Welcome to this month's book club! On the fourth Monday of each month, we post a round-table discussion about a speculative work (or work of interest to readers of SF), and we invite you to join us for further conversation in the comments. April's book is Hild by Nicola Griffith and other forthcoming picks are listed here.
This month's book is Red Shift by Alan Garner. First published in 1973, and recently reissued by the NYRB, Red Shift is one of Alan Garner's most celebrated novels. From the blurb: "In second-century Britain, Macey and a gang of fellow deserters from the Roman army hunt and are hunted by deadly local tribes. Fifteen centuries later, during the English Civil War, Thomas Rowley hides from the ruthless troops who have encircled his village. And in contemporary Britain, Tom, a precocious, love-struck, mentally unstable teenager, struggles to cope with the imminent departure for London of his girlfriend, Jan. [. . .] A pyrotechnical and deeply moving elaboration on themes of chance and fate, time and eternity, visionary awakening and destructive madness."
Discussing Red Shift are:
Maureen Kincaid Speller:, a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation.
Ethan Robinson, a blogger.
Aishwarya Subramanian:, a critic and PhD student working on post-war British children's literature. She blogs at Practically Marzipan.
"Let there be no strife for we be brethren"—yet Garner seems to suggest that all relationships between men and women are inevitably antagonistic (at least in Red Shift). Is this, as one panelist suggests, "basically a book about sex", and if so, how so? Bearing gender in mind, could we unpack the novel's depictions of family?
Ethan Robinson: I think I'm probably more interested in what other people have to say about this than what I might have to say about it, but maybe I can get us started by adding another related question, if that's not rude.
The jacket flap of my copy, the Wikipedia entry on the novel, and the one or three critical articles I've read about it all take pains to say—not to assume, but to say explicitly—that Red Shift is "about" Tom, Thomas, and Macey: that it is "their" story. After reading it, though, I'm wondering if this isn't so much a description of the book as a set of instructions on how to read it; and depending on how I'm feeling about the fundaments of language at any given moment—whether I'm more skeptical of prepositions or of possessives—I find myself doubting these assertions to different degrees. The book may be "about" them, but is it "their story"? Or, vice versa, it may be "their story", but is it "about them"?
I guess I'm wondering specifically if there's a way to read this novel that centers more on Jan, Margaret, and the corn goddess (is there some kind of critical consensus about how to refer to her?), with Tom, Thomas, and Macey as almost an embodiment of the forces of time, place, and nature that connect them. It may be the men's story, but is it about the women? It may be about the men, but is it the women's story?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: There's something I've seen manifest in practically every one of Garner's novels. I suppose you'd call it a veiled terror of women—the male protagonists are rarely comfortable around them.
It's like a fear of women as sexual beings. It's not really apparent in Weirdstone, though that also contains Bess Mossock, the only female character I can think of who might be considered as not sexually threatening (because she is older, and of course, she and Gowther are childless).
It's starting to develop in Gomrath as Susan begins to activate the power in the Mark of Fohla, and there is some kind of hand-wavey not quite hitting puberty yet stuff, particularly in the ending.
It becomes more explicit still in Elidor—unicorns are famous for being catchable only by virgins, but that episode with the smashing of the jug with the legend "I Sing of a Maiden who is Makeles" seems to me to be a nod in the direction of sexual knowledge.
It's endlessly hinted at in The Owl Service, with not one but two young men vying for Alison, recapitulating the legend, and alongside this we have the sexually thwarted Nancy, and Alison's mother, Margaret (who is nothing but a voice).
But it seems to emerge into the open for the first time in Red Shift.
On the one hand we're presented in the contemporary strand with what seems to be love's young dream: a latterday Romeo and Juliet. Except that it is of course twisted round in that it's Tom's parents, or at any rate his mother, who disapproves, whereas Jan's parents, again mainly absent, seem not to be concerned one way or the other.
