World of marvels

5 months ago 110

In This Plague of Souls the protagonist, Nealon, returns home after a spell in prison, where he has been held on remand for an unspecified crime of which he has been acquitted. When he arrives at the smallholding in rural west Ireland where he grew up and now lives, there is no sign of his wife, Olwyn, or his young son, Cuan. He is welcomed instead by a late-night phone call from an unknown number. “You’re back”, the anonymous caller states. “We should meet up.” It is the first in a series of calls in which the caller promises information without ever giving his name or a clue as to his motives.

The novel, which the dust jacket describes as “part roman noir, part metaphysical thriller”, is more conventional than McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), which plunged the reader into the steam of consciousness of a dead man that flowed unbroken in a single sentence for more than 200 pages. Its incantatory opening (“the bell / the bell as / hearing the bell as standing here / the bell being heard standing here / hearing it ring out through the grey light of this / morning, noon or night”) reflects the ambition for which it won its author the Goldsmiths prize and a place on the Booker longlist. The opening sentence of This Plague of Souls, by contrast, signals a more realist approach: “Opening the door and crossing the threshold in the dark triggers the phone in Nealon’s pocket”.

In the days that follow his release Nealon wanders through empty cattle sheds, recalling fragments of his life and leaving voicemails for Olywn. We learn about his childhood alone with his father, with “no woman ever crossing the threshold” of the family home. One childhood memory is of his neighbour Shevlin castrating a bull, and of the “awful strangled roar” of the animal as it fell backwards “with shit pouring from him”. When Nealon was eighteen his father died from a brain tumour and he left to study painting in Galway, where he filled his canvases with “rich aortal and cloacal colours that took their hue from life’s under-realm where blood and shit had their proper communion”.

Nealon remains as much of a mystery to himself as to us, however, even as he works through his past. One evening he rigorously probes his body from his ears and nose to the “humid crack of his arse” for tracking devices whose “ceaseless aortal pulse” might enable the caller to monitor him. “What is he searching for? He cannot rightly say.”

Over the course of the novel Nealon oscillates between states of bafflement and marvel. He “spreads his hands in pure bafflement” or feels “bafflement surfacing in every line of his brow”; the way people talk on the radio “baffles” him, just as he later spends a “baffled moment” in front of the news. He “marvelled” at how quickly Olywn took to country life, and he “marvelled” at how completely she could change her expression; elsewhere he “marvels” at his anticipation of his son waking in the night, and he “marvels” at the caller’s level of attention. This combination of astonishment and perplexity might explain why Nealon so often “blurts” whatever he has to say. “‘An orthodontist!’ Nealon blurts”; “‘I’ll have a coffee’, he blurts”; “the answer blurts from Nealon before he has a chance to pull across it”. In the climactic meeting with the caller, towards the end of the novel, we get both marvel and bafflement at once:

Nealon notes how easily he has fallen into league with the man, how they are buddies now, sharing this bafflement at the world’s callowness. Nealon marvels that the man can find so much worthy of his attention.

We’ve already encountered this thought, in more or less the same words, a few paragraphs above, when Nealon “notes how easily they have moved from the thrust and parry of their phone calls into something more equable and collusive”.

Nealon eventually meets the caller after a week of phone calls, in a hotel in an unnamed Irish city, on a day on which the country has been put on alert for an unspecified terror threat. The most serious threat to the tension that has fitfully built in the run-up to the meeting, meanwhile, is the dialogue. As we learn about the crime of which Nealon has been acquitted, he and the caller trade clichés back and forth. “I don’t have all day”, Nealon says when the caller promises to “paint [him] a picture”. “I am on the right track”, the caller insists; “you have the bit between your teeth”, Nealon tells him. It may simply be that this is how men like Nealon and his interlocutor talk. The trouble is that this is also a novel in which blows are “telling”, relief comes in a “wave” and nerves are “grated”.

The novel ends with the ringing of the same bell with which Solar Bones began, Nealon hearing “the angelus bell tolling” over the city. If this is a clue that the two books are intended to form part of a series, then it promises to be an uneven one. This Plague of Souls has the makings of a sharp modernist thriller, but it never quite comes to life. A quick flick through a thesaurus might have helped.

Harry Strawson won the 2021 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. He lives in Los Angeles

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