A playful, modernist piss-take with literary Easter eggs that went right over my head, though not to the detriment of the novel.

opening remarks

Because Daniel Alarcon’s The King Is Always Above The People isn’t published until tomorrow* I’ve had to pause my National Book Award longlist reading and skip to one of the nominated books for the Goldsmith Prize, which, in this instance, is Playing Possum by Kevin Davey.  The shock and horror – for me anyway – is that I’m reading a hard copy of this short novel.  Actual paper.  With binding and a cover.  It’s discombobulating.  I keep wanting to highlight paragraphs and phrases with my finger and when I press hard on a word I don’t get the option to check a definition!

* “tomorrow” refers to the 31st of October.  I started reading Playing Possum on the 30th.

knee-jerk observations

It’s taken a single page for me to fall in love with the language:

I shall now type out the back cover copy for Playing Possum:

“An American poet spends a night in Whitstable’s Duke of Cumberland Hotel in 1922. He is followed there ninety years later.”

So that’s clear as mud.  And from what I’ve read so far it’s unlikely to get much clearer.  Normally I’d find that frustrating, but in this instance, because the language is so playful, I find it exciting.

Actually, the novel isn’t as incoherent as I’m making out.  The overarching plot takes places in 1922 and like the back of the book says involves an American poet.

As I note below, the identity of the American poet went completely over my head.

What the back cover blurb doesn’t tell you is that our poet murdered his wife.  What begins with an accidental push against the wall ends, in a moment of rage, with a savage stabbing.

It’s the way this is presented that makes for intriguing reading.  For one the story unexpectedly jumps around in time to a man in a hotel room, the same hotel room our poet visited in 1922, researching (I assume)  the murder.  And in amongst that, blurring the lines between 1922 and the present day, are these flashbacks describing Tom’s (the poet) murder of Fanny (his wife) as if they were scenes from a film based on a famous murder, the screenplay of which may have been written by the author researching this brutal killing… or not.  All this, cut and pasted together, creates a collage effect which isn’t as confusing as it sounds.

There’s something genuinely thrilling about never being sure where the next paragraph will take you.  It’s also the sort of book that just for shits and giggles has a cop interviewing the Greek God of fire, metallurgy and crafts:

I laughed out loud at the last line:
Playing Possum’s jarring shift in tone, topic and perspective keeps reminding me of Naked Lunch, just with less anal sex and junk.  I have, though, learnt quite a bit about Charlie Chaplin and how he stole his shtick from Mabel Normand.  Davey’s interest in Chaplin and old-timey Hollywood is just one of the eclectic obsessions in the novel.
In the context of this book the first sentence is very true:

The Gist Of It

Playing Possum should be a book that makes me feel small and ignorant.  It’s only after I finished the novel that I discovered that it’s main character, an American poet who murders his wife, is actually a version of T.S. Eliot.  I’m simply not well read enough to have joined those dots. (For one, up until 10 minutes ago I had no idea what the T and S stood for, now I know). There are other literary references ranging from Christie to Joyce. Ulysses was published in 1922 and so was The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.  The year is so important for the fiction that was published – and the reaction to that fiction such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) that earlier this year Bill Goldstein wrote a whole book about it (The World Broke In Two).

Although I didn’t pick these nods and winks, some more obvious than others, I still really enjoyed Playing Possum. With its fluid sense of time, merging 1922 with 2012, as if to imply that the more things change etc… and its fascination with Chaplin, the almost rise of socialism in the UK, the changing face of the countryside, the allure of silent film, and, to top it all off, a savage murder that proves to be the catalyst for what follows I just went with the flow. The language, so interesting and unexpected, the moments of absurdity and farce, the piling on of anachronisms, the utter lack of expectation, all of it coming together to create something that made me smile, that felt fresh and new even when it sometimes tipped over into pretentious gibberish.