On the other hand, we have a man-child who seems to be in need of either a mother or someone he can worship. Except, that I think it's also significant that we've already seen iterations of both those roles, with Macey and the goddess, and Thomas and Margery, which implies that neither of these is an option for Tom, while not offering a third alternative. Or, rather, there is one, which Tom's mother hints at in her dislike of Jan. She'd doubtless characterise it as whore but there is a potential darkness, a nod towards a certain kind of manipulative power, such as we see in the Morrigan, or Nancy—I think it might reach its fullest expression in Nancy, and in fact in Tom's own mother, whereas in subsequent novels (not including The Stone Book Quartet) it begins to shift towards women being presented as sexual beings who scare the male protagonists but excite them too, in ways that the men find very difficult to articulate or act upon.
Thus, the portrayals of female characters seem to me to fall into two distinct categories—the mystical or magical and what I'll call practical. The first category can be further sub-divided, with the Morrigan embodying evil and the corn goddess, the shaman's lost wife in Boneland, the packman's wife in Thursbitch, Alison in The Owl Service, Helen in Elidor, as representatives of something rather more fey, and mostly unobtainable. The multiple rape of the goddess is read as a cultural violation, but it's also indicative of how the sexual act is likely to occur within the novel.
Other than that, the majority of women—Jan, Margery, Mary in The Stone Book, Esther in Strandloper, Sal in the contemporary strand of Thursbitch, Nancy in The Owl Service—are terrifyingly at ease with themselves, and able to exert power, for good or bad, over everyone around them. Actually, this is also true in Boneland, where we effectively have Colin being fought over by his lost sister and his psychotherapist. He's pretty much passive in all this. And sexless.
It seems to me that Red Shift might be the novel in which Garner attempts to write about sexual relationships directly, after the ambiguity of The Owl Service. I find it interesting that the pared-down nature of the contemporary dialogue is such as to make it much more obscure. As if he just can't say it out loud.
I'm still thinking about Ethan's supplementary question, because it is so interesting. I'd not really thought, until he posed it, about how so much of Garner's work is focused through men, so had to get that bit off my chest!
Thinking about it, it is perfectly possible to produce a reading of Red Shift (and indeed much of Garner's other work) that is not about fragile young men at all but instead about women who assert power—the goddess ('goddess' works for me, because it's what she is) is able to assert literal power, and kill the soldiers through ritual. Margery makes her choice about who she will and won't marry, and is in a position to exert some influence over her former lover Thomas Venables in facilitating an escape from Barthomley after the massacre.
Jan is most interesting, because she clearly isn't going to conform to the pattern established with the goddess and Margery, where they have power and agency but that they make the choice to subsume this into some sort of "family" life. As she's hamstrung, literally, the goddess is reliant on Macey, but there is the subtle threat of what she might do to him in the light of what she did to the others. We assume, from the fact that Tom and Jan find the axe in the chimney, that Thomas and Margery did build their cottage.
But Jan rejects all this by choosing to go to London to train as a nurse.
And I think there is perhaps an inference that she is also rejecting a choice made by Tom's mother, to marry Tom's father—and I'm wildly conjecturing here that maybe Tom's parents had to get married, as I'm finding it quite difficult to otherwise account for why they stayed together—and that Tom's mother is, as much as anything, jealous of Jan's freedom to go, alongside her power to take Tom away.
And yet the story is nonetheless framed in terms of Tom's "tragedy", that everyone is leaving him.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I thought about beginning this by attempting to make some sort of distinction between sex-as-gender and sex-as,-well,-sex, but I suspect the two may be a little too entwined in this book to make such a clear separation possible. Maureen's tracing of this particular dynamic through Garner's other work reminds me that so often his female characters' roles are archetypal, constructed around their femaleness (and in many cases hinting at their sexual experience/lack thereof) in ways that I don't think are true for the male characters.
