[Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk]
A couple of months ago I read SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead. As it had won the Dylan Thomas Prize I was wary of the part poetry might play in the prose. I approached THE SHOCK OF THE FALL with a similar degree of trepidation since the author, Nathan Filer, is not merely a poet: he is a performance poet. For those of you unused to performance poetry, this involves physically acting in some way so as to compliment the words. And whereas Maggie Shipstead avoided any suggestion of poetry in her work, Nathan Filer does not, although it’s the performance element that’s reflected here rather than the poetic use of words. More of that later.
But first I want to tell you what the book is about because that may influence your decision as to whether to read it or not. It deals with the subject of mental illness and in this particular case, schizophrenia. The book is written in the first person so we get the inside line of what it must like to be schizophrenic. The narrator is Matthew Homes and we follow his journey beginning with his ‘fall’ as a young boy, the subsequent death of his elder brother Simon (whom he adores), his experiences in (and out) of mental institutions and his eventual release back into the community. It comes across as an accurate portrayal – it should do as Nathan Filer is not just a performance poet, he is also a registered mental health nurse. There are echoes of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NESThere and Matthew’s story will no doubt resonate with those who have suffered mental illness or been otherwise involved with it. It draws high praise from Jo Brand who was once a psychiatric nurse herself.
I am telling you this because the back cover blurb gives little in the way of clues as to the book’s real intent ie.
I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.
No hint of mental illness here – we have to read the endorsements for that. And excuse my cynicism, but I detect the influence of the Creative Writing MA Mr Filer attended here. As modern authors we are continually told how our first paragraph, even our first sentence, must instantly engage the reader. No longer do we have the luxury enjoyed by such literary greats as John Steinbeck who spent the first few pages of EAST OF EDEN in a lengthy description of the red soil of the Salinas Valley in California. He won The Nobel Prize for Literature – today his manuscript would be returned as unsuitable. So this back cover blurb isn’t meant to tell us what the book is about, it’s there to suck us in, hence my need to advise you.
But before my cynicism has chance to affect you, let me say that THE SHOCK OF THE FALL is an extremely well-written book. It certainly achieves what it sets out to do and the voice of Matthew Homes is very authentic. It warrants comparisons with THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Mark Haddon) and THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS (Gavin Extence) although this last is, in my view, a superior effort.
In fact, the similarities with THE CURIOUS INCIDENT bear further consideration and the more I think about it the more similar they become. Both deal with mental illness, autism and schizophrenia respectively. Both are first person narratives with much the same distinction of voice. Plus, (and this is my main point), they both use visual effects within the body of the work in order to enhance the words ie. this is the ‘performance’ element I talked of earlier. For example, page 8 of THE SHOCK is a sketch of the doll which is the subject of the first chapter. Filer uses the burial doll as the catalyst for the story in much the same way as Haddon uses the death of the dog. We also get lists and diagrams but Filer brings something new to the party by deliberately changing the font to signify the narrator’s use of a typewriter instead of a computer at an appropriate point in the narrative.
This disruption of the written word with visual effects – is it a valid enhancement of the form? Or is it purely a gimmick? I can see how the purists might object. But although I may have traditionalist views, I am not a purist and I do not find these intrusions out of place. Reading is after all, a visual experience. In fact I do think they enhance the form of these particular books and add to our experience although if this were to become a trend throughout literature I think I might begin to smell a rat.
So, will the more avant-garde Creative Writing MAs soon be teaching us how to draw as well as write? Let’s wait and see.
THE SHOCK OF THE FALL will be one of the books to be discussed on BBC Radio York’s Book Talk feature at 6.30pm on Monday 13th October.
Listen on 13th October at www.bbc.co.uk/radioyork