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Book Review: Vanishing

By (May 4, 2015) No Comment

Vanishingvanishing cover

by Gerard Woodward

Pegasus Books, 2015

“Every human activity leaves its trace,” says Kenneth Brill, the enigmatic narrator of Gerard Woodward’s superb new novel Vanishing. “Every journey has its footprint, every sojourn its flattened grass. Life naturally goes against the grain of its surroundings. A man walking across a clover field will leave a mark that lasts for days, and can be photographed from thousands of feet.”

For Brill, the truth of these sentiments is laced with horror. According to him, he’s a veteran of Britain’s Camouflage Corps in North Africa, a man to whom obfuscation has become second nature – a fact readers should bear in mind as his increasingly lugubrious and unlikely tale unfolds.

That tale unfolds as Brill is languishing in prison, having been arrested in the closing days of World War II for painting a series of landscapes of the heath where he grew up – a patch of land now being turned into a military airfield. Armed forces authorities have arrested him on suspicion that his paintings aren’t, in fact, the sentimental exercises in visual preservation he claims they are but are instead intended to be coded messages about the airfield. As one of his captors blandly tells him, such gambits are hardly rare in intelligence circles:

You would be surprised, or perhaps not, at the lengths to which people go to convey secrets to the enemy. I’ve seen coded messages in the flecks of paint on a ceramic vase. I’ve seen map co-ordinates carved in mother-of-pearl on an inlaid vanity case. You would not be the first artist to put his skills to the service of espionage.

Woodward, author of, among other things, Whitbread First Novel-shortlisted August and Man Booker-shortlisted I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, here presents by a wide margin his best and most ambitious novel to date, a compulsively readable onion-peel of a book in the course of which any sane reader will gradually come to doubt every single claim Kenneth Brill makes about himself and yet will simultaneously come to feel this may be the most dauntingly honest narrator of any novel so far this year. As the narrative winds its way through Brill’s account of his childhood, his barbaric school days, his time as an art student at the Slade Academy, and his various oozings through the semi-lit Soho underworld of paid sex and furtive opportunism, Woodward’s lush, elegant prose keeps the whole improbable mass of the thing floating along, with every character brought to life first in Brill’s own claims about them and then, less directly, by their own words and actions. Brill’s introduction of his Slade classmate Norman Learmouth is a representative example:

I am thinking of the myth of Orpheus, with Norman Learmouth in the leading role. I can see him strolling through the underworld in his stylish flannels and loose tweeds, and I can hear the evil gravels crunching under his Oxford brogues. He has the look he carries so well, as though a Surrey stockbroker had washed up on the Left Bank. At a glance you think he has long hair that drapes over his shoulders, but look again and he has a respectable cut. He is ironed and polished, but at the same time sewn and patched up. He carries a palette of paints instead of a lyre, and soothes the advancing demons by means of deft portraiture. A few strokes and dabs, and a stoical reality has appeared on his canvas. The demons can do nothing but scratch their glinting horns and wonder at how the fire has gone from their breath.

Learmouth plays a looming and riveting role in the novel, functioning quite often as a kind of anti-Brill especially in his ability to work within the power-systems that constantly entangle Brill himself, who come to view himself as a free-thinking apostate caught in the gears of a new state faith:

The war had become a religion. To question its strategy was like questioning the tenets of a faith, and no matter from which angel you examined it, no matter which argument you followed, it always came back to the same question: are you a believer or a non-believer? As such, it allowed for no argument, no discussion.

Vanishing is a novel that defies reduction (and defies easy epitomization as well, as witness its hideous US dustjacket cover depicting a naked woman half-swathed in mysterious green swatches – as a representation of what actually goes on in the novel, a photo of a cardboard box would have been more accurate), just as Kenneth Brill himself defies reduction, even his own. “It seemed there were countless rules waiting to be broken,” he muses at one point, “indiscretions, points of order, sub-clauses, articles of which I was presumed to have knowledge.” One of the wonders of Vanishing is how stubbornly Brill manages to stumble left and right of such knowledge without ever quite hitting it head-on. The story he tells – and in which he figures – is an opulent and stunningly sly performance.