And I think it's true that women in Red Shift are . . . if not sexually threatening, at least in possession of a much greater degree of sexual knowledge and control (bizarre to say this about a book in which multiple women are raped, and there's probably a lot to say there—is there a single instance of consensual sex in this book?), and this is a matter of some concern to the men. We see it, briefly, in Thomas's anxiety over the other Thomas; most clearly in Tom's being "a lap behind".
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It's certainly true of Weirdstone/Gomrath, with the clear delineation of Maiden, Mother and Crone, and that weird doubling of the Mother figure, which I realise occurs elsewhere too—here Bess as present maternal figure and Angharad as the idealised mother figure. And actually, I'm wrong, it's trebled because there is the visible absence of the actual mother figure.
As for that sense of women's greater sexual knowledge, it's really noticeable in Strandloper too, where William and Esther euphemistically "sit up" on Saturday nights, with Esther very much in control, and William getting a headache from the anxiety of it all. And it comes back in Thursbitch when Sal's carer turns out to have been pretty much celibate since their relationship.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Sex was not the aspect of the novel that first leapt out at me—this is my fourth or fifth read of Red Shift (only my second as an adult, though) and this was the first time I found myself really noticing how central it is to Tom and Jan's story in particular (and are we reading that as the central story?): to Tom's mother's dislike of Jan, to the mess that is Tom's parents' home life, to Tom and Jan's relationship, where it's invoked over and over and when it finally happens, happens between two lines of that pared-down dialogue with not even a break between them (on p. 133 in my copy):
'It's hurting you too much,' said Jan. 'I'll get rid of it.'
'Have you caught up?' said Jan.
This and the exchange that follows it are, I think, the book's emotional (and dramatic) climax (pun unintended)— and I don't know if it's significant that the only other place we see this sort of unbroken skip through time is in the complete collapse of the three stories/timelines at the end of the book.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Aisha said: "sex was not the aspect of the novel that first leapt out at me". It's an odd thing how one can read the novel and not see it, and then you see it and wonder how on earth you didn't see it before. Same with The Owl Service, which I read first as a sort of ghost story. It was only when I read it again some years later, I found myself wondering how on earth I'd missed the really not terribly subtle subtext the first time around. (Maiden, Mother, Crone in that as well, with Alison's mother nothing but a voice, as well as the trebling of couples/triangles.)
The question of whether this is the central story is not one I'd considered previously. I'd always assumed it was the story we were supposed to be most engaged with, with the two historical strands acting as supplementary stories, as if to guide us to the idea that this could be another iteration of what we are to presume are left as successful relationships (for values of 'successful' that hardly bear consideration), except, of course that Tom is much closer in role to John Fowler and to Face; the clever boy who gets himself into trouble, so to speak.
You (Aisha) also connect the earlier "skip" through time with the breakdown and merging of the three stories that ends the book. They're both moments of crisis, aren't they? I keep wondering if we're supposed to see these as archetypal moments, transcending time. And yet, that feels horribly glib.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I'm also interested in Ethan's supplementary question about whose story this is, particularly in connection with Butler's essay, "Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of 'Tam Lim'". Because once you begin to think of this as a Tam Lin story, a certain sort of framework is being imposed upon it; you're forced to think about which characters are playing which roles at which points, and you're reminded that it is fundamentally a story about a woman acting to save a man, so that the "active" parties here are the goddess, Margery and Jan—and as Butler points out, most other Tam Lin stories focus on the women accordingly. I wonder, though, if this suggests a common thread to some of Garner's male protagonists is precisely an inability to act—Gwyn can't, in the end, break out of the story he's in in The Owl Service; Boneland recasts the Brisingamen books as being about being left behind (loss is inherently passive); and of course Tam Lin in the ballad needs to be rescued from one woman by being held on to by another, and Tom here is dependent on Jan to do that holding.
Which doesn't really answer anything at all.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I'm thinking how often Garner's male characters are passive. Or, at any rate, there is often a passive male character with another male character acting as a goad. Or even two, in the Civil War sections in Red Shift.
