Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel, Ice, is one of the most arresting and exciting novels I’ve read in a long time.
Ice is set in a creepy mid-apocalyptic world where the titular substance (ice) is spreading globewards from the poles. As the world’s resources are destroyed by blistering cold, diplomacy falls apart and raging wars expand into all the surviving countries as those who escape the ice are forced into smaller and smaller pockets of liveable land. Into this conceptual sci-fi scenario is our unnamed narrator, who seeks across the world the woman (“the girl”) that he loves, as she bounces between him and another man’s control. That sounds like a pretty simple, tense, piece, right? Well, it’s not: imagine that narrative written as well as you can imagine it being written, and then you’re about halfway to an understanding of how good Ice is. Ice is – to be vulgar – fucking brilliant.
But let’s do what we do best (or most frequently) over here at Triumph of the Now (other than lock in Scott Manley Hadley’s commitment to being self-employed (there’s no way any potential employers would find all this evidence of fuckeduperry and then employee me)) and shift into biographical detail about the writer. Who was Anna Kavan? Who, who?
Anna Kavan is about to become my favourite writer. There is nothing I like more than a fuck-up and, reader, Anna Kavan was a fuck-up. Like Malcolm Lowry and most of the people I used to party with before I lost my hair, Kavan suffered from that most sympathy-killing of all diseases, affluenza. She travelled across the world, tried numerous different careers and jobs, developed a lifelong heroin addiction, had several breakdowns, was treated by psychiatrists and psychologists so expensive I’ve heard of some of them most of a century later; she was hospitalised numerous times for depression, attempted suicide more than once, published rather trad, autobiographical, novels in her late 20s and then, after her second marriage ended, her son died in WW2 and the heroin became normalised and necessary, she started writing GOLD.
Kavan’s writing has been lumped in with literature that is known as “slipstream”. This was a term that she – and many of the other people it was retroactively applied to – never heard, and other writers included under this umbrella include Kafka, Borges, J. G. Ballard and Haruki “better than Bob Dylan” Murakami1. For me, Ryu Murakami would be a better fit, especially Coin Locker Babies which, like Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut) and possibly Game of Thrones (television) ends with a planet consumed by ice. Slipstream novels are novels that leave the reader and the characters confused – what is real and what is not real is never explored. Fight Club is another popular example (and one we’ll return to), with other films such as Memento and Being John Malkovich also appropriate. Slipstream presents the unreal alongside the real, but not as if it is normal (like magical realism) or demanding of explanation (like science fiction). We respond to the unreal with surprise, but not focus – what is happening is secondary to how we are feeling and why we are feeling that way. Slipstream defines a mode of approach, guarantees a confusion and a lack of explanation: it is fiction where we must acknowledge that what has/is happened/ing is unignorable, but that we will never understand it and must thus never attempt to do so. OMG, just realised that my secret favourite TV show is slipstream, The Leftovers.
So, does this give a bit of background on the writer and her place within the canon? OK, good, let’s crack on.
Ice is immersive and impressively evocative of landscape and emotion. We start off easy, a man travels to meet an ex and her husband in cold winter, in a barren place. He reminisces on the time he visited before, in a happier summer, and when he does arrive things are awkward – the husband is drinking heavily alone, the woman seems unhappy and trapped. The narrator leaves. We are then somewhere else and we meet people who seem like those we have met before, and we learn of the advancing ice. We follow the narrator as he tries to find the woman again and free her from her abusive relationship, and though he finds her – the husband now morphed into a militaristic warden of a northerly province who keeps the woman locked in a soundproofed room for the purpose of raping her – we are never certain how real what is real is, because characters change status and import and – seemingly – ages with regularity. We move from North to the South, then North again then South again, but the second time the South is like the North the first time. There are gripping chase scenes through wintery cities being destroyed by ice, we see walls of frozen tidal waves advancing and we catch whispers of propaganda machines and terrifying plans and manoeuvres and death everywhere, death travelling with the ice, before it, above it, and within it.
This was Kavan’s final novel, and her most successful. Some readings of it evoke the ice as metaphor for addiction, for a mind addled by a lifetime of smack, the memory lapses and hallucinations of a physically damaged brain. Others see the ice and the two butch men fighting over a single young woman as a metaphor for the destructive nature of masculinity and the patriarchy more generally. It is almost implied that the two men may be one person, like Tyler Durden, though possibly not, and maybe the narrator only wants to feel this way because it then excuses his behaviour that has been most like his enemy. The two men are similar yet different, the narrator is moving away from a militaristic career whilst the warden is moving towards one, then have similar gestures, are both dangerous, violent, outsiders, in love with “the girl”…
There’s a lot of sexual violence, which is unpleasant to read, but it’s meant to be. This is a creepy and terrifying version of a world collapsing, falling inwards and spiralling out of reality, out of comfort, out of heat. Landscapes and cityscapes are expertly sketched, and a reader becomes lost in the folds of Kavan’s deliberately ambiguous descriptions. Ice hides everything, covers everything – this is a murky, unpleasant, desperate world where base desires and angry violence destroy anything resembling humanity, where all is thrown aside in pursuit of survival and aggressive urges to save people who men claim as their own.
Great stuff. Incredibly evocative, incredibly good. Read it.
1. Before Bob Dylan was shamefully awarded the Nobel Prize for LITERATURE, I wrote a series of scathing Facebook statuses hoping that Haruki Murakami – whose work I like but don’t think is exceptional, because it isn’t – wouldn’t win the Prize. Imagine my disgust when the real winner was announced. Murakami’s a better writer than fucking Bob Dylan. ↩