed, however, that the body of his father has been "discovered in an isolated villa in Belgium". Leaving his new wife to work in the Dutch and German porn industries, he moves into the villa intending to renovate the property. Unaware he will never see his wife again, Raymond is dragged into a labyrinthine odyssey of self-doubt and obsession as he wanders from room to room, contemplating his own doomed existence as his life spirals out of control. As the sea and elements eat away the coastline encroaching nearer and nearer to the villa, threatening constant oblivion ("The perimeter wall has been virtually destroyed. I look at the concrete blocks scattered across the ground, at the sand under my feet where there were flower beds and a patio"), Raymond attempts to navigate through the madness he has created for himself. Both deadly funny and serious in turn, this frantic and scandalous novel marks the arrival of a refreshingly bold new literary voice.