I wonder if, by imposing the Tam Lin structure on this, we go back to Ethan's point about being given instructions as to how to read the story. Especially when coupled with the pared-down dialogue, which forces the reader to focus totally on those exchanges.
Ethan Robinson: All the comments about the "pared down dialogue" (which, yes it is, but I think the sense of pared-downness might be more a reflection of the overwhelming reticence of the narration—probably most dramatic in that moment Aisha points out, but almost unbearably so throughout), things happening outside the frame, and so on, suggest to me that not only specific "what's left unspoken" but unspokenness itself is a major concern in this novel. (Interesting too that sometimes Tom is enraged by others' refusal to speak directly, sometimes by their insistence on it.) Maureen's point that this is Garner's first attempt to write about sex directly intrigues me because it seems so true to me, and yet—as Maureen immediately points out—the novel's way of being direct is to be so indirect as to make sex (among other things) almost invisible. I guess one word for this could be mystification—and especially in light of the revelation towards the end that Tom's life in the caravan has been essentially one long "primal scene" it's tempting to link this up to the kind of vulgar Freudianism that so comprehensively mystified much of the twentieth century's experience of sex (in all senses of the word). (Something similar could be said about the point Aisha raises about the contradiction between the women's apparent possession of sexual knowledge and control and the fact of multiple rapes.)
But there's something to be said, I think, for the novel's focus on unspokenness. By all means I grant that in large part it reflects (and perpetuates) various anxieties and power structures and so forth, but to me it seems also, maybe more so, to be examining unspokenness by enacting it. And sex is not the only unspoken here by a long shot; look at the different ways Jan and Tom have been affected by their living situations (Jan's lonely rootlessness, Tom's claustrophobic lack of privacy and overexposure) and what that says-without-saying about everything from class (Jan's family has money, Tom's doesn't) to (especially in the contrast with the other two stories within the novel) the fundamental conditions of modernity.
On a foundational level I think this is how the book manages to be so fascinating and suggestive even when/even though it succumbs to what are at heart very basic (to the point of being boring, even), misogynist structures.
What is the significance/function of movement and travel in the novel? Does the text gain anything as a result of Garner's detailed representation of the local landscape and his close attention to historical detail? (It's entirely accurate, apart from playing slightly fast and loose with what you can see from the London to Manchester train.) What does it mean to say that all three stories happen in "the same place," and in what sense is this important? Why, or maybe more to the point how, does it matter—both to the characters and to us?
Ethan Robinson: In the second century sections, "travel" consists of imperialism—everyone stays basically where they live unless they're going somewhere else for the purpose of conquest or administration, or have been disrupted by it. In the civil war sections, though conditions are very different, there's still a contrast between rootedness (people staying in their communities) and war (people come in and attack, people flee to safety).
The contemporary sections are different. Here there has been a similar kind of divide in the recent past (in the living memory of, not the main characters, but certainly their parents), but during the events we're given there is no large-scale physical violence, and no staying-put, either. All there is is travel: Jan's family's constant relocating, the train rides, the trip to Germany, the bicycling . . . even Tom's stationary house is a caravan and is in constant movement, though not from place to place. It's as if lives have been uprooted by violence for so long that they no longer need to suffer the violence itself to feel its impact.
In a sense this is why it's "the same place." The tribal Barthomley of the second century and the neon-lit Crewe of the 1970s might seem so completely different from one another as, functionally, to be "not the same place"—and in many senses this is true—but the one could not exist without the other, and the shapes of the lives and violences of the past inscribe themselves on the present, and vice versa.
I live on occupied Narragansett land, and because of a fluke of biography (as in, not because of any unique virtue or whatever nonsense) I happen to know more about what that means than the average white person who lives here. And knowing it, it's inescapable. When we go to the drive-in theater, my friends and I pull into and turn around on the same road that seventeenth-century colonial soldiers marched down in the middle of the night to launch a surprise massacre on a group of Narragansetts at the close of King Philip's War, thus securing "ownership" of this land—and paving the way for my residence on it—in one of a few dozen moments that can reasonably be claimed as The Event That Made America Possible. When we come home from the beach, we take a highway that goes through what was once slave plantations, owned by families whose last names are still common on the Reservation. When I go to the bank to deposit my paycheck, I'm standing on top of burials.
