Dark fantasy gone awry – Trevor Price’s “Insane and Out”

[Well, it might be doubtful whether I should have gone about writing this review in the first place. However, sticking with my review policy, I haven’t put it online with Amazon, Smashwords or any other site. It’s just sitting here on the blog, it might sit here for some time ere I delete it. Deleted it will be. Up until then, it might be an interesting example of how I would be writing reviews were I also prone to write them about novels I didn’t like. I think it’s quite a curious text I’ve come up with here. I’ve been trying not to let the good points of the work go unnoticed, even though I found very little worth the notice. As such, quite a forced note pertains to the text. – But, still, it is: an example.]

Description by the author / blurb:

Doomed to embark on a downward spiral of self realisation, Jason embezzles the Inland Revenue, saves the skin of a mafiosi businessman, corrupts the local Neighbourhood Watch Scheme and commits a grotesque and absurd murder. All this merely to uncover the crime, the calumny that has rotted his soul all along. The radio message from beyond is: There’s just one way out – go insane.

Review

In the beginning of the story, a strange figure appears, not to appear again. He’s called the Wolfman and sits opposite the principal character – Jason. The latter is on his train ride to Orbaton, where he has inherited a house from his uncle. Jason looks at the Wolfman and falls asleep, dreaming of magic hill and an owl-haunted forest. The Wolfman wakes him at Orbaton, tells Jason he has arrived where he wanted to go. When they take off together, Jason asks him how he knew where he was to stop – Orbaton. „I’m lucky,“ replies the Wolfman, explaining nothing. Soon, their ways part.

A short scene of apparently no importance, it has stricken me as epitomical for the whole of this short novel. The scene needs not be taken as such. One can interpret it on a completely realistic basis. Thus the Wolfman would draw his name from nothing else than a remote association between his facial traits and the traits of a wolf. And Jasons’s short dream would mean nothing more… than that he fell asleep.
But I see the Wolfman as the herald of a dark fairy-tale, as the boogeyman who has returned to Jason from the nightmares of childhood. He rings the bell for what is to come – the dissolution of reality into the dark realms of the fantastical.

The fantastical is never so dark as when it shows itself under the auspices of common reality. Jason lives no extraordinary life. At first he lives the life of the all-too-human. And the author goes about the description of his moral disintegration with dispassionate ease.
Jason is working in the Civil Service, as a tax official specialising in small-business tax avoidance. He has undergone a recent divorce and maintenance payments are weighing on him. When he sees the opportunity for blackmail, he takes it – the result is the friendship with a dodgy businessman granting him relief from material worries.
When inspecting his new house and the belongings, James comes across his neighbour Mr. Brodan. The neighbour has been renting a garage from his uncle and in reason of his continuance of payment, the renting-contract hasn’t been dissolved. Jason would like to use the garage of his own, but he finds he can’t do so. This simple fact becomes the central point of the novel as the reader sees Jason’s actions and thoughts condensing increasingly around it. Jason develops a fixation – and his mind breaks on it.

It’s quite a long time since last I read such a dismal novel. Undoubtedly, the novel has its comical moments, as when the interminable ideas are explicated by which Jason tries to save time on his way to work. But these moments no more than reflect a mind loosing perspective, and if they are comical, they are, for that, all the more tragical.
The course of Jason’s story is interspersed quite randomly with scenic snapshots that themselves are infused by the eye of the main character, a blank and darkened eye. The author writes: “The roads were narrower and the houses looked ill kept and sullen, bunched up tightly, shoulder to shoulder and teetering over narrow pavements.”
One feels that, in quite the same way, he could have written about the somber pathways of Jason’s mind.

It is Jason’s psyche that dominates the novel, that is pervading every sentence. It is a psyche spiraling down, but spiraling down without vertigo, quite blankly, almost imperceptibly. Once I entered the novel, I entered his mind. It would be futile to assess by which means the novel creates atmosphere. In a way, it is atmosphere – it fits into the limits of a brain: Jason’s. In reading the novel, sometimes I felt narrowed in and hardly comfortable. This is to the credit of the author’s skill. It is, however, the only credit to the tale I can give.

If I were to find a tag-name for the story, I’d pun it as „fantastic existentialism“. This is pretty much a contradiction in terms. Indeed, read from a realist perspective, I felt sometimes reminded of Camus „L’Étranger“. The description of Camus main character,, Meursault, carries psychological depth, even though he’s a shockingly shallow character. But his thoughts and feelings are shallow because shallow is his philosophy of life, and in the description of how he goes about his life, we get to know all about him there is to know.
It’s quite the same with Jason. His life also is a life without expectations, a life that has lost the luxury of thrill and hope. Functional apathy is the lifestyle of his negatively turned existentialism. I read the Jason of „Insane and Out“ as a person who has come to feel life is too absurd to even reflect on its absurdity. As such, even though there cannot be gauged much from his negativistic character, the description of his character is coherent and sufficient. Again, it seems to reverberate in each sentence of the novel. He’s been married twice, he has a child (imputed or his own), but we learn little about his past, save some random snippets of his recent marriage with Freya and a memory related to rape that is presented in such a contradictory fashion we cannot decide on its veracity. Jason’s biography is largely kept in shadows. But then, we do not need to know that to know about his mindset, which is all that matters about him, because it makes everything else of no consequence.

