‘Now I sit toying with the idea that maybe life is a game after all, a game we play just once. I am coming round to Sarah’s view, perhaps. But if life is a game then it has no practises; no training; no preliminary rounds. It is a game played on the principle of sudden death. And to play it properly, to play it fairly and well, we need all the strength that self-knowledge, courage, will and discipline can impart. At twenty-two I had not yet learned to take life seriously; to know that it is not like other games; that it matters who wins and who loses; and that how they win and lose matters also. I had no idea that victory could be Pyrrhic; nor did I know that the end seldom justifies the means. I could not have known any of this without experience, and of that I had none. I was innocent; and innocent of my innocence.’
Here is an example of the dark, self- flagellating foreshadowing that makes Richard Mason’s debut novel ‘The Drowning People’ so creepily compelling. Mason’s narrator uses an over blown gothic style of narrative that is appropriate for a story which contains a family plagued by insanity, dark secrets and a castle on a private island that is the cause of much jealousy.
The seventy year old narrator, who tells the story of his life, continually makes much of the guilt he feels now and the terrible secrets that he is privy to, which his younger self did not have the foresight to anticipate:
‘He knows no remorse; no shame; no despair. I resent him. He, who thinks himself so fine, does not move as I question him. He sits by the river in an endless idle dream, as I beg for signs I might have seen, for warnings I might have heeded. But still he sits, moving only to toss a pebble into the fast-flowing waters. He pays no attention to the ramblings of an old man; he does not hear them. And I am left helpless, watching.’
He dwells on the terrible lessons he has learnt from the past without revealing the full substance of these secrets to the reader. His words in this passage convey a sense of extreme foreboding to the reader, heightening the tension of the novel. And trust me, by this point in the novel the reader is already hanging from the window ledge by their finger nails as they peer in fearfully at an old man, in a high castle who at the beginning of the novel admitted quite calmly to having shot his wife.
Now, imagine reading a whole novel of such prose. Imagine the first moment you snag on the overly melodramatic nature of these weary, foreshadowing monologues full of strong urging to heed the lessons of the narrator’s experience. Imagine the moment when the seductive spell of high emotion wears off and the mechanics of the novel become much more visible. All you can hear is that ticking of the clockwork and it starts to drive you to distraction.
Look ‘The Drowning People’ is a lovely, deep novel of self-analysis. The narrator is earnest. He determinedly examines his memories to expose the deepest truths of life. It is full of passages of good, sensible realisations, like ‘I was wrong. No love is worth that. No human being is worth the total abdication of the self.’ which may seem simple and obvious to readers with experience, but still conveys a meaningful truth. He conveys both the rigour of his approach and the unflinching nature of his analysis, by using confident, clear, definite phrases that convey how little he spares himself, for example:
‘The ease with which my ties of friendship with Eric dissolved under Ella’s influence shames me now. Then I’m almost certain that I didn’t. And as I talk I remember why it didn’t. I remember the tricks I used to bypass all considerations that might have weakened my resolution, the cunning by which my possessed mind protected itself and its intentions from all complicating scruple…’
This character analysis is shaped around a thrilling plot, full of twists and secrets which truly are shocking. And even in its quieter moments, during the clear, detailed establishment of the novel’s world and the aftermath of dreadful events where the narrator tries to set his life back into some sort of recognisable form, it’s very compelling. The narrator also shows a keen awareness of the way that the other people around him work. It is an unbelievable conceit to set this novel, with its high level of awareness of meaning, as an obsessive one night reconstruction of memories locked away for years, but I could happily let that go.
However, it is not a book I’d recommend to readers who like subtlety. Perhaps you have gathered from the quotes above that Mason’s narrator really like to bang a lesson, or a feeling home. And there is little room for reader’s imagination to interact with the text, as every single image highly described. There’s never just a ball, it must be ‘a scarlet ball’, never just a scarf only ‘a gauzy scarf’. Let me show you the effect this has on one short phrase, where every object must be accompanied by a descriptor, for example ‘the shadowy staircase bathed in short bursts of inadequate light’. That’s not a huge deal, in fact the description is technically probably very accomplished, and it’s personal taste that leads me to find it distracting and a little bit intrusive. When you’re under the spell of the novel, reading faster and faster to find out what in the hell happens, none of these little tics matter, but once you notice it you notice it all the damn time.
I read this book in two days, started noticing this kind of things about a hundred pages from the end and still managed to hugely enjoy ‘The Drowning People’. It’s a fun book to read, despite a male narrator who as you can probably tell is rather self-obsessed and seems to be rather saved by his author, rising higher and higher professionally while he weeps of suffering, in comparison to his girlfriend whose suffering leads to her break down and incarceration. An interesting novel to read then, but perhaps not written in a style that stands close analysis.