What's that Faulkner line? The past isn't over, it isn't even past? And that's hardly all. Whether we know it or not, the histories of the places we live are shaping us, and we are shaping those histories. I could go into the strange ways that my own individual biography makes the thousands and thousands of years of my home's human history bend and compress and sine-wave and telescope to fit into and/or intersect with it—with me—but this isn't Best American Essays 2015, this is Book Club, and anyway we're talking about Cheshire, not Rhode Island.
At one point in The Owl Service [in chapter 9, page 61 in my copy], Gwyn tries to explain to Roger what he feels is happening in the valley, what is happening to them. "Not haunted," he says. "More like—still happening?" Yes. And to that "still," I think Red Shift adds an "already."
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I should note here that it was reading Red Shift as a post-adolescent that first prompted me to notice that Garner was working with actual landscapes and topography. (For reasons that elude me I did not read Garner as a child.)
So, the schtick about Garner is his attachment to Alderley Edge (although he was brought up there, he was actually born in Congleton, a few miles away, and as an acquaintance of mine once remarked, you get the distinct impression he's never quite forgiven his mother for such carelessness).
Many years of reading and listening to Garner's observations about the area and about his work have left me feeling actually rather ambivalent about the whole relationship between landscape and story. We are to understand that the two are totally intertwined, to the point where if you don't know the one you can't really get the other, but of course, overlaying this is the understanding that no one knows this landscape better than Garner, except perhaps the people he has spoken to, whose words he relays to us from time to time.
So, as time goes on, I find myself wondering if there isn't a whole elaborate game going on, in which he shows off his historical and topographical knowledge and acts as a kind of gatekeeper (or priest, or shaman). We can go so far but no further, and his fiction is the mediating force. The strange thing is, were this Native American fiction I was writing about, I'd entirely see where Garner is coming from but it feels more uncomfortable because we're both English. Except, of course, that Garner is from Cheshire, and I'm not, and it feels like he is playing the regionalist card.
There is the whole mythos of his being rooted in his landscape, except he doesn't live in Alderley but in Goostrey, and half his house is actually a building he rescued from somewhere in Staffordshire and reassembled on site. In the same way it is particularly important to him that the Gawain poet, writing in the north-west Mercian dialect, was most likely a Cheshire man, like himself, with Cheshire dialect being not dissimilar to the English used in "Gawain and the Green Knight". And he can position himself within the broader picture with his next-door neighbour handily being Jodrell Bank telescope.
No one is more rooted than Garner, and if I sound a little sarcastic, it is perhaps because I've come to question the value of fiction where the first thing one does after reading it is to launch Google maps and start typing in place names.
I think, though, that there is an underlying implication in Red Shift that part of Tom's problem is, as I've suggested elsewhere, that he is not settled, not anchored. We've no idea where he comes from but he is set in a narrative of impermanence. He lives in a caravan; his father is in the Army, which suggests postings and enforced mobility. He is on the brink of more mobility, as he is working to go to university, and thus will leave "home". And he seems to be fascinated by ideas of home, as indeed are his two historical counterparts. All three seem to be looking for a place to settle. Tom's mistake, of course, is to imagine that bricks and mortar represent permanence.
It's perhaps significant that while Macey's and Thomas's journeys end at Mow Cop, for Tom it's just a way station to somewhere else. I think we're supposed to read this as Tom wanting it to be the end of his journey, so long as he leaves the caravan, and that the realisation he has to keep going in part creates his crisis.
And yet I find myself looking at that now, and wondering whether there isn't a level of romanticism in that assumption.
