Book Review Musings

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

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I don’t know where this book came from. I know I bought it, I’m pretty certain I went out of my way to find it, but I can’t remember the circumstances of doing so. I can see why, perhaps, I thought this was for me, but I don’t know with any certainty. This kind of confused lack of memory is the exact reason why I’m not drinking at the moment, and as I approach five weeks sober I am even more able to understand the value in temperance.

What I miss is the ability to shut the self off. There is nothing I’ve encountered that has the ability to kill the emotions (whilst retaining a sense of self) like alcohol. A shot, a quick half, a glass of sparkling wine – anything either especially strong or effervescent has the ability to take the edge off life very quickly. Without drinking, there are far less options available (other than painkillers, which would kinda be cheating, or at least self-defeating), in fact the only real way I’ve found to kill unwanted rage (the other emotions I am fine with) in the few days I’ve just spent back in #brokenbritain* was to walk, was to pound the pavement like Marlow (the one without an e), waiting until I felt lost enough to feel a stab of fear. I’d walk out and keep going, find streets with high rise buildings and lots of shadows in the middle of the night, I’d walk down streets like the street I was once (technically) violently mugged on and walk slowly and deliberately, hoping something would happen. Nothing did, but fear rose, and with it adrenaline that I refused to respond to. I used the rush and then relax of the hormones in my bloodstream to distract myself from the anger I was feeling and I was calmed. I don’t know if the assault I’d been hoping for would’ve helped things or made them worse, but it felt important that I’d at least found a way to exhaust my emotions without either drinking or doing something else equally self-destructive.

///

Yesterday I took my dog, Cubby, to be castrated. I walked him to the vets for 9.30am, then collected him eight hours later. During the interim – most likely as a result of ingesting some of the poo he did on the morning walk – I’d spent most of the day dropping water and diarrhoea out of my anus. I felt this was a punishment for my betrayal of the dog I love so much, also a betrayal of my gender. My mind was filled with guilty self-reflection: if his balls are gone how long should I keep mine? Should I offer him mine as a replacement? Should I have mine removed in solidarity? He’s meant to be like my best friend slash brother slash son slash platonic lover, being a party to the removal of his balls felt somewhat… I don’t know.

I’ve never had a male pet before other than a hamster and possibly fish (do fish have genders?), and though every cat I’ve had before has been spayed, I also remember feeling trepidation when that happened too. As there is no point to life, as existence is an empty experience of suffering, is not the reproductive urge about the only idea one can somehow pretend holds import? And by denying my pets the opportunity to breed, am I not almost preventing them from existing? What else can a cat and a dog leave behind as legacy other than a furry next generation, other than memory? I remember weeping after my cat, Diana (like the goddess of the hunt or the Queen of hearts, depending on what mood I’m in) had her womb removed. “We’ve stopped her from fulfilling her biological imperative,” I cried into a Sazerac**, though when I was reminded that I’d also saved her from being gang-raped by neighbourhood toms whenever she was on heat, I felt better about my actions. And with Cubby, I suppose it makes sense the other way round. He won’t be distracted from being a source of joy for me and my partner and Diana due to the whiff of some ovulating spaniel, he won’t force himself upon a smaller dog and he won’t land any lady dog*** up the duff with no intention of looking after the kids. He won’t be plagued by lustful urges, he won’t feel the need to be aggressive towards other lad dogs, he won’t develop physically into more of a mayun dawg than he already is: he will be a boy forever, my little Varys, my special little eunuch, forever infantilised. If removing the balls to guarantee a sweeter personality in a pet is fine, as a confused ethical vegetarian I don’t know if I can now morally be opposed to castration of humans. This was not Cubby’s choice, but it will suit him better for a happier life, as I imagine most rational adult men would similarly exchange a minor operation as a child for being able to a) sing beautiful and high and b) to never be plagued by sexual desire or violent impulse as an adult. I think in some ways the reason for me feeling uncomfortable about Cubby’s castration is simple envy. Why could I not have been gifted the freedom of never gaining an adult male body with adult male desires?

I’m jealous of you, puppy, for the freedom from the flesh I have given you. The real value of this blog is how much it teaches me about myself.