What, then, is my principal misgiving about the novel?

I have to say: I had a difficult time with the end. For this, there are structural reasons. It came too abrupt and strands of the story-line were left hanging loose. I’d just like to pinpoint two examples.

In the beginning of their relation, Cornelli, Jasons’s partner in fraud, is haunted by the shadow of a name: Markhovsky. But why this man means a threat, and why, at another point, he ceases to be so, remains unexplained.
Lydia, a later colleague, is introduced as a side character, but she plays no role in the events of the story, her relation to Jason is of no avail and it is not clear why she is introduced at all. That is, it remains unclear in terms of story structure – from an existentialist viewpoint, of course, it is easy to see that Lydia’s life seems already to have come to an end, that it has been caught up in Orbaton, that its insipidness flows on with congealed tranquility. Thus, the main character’s estimation of the dismal prospects of her life adds to his existential nausea.

If this viewpoint is held up constantly, shortcuts in story structure, of course, would serve as another means to express the lack of intention and directedness in human life in general. If the main character finds himself living in a senseless world, why should the author strive for coherence in his narrative? Wouldn’t this rather be an example of coupling the structure of a novel with its philosophical import? However, the argument does not carry through. I wouldn’t think an existentialist philosophy dispenses the author from offering an integrated storyline to his reader. In “L’Étranger” Camus professes to the doctrine of the absurdity of life, but as a writer he does so with great structural solicitude. No person comes across Meursault who would not be woven into his story, and no action of Meursault is mentioned that would not show its repercussions in what he does and experiences later on.
And there is another point. Even if it should still be argued that the disintegrating tendency in the story outline is a reflection on Jason’s mind veering off its center – even if it should be argued that the philosophy took over the structure to make its point – even if all this be granted, the structure still falls short.
Because, really, the author’s philosophy is not existentialism.

There is one loose end that should not have been left hanging. It is the aftermath of what happens. Happily, I’m not giving away anything – the author himself mentions it in the blurb: the story centers on a crime. In this, I felt reminded again of Camus “L’Étranger”. In the court scenes following Meursaults fatal deed, Camus stresses the absurdity of events still further, particularly its tragic-comical aspects.
But there is no aftermath in „Insane and Out“. Is this a further strengthening of the existentialist message, to refuse development to an event already born of nonsense? If this were the road the author would have taken it might have been an arguable position. But this is not the road that has been taken.

There is an aftermath. The author lets us know as much, it’s just that he doesn’t describe it. But there will be a continuation to the lines of the story left open. They will circle in on the judgment that is to come. And Jason’s anguish after the crime shows that it will be a true judgment, one that is suffered through, one the perpetrator can’t just sit through impassibly, as Meurault sits impassibly through the court scenes of „L’Étranger“.

Finally, that’s why I think the existential reading can’t be pursued consequentially. It’s simply not how the story turns out to have been written. But this, of course, brings back with full force all the troubles about the incoherence of story structure. And this also explains why I’d prefer the quizzical term „fantastic existentialism“ to „existentialism“ in relation to the book. If there is a judgment seen as the logical end-point to crime, and a judgment suffered through, then there is sense-directedness, there is a point where absurdity shatters to pieces on the rock of meaningful sense for the individual.
Jason discovers that what he had set out to do to free his raging mind didn’t make him free at all. Still, he clings on to the idea and when, at the very end of the novel, he hears hammering at the door, he jumps onto it as a salvation from his past. But to the reader its clear that this is no more than an evasive maneuver. Shortly after committing his crime, Jason comes to a much more plausible estimation of his future. In exasperation he exclaims: „By God, I’m paying!“ Personally, I think the hammering at the door might just as well have been the police force demanding entrance.

The underlying morale of pay-out in the aftermath seems like an increasing slide towards the fantastical: like a fairy tale. And indeed, more and more fantastic get the events. Jason spends his nights in the vigilance of a sleep-walker. Towards the close of the story, some of his observations turn unbelievable – such as the love affair of his ex-wife, and a tax official putting a tax evader to torture. This is dark fantasy indeed. The fairies are not friendly. It is the fantastical dominated by the Wolfman.

Under this reading, it might well be that nothing in the tale has ever really happened. It might have been a bad dream the main character contracted in the train, under the enchanting eye of the Wolfman, and that he has not yet woken up from. The author neither rings the wake-up call, nor does he further lead into the realm of dreams. He simply leaves the story. To this impression adds the sloppy editing of the version I read, with its many typos. The author turns his back to the story. The reader is left – unsatisfied.

Rating: 1 of 5 stars

(After reading my review, relating to my mention of the typos, the author has informed me that the version he had sent me has undergone reediting since.)

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