And having said that, the idea of the return, or the need to stay, permeates so much of Garner's later work. The whole of the Stone Book Quartet is about people staying in the same place, and figuring out how to stay in the same place. We know, though, that in the last one, Tom Fobble's Day, the protagonist is the Garner-analogue, and the sledge is symbolic of the assumption he'll travel faster and further than the rest of his family, not least because he has no trade.
In Boneland, Colin may be tied to the Edge as a result of a false supposition, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the book is really about coming to terms with staying rather than a recognition that Colin is trapped.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I've recently been reading John Clute's Pardon This Intrusion, and there's an essay in it on William Mayne (who I think of as a contemporary of Garner's, though he started writing in the 1950s) in which he suggests that an important aspect of British fantasy is that it is "centripetal, leading inwards to the geographical heart of the place where the story begins"; that the quest tends not to be towards a new space, but towards a deeper understanding of the originary space. I'm not sure if this is a massive generalisation; it's certainly true of a lot of the British fantasy that I love.
But more generally, that absorption in the landscape (and the specificities of landscape) is something that I see across British literature through the middle of the twentieth century. Naturally because I'm interested in the things I'm interested in I link this to the decline of the British empire—there's a turning of focus to the home; to the reenchantment of the British landscape, to myth and history and folklore, and possibly an attempt to arrive at a sense of what it means to be British (or whatever subset of British) that is divorced from being at the centre of the empire. But whether or not this is the reason, you see so much of it during these years even outside fantasy; there's great nature writing, historical fiction, even children's adventure stories that preoccupy themselves with local landscapes. And those landscapes are historicised so that we're constantly reminded that things have happened here—that places (their histories, their folklore, as well as their physical specificities) are in some way a part of the forming of the people who live there (everything Ethan just said, basically). Mayne's A Grass Rope does good things with this, as does Garner's The Owl Service, obviously. In Red Shift it's a bit more complicated, I think . . . in part because we're not given a central "what happened?" mystery, unless it's that offered to the reader, of the relationship between the protagonists of the various periods.You ask how it matters to the characters and I don't know—the three historical moments and their connections are only visible to the reader and whenever one of the male characters senses another time it only serves to destabilise him further (and there's probably something to be said about that).
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Garner and Mayne were actually friends at some point, and there is a story by William Mayne which is clearly about Garner's three eldest children. (The Big Egg, Hamish Hamilton, 1967.)
That sense of British fantasy "leading inwards to the geographical heart of the place" is certainly true of much of Garner's work. I know someone who met the Manchester potholers who took Garner right under Alderley Edge so he has literally done it.
But in figurative terms too, there is the sense that he is digging ever deeper into the landscape—this is made clear in Boneland, with the connection established between Colin and the shaman, taking us so far into the past that we see the shaman's arrival at Alderley Edge, cast as a new beginning, a new establishment of a family.
I could go off at an extended tangent about my theory that Garner is trying to re-inscribe himself in his own history, but I wrote a bit about it here. Though twenty years down the line I would wish to revise this heavily. What I wasn't considering sufficiently deeply at the time was why Garner would wish to, though I might put in an argument now for his effectively being the product of a system that in the end doesn't have a use for him, and having travelled a certain distance from his roots, he finds he cannot easily go back. Insert Homi Bhabha and mimicry here.
You mention a general trend towards historicising the landscape. And Garner, more than any other novelist emerging from that period, does this. Penelope Lively is the other one I can think of who does something similar—with mainly Oxfordshire settings, which I know well because that's where I'm from, but she's not at all in the same league as Garner. The landscape is subordinate to the storytelling, whereas with Garner I sometimes think that the landscape and its history is the main character in all his novels, and the people are, if not quite incidental, then a product of the landscape rather than the other way round.
It is almost as if Garner is working with some sort of idea of Nigel Kneale's Stone Tape, the idea of places replaying what has gone before.
