Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel has done something extraordinary. She has taken that ethereal halfway house between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead, and nailed it on the page. She has taken those moments between sleep and waking, when we hardly know who we are, or why, and turned them into a novel that makes the unbelievable believable. She persuades, she convinces, she offers an alternative universe, she uses the extraordinary descriptive skills that are her trademark — Mantel does "seedy" as no one else, except possibly Graham Greene in his early novels, The Confidential Agent and Brighton Rock. She produces characters — some dead, some partly dead, some barely alive but pretending — that are as strong and vivid on the page as if they were living or dying next door — if only you cared to go there. Most don't, next door being a rather nasty and disturbing place. She's witty, ironic, intelligent and, I suspect, haunted. This is a book out of the unconscious, where the best novels come from.

If, as a reader, you feel briskly and brightly that dead is dead, alive is alive, and anything else is nonsense, this novel is probably not for you. Too weird, you'll say. But they are out there, on the road, the Alisons, the mediums. Thousands turn up to hear her, trust her.

Alison, off to her next gig in London's outer suburbs, the wasteland of people and places, the haunting grounds of the dead: "Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin's scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o'clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potters Bar."

Alison, a size 22 on a good day, is a bridge between the living and the dead. She has inherited "the gift", as others do the gene for playing the piano. Her prostitute mother has a murdered, invisible friend, Gloria. Her grandmother's no better. Sometimes Alison gets it right, sometimes she doesn't, as she confronts her audience in scout halls and spiritualist churches. The dead tell her lies, and are as tricky as the living: channelling makes her ill; she is in constant pain. She frequents the world of psychic fairs, of crystal-gazers and mind readers; she has friends, colleagues, and makes a comfortable living as a "professional". "They don't call you mad if you make a living." A mix of therapist, fraud and saint, she comforts and consoles those whom others disregard — the old, the sick, the lonely, the uneducated and the dim, in whom the energy of life flickers so low they can barely be counted among the living.

The living and the dead demand her ear; difficult to record her life story as her sceptical assistant Collette, hoping to make money from it, demands — there is too much interference, too much clamour and complaint from the other side. Alison to Collette: "Can we switch the tape off now, please? Morris is threatening me. He doesn't like me talking about the early days. He doesn't want it recorded." Morris, the millstone round Alison's neck, is her spirit guide: a vulgar, pimply, smelly, violent and nasty character, whose position of rest is slumped against her bedroom wall, fiddling with his flies. Collette, who lives with Alison, cannot see him, but occasionally detects a kind of sewage whiff in the air and knows he's around. "Other mediums," Alison complains, "have spirit guides with a bit more about them — dignified impassive medicine men or ancient Persian sages — why does she have to have a grizzled grinning apparition in a book-maker's check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toecaps."

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HILARY MANTEL'S funny and harrowing new novel is the story of a woman who is coming to terms -- better late than never, as any one of the book's many platitude-dependent characters might say -- with her extremely disturbing past. And I say "coming to terms with" because that, too, is just the sort of comforting, shock-absorbing expression, familiar to viewers of the more earnest and wetly therapeutic daytime talk shows, that Mantel has made it her mission to seek out and destroy. The process undergone in the pages of "Beyond Black" by its fat, middle-aged English heroine, Alison Hart, is self-analysis and memory recovery of almost unimaginable psychic violence -- not the kind of self-actualizing experience Dr. Phil would recommend.

This is more like "The Exorcist," with spinning heads and projectile vomiting and Jesuits hurling themselves through windows.

That's what coming to terms with one's past is, Mantel means to tell us, and she should know, having recently done the deed herself, in a painful, brilliantly prickly memoir called "Giving Up the Ghost."+She may regret not having saved that title for this book, because the heroine of "Beyond Black" is laboring to divest herself of malign spirits who are present in her life in the most immediate and most literal way.+Alison is a professional medium and clairvoyant -- in her preferred terminology, a "Sensitive" -- and depends for her peculiar living on the services of a "spirit guide" named Morris, who is, in death as he was in life, an exceptionally nasty piece of work. He is also a constant reminder of the unspeakable childhood that Alison, for all her extrasensory powers, can recall only dimly.

Morris is the ghost she longs to give up, "this grizzled grinning apparition in a bookmaker's check jacket, and suede shoes with bald toe caps" -- a demon who sees himself as a lovable rogue, a sport, but is in fact about as foul a specimen of humanity, living or dead, as British fiction has conjured up in the past few years. (At least since Ian McEwan cleaned up his act.) And, worse, Morris has mates: a crew of villains whom he has begun to gather around him, from the four corners of the underworld, all of them now converging on the already crowded consciousness of Alison the Sensitive.

It is no coincidence that Morris's horrible party guests start turning up just as Alison has begun to dictate her autobiography to her "sharp, rude, and effective" new assistant, Colette. The "fiends," as Alison calls them, are of course Mantel's metaphor for the awful, toxic stuff that tends to bubble up from the depths of the unconscious when a person tries to write her memoirs. There's a passage early in "Giving Up the Ghost" in which Mantel admits "I hardly know how to write about myself," and briefly resolves to keep it simple, "plain words on plain paper" -- a resolution she sheepishly abandons in the next paragraph. "I stray away from the beaten path of plain words," she writes, "into the meadows of extravagant simile," and in "Beyond Black" she strays yet farther, finding in Alison the most extravagant simile of all. A novelist writing her memoirs, Mantel seems to say, is like a psychic reading her own mind.

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