Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel, 2005

Beyond Black is Hilary Mantel’s 11th novel, and tells the story of Alison Hart, a psychic and medium who plies her trade in the commuter towns along the M25 periphery and the M4 corridor.

It strikes me as a novel marinated in pessimism and misanthropy, running from the unremittingly horrible people that surround Alison while she’s growing up, to the dim, inarticulate and generally low-watt people that come to see her medium stage show or pay her for palmistry and tarot readings. The crowds shuffle in and out of the halls where she performs, don’t know the names of their own grandparents, get irate when she fails to be specific, ask inane questions and receive inane answers from their equally stupid and confused counterparts on the ‘spirit-side’.

The death of Diana - a busy time for a medium - occupies a large section of the first third of the novel, and seems the perfect backdrop for, and embodiment of, the sort of bovine sentimental idiocy that suffuses this novel. 
Using this real-life event in the narrative helps to connect Mantel's vision to a real-world phenomenon - the herd-like outpouring of grief for a total stranger, the uncritical sentimentality. Alison's customers want to hear messages from Diana, and when she finally does materialise she throws a grotesque tantrum and vanishes again, leaving no revelations.

Part of the story is told in flash-back - covering Alison’s years of growing up in Aldershot with her prostitute mother and her circle of murderers, petty thieves, gamblers and dog breeders, most of whom now form a circle of malevolent spirits that follow the adult Alison around. It gradually transpires that Alison was frequently sold to these men by her mother, that she mutilated two of them, and was mutilated by them in return. It’s a bleak story, with a grotesque strain of kitchen sink realism running through it - the characters speak in soap-opera cliches (‘never you mind!’ ‘I’ll knock you to kingdom come!’), they serve up insta-mash and saveloys, they reminisce about days out at the dog-track.

A major driver of the narrative is Alison’s relationship with her assistant Collette, who is presented as another thoroughly mediocre, curtain-twitching, petty human being. Her twin motivations are to offset as much of Alison’s expenditures against tax as possible, and to move past her divorce from the equally bland Gavin, whom she leaves when she joins Alison. Adding to the unforgiving way the characters are treated, Mantel dwells on their physicality, which she presents with a cruel intimacy: Alison is large, pale, fleshy, bulging, overflowing. Collette is thin, wiry, twitchy, colourless, bird-like. Morris, their spirit companion, is smelly, vulgar, abrasive, old-fashioned, badly dressed, violent, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing. The spirit world is suffused with this messy physicality too: the spirits leave behind parts of themselves when they go, they miss some parts and have too many of others.

The landscape in which the action takes place defines, and reflects back, the mediocrity of its inhabitants. Alison and Collette travel: “Oprington, Sevenoaks, Chertsey, Runnymede, Reigate and Sutton...there are floodlights and bunkers, gravel pits and pallet yards, junctions where traffic cones cluster. There are featureless hangars with ‘To Let’ signs pinned to them, types spun away into shabby fields.” Alison performs in conference halls, the back rooms of faux-Tudor pubs, in dank village halls with 70s decor. The imagery is reminiscent of J G Ballard’s later novels, except without the explosive unease simmering underneath - in Mantel’s vision, the underneath is just as empty and stillborn as the surface. In one scene, Alison describes an image of the spirit world as a 1930s vision of the good life, a picnic in a park, bandstand in the background, everyone healthy and well, but the atmosphere is stilted and unmistakeably dead. The spirits - like their living counterparts - are waiting for something that will never come, while life is being lived elsewhere.

Mantel says: “The link between memory and landscape has been cut. It's interesting, this great move towards family history, people trying to trace who they are because they have lost all sense of that. This deracination has a lot to do with the psychic scene. Psychics tap into what is collective: our regret and our sense of time going by; our common repression and anxieties. People are trying to get some sense of connection.” In the novel, this loss of memory which the landscape both represents and defines has been total. Everybody is un-moored, both from place and time and from their own personal history, and in that sense they resemble the spirits, who have taken the next logical step and become un-moored from their physical form.

Reading Beyond Black is a fairly dispiriting experience. There’s no let-up from the pessimism, no ray of hope or redemption, at any point. The spectrum of humanity, dead and alive, runs from the murderously evil on one end to the stupefyingly bland and mediocre on the other. It takes place in a modern dystopia where nothing good could ever happen, and the best one could hope for is that nothing really bad will happen. Only Alison stands apart, and she’s presented as a passive receiver of everything around her, a character with practically no agency: her physicality is constantly remarked on, her fat which runs in folds and mounds, her aroma which fills rooms and lingers after she leaves; physically scarred by the violence of her childhood and mentally scarred by the violence of the spirits she is forced to live with, she is something like a fat, psychic, latter-day Jesus, suffering bodily for all our sins. The sins in this case being a great, all-encompassing banality, an impoverishment of spirit and a loss of memory.

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