Stuart Sim reviews the latest from an up-and-coming Canadian novelist
'Mister' Myrden, the hero of Kenneth J Harveys novel (we are never given his full name), is released from prison after 14 years when his conviction for the murder of his lover is quashed.He returns to society a broken man, prone to sudden rages and unpredictable conduct, unable to adjust to everyday life or to connect with his fellow human beings. Given the family and neighbourhood he goes back to, this is little wonder. Set in an unnamed town in Canada, Inside describes life at the bottom end of the social scale: a run-down, litter-strewn neighbourhood; thuggish, violent in-laws and friends; an uncaring wife; daughter and granddaughter in an abusive relationship; sons imprisoned or dead. From the day he leaves prison Myrden's life is on a downward spiral with a sense of impending doom hanging heavily over him. His daily existence, like that of most of his circle, becomes a round of drinking binges and angry confrontations, almost devoid of emotional affection or finer feelings. Even the award of substantial compensation from the government cannot arrest the seeming inevitability of a bad end. You couldn't pick between nature and nurture as the source of Myrden's problems; both seem to conspire against this unfortunate individual. A digested read of the narrative would be: whatever can go wrong, will and sooner rather than later.
Inside is a gritty, downbeat novel, with an intensely claustrophobic feeling. Everything is seen through the damaged consciousness of Myrden as he drifts aimlessly through a depressing landscape. There's curiously little sense of place or cultural context for most of the narrative, with a minimum of description, other than brief observations of the mean streets and bars of the hero's hometown. We're in an anonymous town in an anonymous country; it could be almost anywhere, rather like the state of limbo in so much of Samuel Beckett's work. It's only at a late stage in the narrative when the hero and his somewhat incongruous companion the upper middle class university lecturer Ruth fly to Toronto and then on to Spain, that a sense of real location is established.
Myrden's desire to escape his past comes to the fore in Spain, where he manages to lose himself to a certain extent in a culture unlike anything he has known. But it can never be more than a brief idyll. He flies home to the inevitable family disaster, and the full meaning of the title becomes clear. Myrden will always be 'inside', never a part of the wider world; imprisoned within his family group as much as he ever was in jail.
Novelists who come with glowing testimonials from JM Coetzee, John Banville, and Joseph O'Connor arouse certain expectations in the reader, and I'm not convinced that Harvey fulfills them entirely. Inside can be slow going, and the concentration on Myrden means that the other characters are at best shadowy. What motivates Ruth, for example, and just what is the basis of her attraction to Myrden? That remains a mystery although perhaps we could read that as proof of Myrden's inability ever to get to know other human beings on an emotional level. Other than his adored granddaughter, everyone is effectively a cipher to him.
There's also a relentlessly gloomy feeling to the narrative that will not be to everyone's taste. The term 'Scots miserabilism' has been used to describe the recent crop of Scottish writers such as James Kelman or Irvine Welsh; well, here we have Canadian miserabilism in full flower. I doubt if the Canadian Tourist Board will be recommending Harvey's book to prospective visitors.
Myrden's story has the arc of classical Greek tragedy, without the latter's sense of there nevertheless being an underlying order to human existence. If Myrden goes to his ultimate fate with a certain heroism and even dignity, both he and the reader recognise that it can be no more than a self-defeating gesture in a world gone irredeemably wrong.
What we are supposed to make of such a grim picture of life in the lower depths is, however, less clear. Lower-class life as nasty, brutish, and short? Civilisation as the thinnest of veneers on ruthless, self-seeking human nature? The hopelessness of the human condition? Take your pick; but where we go from there I'm not at all sure. Not a book to be read in bleak midwinter when your spirits are at a low ebb.