All three historical threads are tied to Mow Cop, which is a real place, on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border. I suppose you'd call it a liminal space—if, as Garner proposes, it's a place of religious significance to the local tribes at the time of the Roman invasion. Although there is also the industrial function even from the beginning, as a source of stone for querns, and so on.
The religious dimension persists into the eighteenth century at least as it was the scene of big religious revivalist meetings at some point, which all got a bit fraught.
So there is this double sense of it as a place of safety and a holy place inscribed in the landscape. It seems to me that contemporary Tom's problem is that he cannot find any sort of anchor. He's too clever for blind faith, and he seemingly has no roots in the landscape at all. I'm sure it's entirely significant that his family lives in a caravan, which then would have been a very distinctive social marker—and he is of course attracted to the girl with a house and a phone, the markers of being settled, though she is of course the one who is mobile, whereas he, like Gwyn, is trapped. But whereas Gwyn is definitely trapped by his heritage, I'm not clear what it is that holds Tom in place.
Aishwarya Subramanian: What I can never make up my mind about is to what extent this approach to history accomplishes its almost-opposite, and collapses different times and lives into one another—much as this book does explicitly towards the end. Think of the contemporary-sounding language of Macey and his comrades, for example, and the fact that we're expected to see Macey's, Tom's and Thomas's problems as different aspects of the same thing. I don't know how far specificities of place and time and circumstance can sit comfortably alongside archetype or any sort of transhistorical sameness.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I have the impression that with Red Shift Garner was perhaps trying to experiment with how he might present history as contemporary. He has said his portrayal of the Roman soldiers was heavily influenced by reporting of the My Lai massacre, which was in the news at the time, hence the use of language that echoes American military slang (though I think he does not mention Conrad's Heart of Darkness). I speculate that this fails because Garner has at this point stepped beyond the framework he has imposed on himself, the Cheshireness of it all. (When he goes to Australia in Strandloper, it is through the vehicle of a Cheshire man, whatever else happens go on.)
His language at this point is imported, and thus undermines the specificity he has been trying to establish. It sits oddly with the language of the Civil War era and the contemporary strand. I assume he was compensating for the fact he hadn't any real idea what soldiers of that period might sound like, though I wonder if the failure of language at that point didn't act as a springboard for his frankly obsessive recreation of dialect in later books, to the point where certain parts of Thursbitch are almost impenetrable if you're not from around there (and he very much wants you to believe that there are people out there who still speak something like that, which, bluntly, I doubt).
Given that what comes next after Red Shift is the Stone Book Quartet, when Garner started to seriously mine his own family history for inspiration, it's tempting to wonder whether Red Shift prompted him to begin questioning what he was attempting to do, in terms of using the landscape and history.
Ethan Robinson: Aisha's point about British literature's interest in a "deeper understanding of the originary space" is especially intriguing because, if I understand correctly (American who's never left this continent, so correct me if I'm wrong), the archetypal (this feels like the wrong word) British landscape—the countryside, all that—is extremely new, a product of massive deforestation during the so-called "transition" to capitalism. And yet it's written about as if it were eternal. (I'm not nearly as steeped in this kind of literature as the rest of you probably are, but I've internalized enough of it that my image of Britain has been "eternally countryside" and I was deeply shocked when I first learned how recent this was.)
It's especially interesting in the context of Red Shift, because while in the contemporary sections this landscape would have achieved "always already" status, in the Civil War sections it would be extremely new, and in the Roman sections it would be...not yet. (I'm probably overstating this in one way or another, but surely it's suggestive.) So here's another way that a fundamental same-placeness seems to coexist with a just as fundamental not-the-same-placeness.
And especially following on all this the point Aisha raises, about how uneasily the "specificities of place and time" coexist (or fail to coexist) with "any sort of transhistorical sameness," strikes me as being of the utmost importance. I wonder if it would be too much to say that this uneasiness is what the novel is about—or maybe better where it lives—whether it means to be or not.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Historically, the deforestation of England, the stripping of the wild wood, starts much, much earlier than most people realise, with the turn towards settled farming, crop-growing and grazing beginning during the Neolithic period, at which point the landscape began to change permanently. (Look up Grimes Graves for a Neolithic flint-mining and tool-manufacturing site, on an industrial scale, and therefore indicative of significant trade—presumably based on barter rather than currency, but who's to say.)
