Monday, 23 March 2009

'what I carry between myself and death'

A Day And A Night And A Day
by Glen Duncan

Glen Duncan was another chance find for me when I picked up a remaindered copy of his second novel, Love Remains, in a second hand shop for no good reason other than it sounded dark and interesting and found myself diving into one of the most disturbing reads I've had yet. Duncan is a writer unafraid of dealing with the big themes: love, hate, sex, death, violence and, perverse as it may sound, his lightest offering so far has been the novel he wrote from the point of view of Lucifer himself. His bravery comes in saying what most of us would rather keep hidden, the darker side of our motivations and desires. In his latest novel one of the characters offers what could be a maxim for him as a writer, 'If we're going to have art...let's not have art that's done like a hobby.'

The title refers to the period of time that Augustus Rose spends being tortured after becoming a victim of extraordinary rendition. The novel is fractured, jumping back and forth through time as Rose remembers important moments from his life, his mind fighting for a foothold as his body is subjected to increasingly violent attacks from which of course his mind is not exempt. In fact the first thing to mention is the skill with which Duncan deals with this whole area. I actually became aware that he had a new book out after reading a review in the TLS in which it was grouped together with other novels in the thriller genre including the latest from John Grisham . Now as someone who's never read any I'm not going to pass judgement on the bestseller and apparently guilty pleasure that is The Grisham (he puts 'The' in every title so why can't I?) but I was a little surprised to see the two of them together. Rose's interrogator at one point asks, 'You read the testimonies of people who've survived torture...they're affectless . They tell you what was done to them but never what it did to them. Why is that?' Duncan excels at psychological veracity and in the scenes of torture he steers aware from pornographic descriptions of violence, showing that the real battle is a mental one, making torture a surprisingly clever template for narrative structure. Looking back to his past we see how this mixed race boy dreamed of being white ('there was his astonished and delighted face in the mirror, same mouth and nose and eyes but with the fair skin and the relief of having come at last into his inheritance.'), overachieved educationally and, at a time when a mixed race couple would raise not only eyebrows but confrontation, became involved in a passionate and full blooded affair with a New York aristocrat.

Duncan's relationships are often all-or-nothing. It is this lover, Selina who speaks the line about art I mentioned above and who, when the couple meet again, many years after the termination of their relationship describes it in mythical terms, 'You and I could have sat down with Tristan and Isolde and held up our heads'. This brief encounter, which also lasts a day and a night and a day becomes the catalyst that drives Augustus to join a terrorist network called Sentinel, a kind of vigilante terrorist cell, and the reason for his apprehension and torture.

His interrogator is Harper, an intelligent and controlled man of violence who cuts a contradictory figure in his 'Gap casuals'. Through him Duncan is able to articulate some of those difficult ideas and thoughts, as when Abu Grahib is raised.

'We needed to know we could do that, still do that. Otherwise why'd we photograph it?'
'Collective conciousness. America - in fact the entire non-Islamic western world - is only just waking up to what its enemy wants. It's taken such a long time because what it wants is so bizarre, so unreasonable. Its enemy wants to wipe it off the face of the earth, and has evolved a psychotic death cult to get the job done. You've got to love the jihadis' candor: 'We're not fighting so that you'll offer us something. We're fighting to eliminate you.' ...You don't fight that with reason, you fight it with contempt and brutality. We needed to know we could count on ourselves to get down and dirty...the Abu Grahib pictures were a relief...Why did the MP's take the photos? Because everyone back home, in a collective surge of self-doubt, had asked them to.'

But he doesn't restrict himself to his own professional arena, branching out into popular culture,

'We're suffering representational saturation. We've written too many books, made too many movies. By the time you're eighteen you've already encountered representations of everything important, you already know the scripts.'

We have knowledge we don't want so we send it to the movies. Hollywood's the transformation chamber where unpleasant truths get turned into consumable fictions. -Nothing's going to protect extraordinary rendition like Rendition.'

At one point he even proffers his ideas on what the neurological repercussions of the iPhone might be (I'll leave that treat for you to discover). It is typical of Duncan to have so much fun with this character, helping to make it even more chilling as the torture approaches its inevitable conclusion. Inevitable because casting forwards if you like we see Rose as an older man on the remote island of Calansay, his body naturally weakened by time but with an eye-patch standing out as starkly as the colour of his skin in this part of the world. Duncan anticipates anyone who might criticise the corny nature of he set up by having Rose imagine the movie-trailer voice over or novel blurb. 'the story of a man's spirit destroyed...and the love in which it's reborn. Now on an island at the edge of the world he must learn to live again..' Through his enforced proximity to a young runaway he finds that fighting spirit rising again at a time when he had thought he was preparing himself for death. Despite his attempt to head off our criticism this section of the novel is the weakest mainly because it struggles to keep pace with the vitality of the 'earlier' sections and because it resorts to the kind of climax one might well expect from the work of The Grisham et al. But Duncan remains an urgent and never less than interesting writer. His books are filled with ideas, many of them unpleasant or uncomfortable (as the truth often is), and I still regard it as fortuitous to have stumbled on him and his dark vision amongst those dusty stacks on Charing Cross Road.


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