///

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a 2015 novel by Sara Baume. It is part of the Irish new wave (or however the literary press is calling it this week). Almost all the contemporary novels I have stacked up for my Summer reading are Irish, as this really seems to be where the most interesting English-language prose is coming from at the moment. This one is less experimental than a few of the others being touted as the new highlights, but it is not a simple novel, and nor is it an easy one. Emotionally, it is a heavy ride, especially for anyone that owns a dog, or anyone that’s used to being alone.

The novel is told from the perspective of Ray, a 57yo Irishman who’s just bought himself a one-eyed rescue dog to fill the gap in his life evacuated by his recently deceased father. Ray is uneducated, has never had a job, fears other people and has never had any friends. Taught to read and looked after by an aged neighbour while his father was at work as a child, after she died he was left completely alone during daytime hours from the age of ten until almost fifty, when his father retired from his job at the local sweet factory. They lived in a salmon-pink house in a coastal village, their interactions with other people minimal: the grocer, the post office, the travelling library, on one occasion a driving test examiner. Ray, though, is not lacking curiosity about the world, merely bravery, or perhaps a reason to explore. He addresses all his thoughts towards the dog, unimaginatively named Oneeye. The reader is the second person recipient of Ray’s ideas and memories and feelings, the reader is the dog.

Oneeye is a type of dog bred for badger-baiting, both loyal to an owner and vicious towards all smaller animals he ever scents anywhere. His eye was lost to a badger, underground, in its burrow, and the dog was left for dead by the people who birthed and trained it. Well, perhaps not trained, but encouraged to behave in accordance with its aggressive, primal, urges. Although Ray and Oneeye bond quite quickly – the dog having been used to a life treated as a tool rather than a living animal, this master who is affected by his efforts to please is obviously a pleasant change. For Ray, though, he has never had anyone in his life, his only relationship with his father and that was something he resented, his dad a distraction from the books he preferred to use to distract himself from the mediocrity of his own existence.

Until I had a dog, I’d never quite understood the oft-lauded bond between a human and an animal. I’d had several cats in my lifetime, and though I’d liked having them around, I’d never felt like inviting a cat into my life had opened up a new sphere of experience, though that might just be because I’ve only ever gone about 2 years in total without one, somewhere, that was broadly considered my pet. A cat, though, other than food, kinda looks after itself. It cleans itself, it finds places to dispose of its shit itself, it entertains itself and it disappears for hours at a time, safely, by itself. A dog does none of those things.

And this is what Ray learns, what he experiences, rather, for the first time. Interdependence. He loves the  and the dog loves him, the horrors of Ray’s past are forgotten for a few months as they live in a rambling idyll. Unfortunately, this cannot last forever, and Oneeye’s innate viciousness inevitably comes to the fore in a unignorable situation. Then, like he has done with all his previous problems, Ray ignores it, and the two of them run away, driving around the country for several months, sleeping in the car and eating by the roadside, until Ray’s money runs out and he begins confronting his past, opening up to the dog, and thus the reader, about the true and sad tragedy of his lonely life.

Nothing comes as a surprise when we get the late reveals, except for the fact that Ray has matured enough, or developed enough, to put these feelings and experiences into words. This book, about a 57yo man, is the best example of a coming of age narrative I’ve read in a very long time. Their bond is strong, the development of it across the book is heartbreaking and familiar and believable. Baume’s text is moving, mature and often very witty. It engaged me, it made me sad, it made me happy.

A great read, especially recommended to anyone else with a special little pooch in their life.

______________________

* England is dead, btw. It is unresuscitateable, it is flat-lined, it is the opposite of Jon Snow and The Hound, it is the opposite of Bond, it is hanged, drawn, quartered and burnt into ashes that have been turned into a cursed diamond, smashed to pieces and then buried at sea. Brexit was the end, we cannot pretend there is life after death, for there isn’t. It is a zombie country, still hoping for its basic needs to be met, but with the skin of its face peeled off, an arm missing and a fucking Nazi armband around the one that remains. Eurgh. The political discourse is moving to extremes and the electorate feel more affinity to the extreme right than the extreme left, with Corbyn’s Labour party seeming like ever more of a joke to Middle England and what one presumes will soon be May’s Tory party even further to the right than Cameron’s was, but an extreme the populace at large is happy to vote for. Get out of the cities, children, and feel the pulse of Britain! It beats at a different rhythm to ours.

** This was so long ago that my cocktail of choice was a Sazerac, not a negroni. Can you imagine?

*** I refuse to call any female a bitch. #feminist

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