A frenzied voyage through a private hell
Sunday Independent, Dublin, 17 October 1999
By Robert Farren
Tim Parks’s absence from this year’s Booker Prize shortlist has already been questioned by at least one critic. Indeed, there cannot be many recent publications as enthralling or as structurally accomplished as Parks’s new novel, Destiny.
Here we find ourselves trapped inside the head of an Englishman called Christ Burton. He presents himself as a highly respected ex-journalist in his mid-fifties, currently finishing a book which will be a “monument” to his distinguished career. He is locked in eternal psychological warfare with his Italian wife, who is hysterical, spiteful, false, flirtatious. Or so he says. Burton is an unreliable narrator par excellence (the author hates the term ‘unreliable narrator’): paranoid, contradictory, hellishly egocentric. And he is our sole source of information.
The couple have a 25-year-old son, Marco, who suffers from schizophrenia and lives in a community near Turin. All his life, Marco has been implicated by his warring parents in an unbreakable and incestuous love triangle. (Parks has already described such a family structure in an essay-cum-short-story, also entitled Destiny, which appeared in last year’s Adultery and other Diversions. Allegedly it is a characteristic of the families of schizophrenic children.
The novel begins in London, where the Burtons have just learned that Marco has committed suicide. On hearing the news, Burton’s first thought is that there is “no reason at all for you and your wife to go on living together now.” There is a touch of glee in the realisation.
The whole book spans less than three days, ending on the night following Marco’s burial. During most of this time Burton is in planes, railway stations, hospitals, etc., on the hectic journey from London to Rome. This journey, which shapes the novel, is linear in its geographical aspect only; mentally or spiritually, Burton is going around in circles. He declares himself free from his long and appalling marriage as we follow him on a trip through the galleries of his psyche, progressing from hubris to brief self-knowledge, but then back to his old delusions.
Unsurprisingly, the last pages see him back beside his wife. But this time the once poised and self-satisfied intellectual, relishing the workings of his own intelligence, has suffered shocking mental and physical degradations and has revealed to us everything that he hides from himself. He is Virgil guiding an increasingly dizzy reader around the circles of his own inner hell.
Parks’s great achievement in this novel is a stream-of-consciousness style that not only conveys Burton’s thoughts, but above all mirrors stylistically the frenetic disorder of his mind. At every moment Burton is relentlessly zigzagging from one obsession to another, via associations of ideas that he refers to as “connections”. He marvels at these phenomena until something unwelcome is thrown up. Then the offending thought is suppressed with the stern admonitions that “one must distinguish between the illuminating connection and the spurious.” Of course, these unwelcome thoughts are often among the most illuminating for the reader.
In Adultery and Other Diversions Parks evoked the way that the ordinary thoughts and events of our daily lives weave in and out of each other in our minds to create rich tapestries of meaning. This was an important theme in almost every piece in that book. Now it is integral to the very structure of Destiny, but pushed this time to a claustrophobic degree of intensity.
Everything we learn about Chris Burton comes to us via an incessant bombardment of time-shifts, changes of place, of company, of mood.
This is a complex experimental novel reminiscent of various Latin Americans, even of Faulkner (Faulkner – now there’s a compliment, I could kiss him for that!), but it is never obscure or difficult, as those writers often are.