Verbal outrage

5 months ago 120

Jabberwock is David Butler’s fifth novel, and the second to be published under the pseudonym Dara Kavanagh. Butler is a noted James Joyce scholar, and Joyce himself appears here as “Jim Kinch” and “Jouisse O’Riley”.

The title comes, of course, from Lewis Carroll, who is listed on the cover as an influence on “an anarchic novel full of delights and fromulous pleasures”. If “fromulous” provokes a smile, then this may be a book for you, and there are many more nonce words: “bobbling”, “garmungling”, “wimbling”, “strumulous” and “mohogulous” appear early on in quick succession, and repeatedly thereafter. Other named influences include Flann O’Brien, Cervantes, Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, but not Samuel Beckett, who is nonetheless glimpsed briefly in Jabberwock’s Paris as the duffel-coated “Meurphy”. Beckett remains a pervasive absence throughout.

Also early on, one of many unreliable footnotes refers to an authentic neurological condition known as Witzelsucht, a rare mental affliction caused by lesions on the brain and characterized by an irresistible urge to make jokes and puns. The author thus shrewdly attempts to pre-empt criticism of a novel that is heavily reliant on (laboured) wordplay and (flat) gags such as this: “Hackett’s instinct was to make a bolt – in the figurative rather than the metallurgic sense”.

Fortunately there is more to Jabberwock than whimsical coinages and dad jokes. The ingenious plot hinges on the idea that words can take on a physical form (as they did to Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty) and then be weaponized, their original meaning altered or lost entirely. The story unfolds in a parallel version of the late 1930s, when, with Europe on the brink of war, a washed-up journalist called Ignatius Hackett is despatched from “Dubilin, Eireland” to “Logdon, Engeland” to investigate an epidemic of “verbal outrages” perpetrated by dissident republicans promoting a counterfeit lexicon that threatens to undermine the integrity of the English language and the stability of the British Empire.

This promising premiss is deliberately buried beneath layer on layer of bogus etymologies, contradictory footnotes, phonetic gimmicks (with many pages rendered in an approximation of an Ulster accent), spoof citations, forced non sequiturs, interminable digressions, dogged repetition and circumlocution, and a reliance on the comic potential of words such as “discombobulate”. There are minor changes to place names (Oxenford, Camsbridge, Penzaunce, Brumingham, Covenantry, etc) and many significant anachronisms, all of which deliberately draw attention to the elaborate artificiality of the text.

Lacking the dense polyglot virtuosity of, say, Finnegans Wake, Jabberwock is a relatively straightforward and accessible novel, and Kavanagh adopts throughout the chortling register of mid-century Punch humourists: arch, pedantic, jocular and dogged. While most writers might say that a character “barely smiled” or “smiled weakly”, the author opts for the following:

To say that Quibble smiled in encouragement would be to imbue his facial muscles with a motion they hadn’t exercised since he was an infant, perhaps not even then. Something in his mien had altered, however, and it approximated encouragement.

There is no place in such inflated prose for irony or indignation, or indeed for any feelings whatsoever that might reveal the writer, which means that any satirical intent is blunted. Instead we are left with unrelenting gusto, a sustained comic register that, over the course of more than 450 pages, never varies. It is not unrewarding, but makes for quite a slog.

The author has noted that, during the twenty years he spent working on successive drafts of Jabberwock, the rise of social media, fake news and conspiracy theories has led to a collapse in the value of objective truth; he hopes that his novel reflects these changes as “a commentary on the concatenation of media phenomena that has made the unthinkable (read Trump and Brexit) possible”. Readers may strain to see Jabberwock in that ambitious light, and it is a shame that the novel doesn’t develop further a fruitful idea that comes late in the plot: Joseph Goebbels’s imaginary “Bandersnatch” project, an Enigma-like device for making “bespoke synthetic statements generated at will, tailored to each particular dialect” – a neat anticipation of recent threats to language, literature and liberty from cancel culture, not to mention artificial intelligence. Sadly any satirical edge is lost in the fromulous whiffling – the jaws don’t bite, the claws don’t catch.

David Collard’s most recent book is Multiple Joyce: 100 short essays about James Joyce’s cultural legacy, 2022

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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