After that there are waves of landscape alteration. William the Conqueror instituted the royal forests, which were effectively areas closed for the use of the privileged (see the New Forest, which isn't very new now). The Kentish Wealds were stripped of timber for charcoal for iron smelting occurred in the medieval period, and I don't doubt that happened elsewhere too. Then there was ship-building for the Armada, etc. Around Alderley, there was mining.
And it's just occurred to me that Rudheath, where the caravan site is, was all gravel pits, so the land is literally being excavated and taken away (it's fishing lakes now, which is generally what gravel pits get turned into). Gravel sites usually mean archaeology as river valleys would have been settled.
But it's just occurred to me too that Red Shift's publication, in 1973, places it smack in the middle of a revival of interest in the countryside, the sense of it being about to be lost, with a shift in farming methods, and so on—Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside (1973) is a seminal text, and by this time Ronald Blythe had produced Akenfield, George Ewart Evans had published extensively on the survival of oral traditions. I'm guessing Garner would be familiar with those, given his own interests in folklore and antiquarian matters.
So, the concept of the eternal countryside could be said to be recent, but the management of the countryside is much, much older. So I'm not sure how the two fit together.
After all, the tribal peoples have been climbing Mow Cop to get stone for the grindstones for some considerable time already (and this would persist into "history" as well—you can see evidence of stones that have been partially cut and then abandoned.
But this suggests something I was struggling to articulate last night, which is that I think Garner wants his landscape to have that "fundamental same-placeness" and not change. (In Boneland, it seems to me on a number of occasions that Garner is using Colin to articulate his own unhappiness with the changes in Alderley Edge, and by extension with the rest of the countryside.)
Which then leads me to wonder whether, in Red Shift, Jan has actually become the embodiment of modernity, nurturing, but also willing and able to move around. It's perhaps telling that she is training to be a nurse, in that her nurturing will be diffused rather than focused on Tom (not that I believe for a moment that Jan will stay a nurse).
Ethan said: "I wonder if it would be too much to say that this uneasiness is what the novel is about—or maybe better where it lives—whether it means to be or not."
I like the idea of the uneasiness being where the novel lives. I'm not convinced it's what it is about, or what Garner intended it to be about, but it's undeniably there. I keep coming back to the idea that in Red Shift, Garner himself took a step too far, and as a result retreated into the landscape again for safety.
For further discussion:
- In comparison to his first four books, Red Shift represents an extraordinary shift in Garner's writing. The pared-down style and the focus on dialogue rather than description caught the imagination of some and prompted criticism from others. At the time, it was considered highly innovative children's/teenage writing. But is the style as integral to the story as people often insist? What is the effect of so much of the novel being told through dialogue?
- One could consider the novel's whole structure as a dramatization of authorial omnipotence/omniscience: despite any visions or other "fantastical" interventions, no one but Garner (or "Garner") and the reader really knows that these events and these stories are "linked" in the way they seem to us to be. Basically, how do we feel about this? In this context, what is to be made of the breakdown in the final pages?
- Why these stories? Why these times? Or, put another way: Why these times? Why these stories?
- Tom/Thomas/Macey are three more representatives of the fragile boy adolescent figure that recurs throughout Garner's work (sometimes retrospectively in the case of Colin, who appears in Weirdstone/Gomrath, but is only revealed as such in Boneland). I guess I'm wondering here if Garner has ever really created characters or whether he regards them more as interchangeable archetypes.
- How does the title play out in the novel? Who or what is "red shifted," and to what effect?
- How can we map this book onto "Tam Lin"? More generally, let us consider Red Shift's intertexts (using "text" very loosely, of course).
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