SImon & Schuster: 480pp: £14.99 rrp.
Robert Southey and Samuel Coleridge in the late 18th century, devised a utopian scheme called the Pantisocracy. A long with other Romantic poets and philosophers, they envisioned an egalitarian community and set about to make it happen.Practically, it never formalised, but one begins to enquire whether this is more of a psychological possibility. Art is about movements, communities, labels whether these be self-imposed or imposed by the critics. Benjamin Wood’s second novel, multifarious in themes and levels, is at least concerned with art, or the conditions that produce art, and who and what influences us.
After the successful debut, The Bellwether Revivals (2012), with critics baring it with the hallmark of Evelyn Waugh, this one immediately strikes a resonance with Kazuo Ishiguro. Like Wood’s debut, there are psychologists, prodigy’s, and parallels, but from the first sentence, it has an Ishiguro-esque tone to it, close to something from Never Let Me Go (2005). There’s the feeling that it is set in our world, yet a parallel one, similar but different, with a narrator who seems confidently in control of it, but unconscious of something lurking beneath the uniform looking reality. Wood is concerned about influence, because as the Pantisocrats sought influence from Plato, Wood is perhaps playing with another Platonic term – mimesis: where do the lines of imitation and representation cross?
The layered novel opens in Portmantle, a refuge for uninspired, but talented artists, off of the coast of Istanbul. Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy is in residence there, a painter who found fame in the Sixties. It jumps between then and now in four alternate sections. As it opens, Elspeth, and some of the other artists, with their pseudonymous names, are awaiting the arrival of another beleaguered talent – Fullerton. At Portmantle, the artists in their respected disciplines set about in the effort of creating their masterpiece, at the aid of ‘sponsors’, who are loosely alluded to as other artists who have been there in the past. Initially, Portmantle is depicted as a Utopic refuge for artists to reacquaint themselves with their mojo, but the arrival of the errant Fullerton begins to contaminate and catalyse Elspeth’s stability, the stability of her internal world and the world outside her. It comes to question, like in the Pantisocracy, whether these realms are best constructed mentally, a place for us to escape and create.
In the seclusion of the grounds, artists could work outside the straitjacket of the world and its pressures…finally work, without intrusion or the steering influence of another living soul. ‘Creative freedom’, ‘originality’, ‘true expression’ – these terms were spoken like commandments at Portmantle, even if they were scarcely realised, or just phantom ideals to begin with.
Wood in the Ishiguro sense again, Is not so much restrained, but selective. He constructs his worlds with precision in the choice of each word, as shown in the above passage, setting some interesting binaries relating to Portmantle and its possibility; can a place, or is it possible for a place to exist in the modern day or the artist to solely work? Like the Pantisocratics, can we create them, or are they impractical as physical, gaited communities? We maybe need to take them with us wherever we go.
It is something that must concern every artist – where can they find that vestige and that escape. Again, the Romantics were trying to wrest back that sublime natural world from the mechanisations of the industrial revolution. Here is Wordsworth in the ‘The Excursion’, who could perhaps inform Knell and the other Portmantle artists in The Ecliptic: “my voice proclaims/ How exquisitely the individual mind…to the external World/is fitted:-and how exquisitely, too,/Theme this but little heard of among men/ The external world is fitted to the mind.” Wood is continually questioning not just where is the place for art in this modern-day society, but what is the place for art, and it’s a vital question. If the Industrial Revolution was the antagonist for the Romantics, is the rampant commercialist 21st century world our artists prime conflict? Often we see artists working in it or for it now, as Barthes said “the bastard form of mass culture is humilated repititon”, and that mimesis just becomes imitation and inauthenticity.
Knell begins to work with a mysterious pigment she finds in the woods, whilst she tries to learn about the presence of Fullerton, and with the novel split into four sections the first part rattles to its disturbing denouement. After this, the novel travels back to the early days of Knell’s career under the tutelage of Jim Culvert. This world is a familiar one full of sniping critics, wealthy investors, and hard, dogged work. Because its such a cerebral setting, so involved in Knell’s cogitations, not just a tough world for Knell but for the reader as well. Unfortunately, until it transpires at the end, these 190 pages of events that seemed to happen twenty/thirty years before do feel wedged in, being way too long to be a flashback. Belatedly it makes sense at the end but has the potential to frustrate some readers. Unlike with Never Let Me Go, the slimness of that novel was almost paradoxical, as if hiding away the Iceberg of unconsciousness. It would be trite to say this is primarily about psychology and art, even though a psychologist becomes a key aspect of Knell’s life, but it is about the conscious and unconsciousness of producing art.
With enough thought and industry, you can paint a room that has no visible joins…Only by painting it this way – grinding it to power and rebuilding it, particle by particle – can you fully understand what a room means to you. But sometimes, all this does is reconstitute a whole that would be better left in fragments, like fixing up a shredded letter just to read your old bad news. If you construct a room in paint, you haunt it. Your life rests in every stroke. So paint only the rooms that you can bear to occupy for-ever. Or paint the stars instead.”
This is one of the passages that takes another meaning on the second reading. It’s not asking questions so much, but toying, a novel that it is not conscious of itself, but conscious of its unconsciousness that quotes like the above are loaded in a more telling manner on the re-read. I think Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003; and whether Wood does it intentionally or not, I surprised myself when I was reminded that this was a female narrator) touched on these themes brilliantly, long before the likes of Knausgaard had to devolve their explicit biographies, where the difference between banal and meaningful are mixed in a potent cocktail of obvious autobiography and dismissive fiction. The Ecliptic thankfully veers away from this current mania.
No doubt, The Ecliptic will be mined for autobiographical details. Wood, a creative writing lecturer, writing a novel about whether we can learn the craft, or we can learn and breed the talent will no doubt invite this, and there are some very meta-sounding lines that lose poignancy on re-read. “Pure abstraction, I think. No obvious representations of reality, just gesture,” Elspeth remarks at one point, or in the commentary she gives on her work to Victor, “I was aiming to show lines that were not really there, and felt limited by the tools at my disposal….I want something to make my lines look more imaginary.”
In an interview with the French director Francois Ozon in Sight and Sound he referred to the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel in how he depicted reality like dreams and dreams like reality. This is perhaps what is happening in here, when Wood arrives at the truth of the novel. Some may feel short-changed, may find it slightly gimmicky after being so enveloped in this extremely interesting, daring novel for so long. Some may also read it as a more provocative gesture by Wood, aimed at critics, genre, and biography hunters, but look beyond this as Wood surely did. It’s odd that a novel full of ideas is so hooked on a twist. But all good novels deserve a re-read, it’s a mark of their quality, and The Ecliptic certainly warrants that. This is an important novel, from an important young writer, asking important questions. Like the Pantisocrats probably failed to realise, we can still escape into other worlds without leaving our seats, and often we need to.