Thursday, 21 February 2013

Anna Kavan - Ice (1967)

"Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing. Now, for instance. I had visited the girl and her husband before, and kept a vivid recollection of the peaceful, prosperous-looking countryside round their home. But this memory was rapidly fading, losing its reality, becoming increasingly unconvincing and indistinct, as I passed no one on the road, never came to a village, saw no lights anywhere. The sky was black, blacker untended hedges towering against it; and when the headlights occasionally showed roadside buildings, these too were always black, apparently uninhabited and more or less in ruins. It was just as if the entire district had been laid waste during my absence."

Above: clearly I should photograph my books before I wreck them by reading them.

Seeing as my normal tactic for reviewing books is to compare them to other books I've read, I've possibly bitten off more than I can chew here. 'Ice' by Anna Kavan isn't much like anything else really. Anna Kavan is the pseudonym of one Helen Ferguson, who emerged from a nervous breakdown and a stint in an asylum naming herself after a character in one of her previous books and writing novels that were starkly different to pretty much everything else going. 'Ice', with its images of a ruined world and vivid sense of encroaching doom, shares some of its imagery and concerns with Post-apocalyptic SF, but with its shifting, dreamlike atmosphere and lack of any kind of explanation or rationalisation, it doesn't comfortably fit in that box. Although he doesn't mention it in the original article, 'Ice' very much fits Bruce Sterling's definition of 'slipstream' as 'an attitude of peculiar aggression against "reality"'. 

'Ice' follows three characters, who are never named. While the world begins to freeze over, the (male) narrator pursues a delicate albino girl, who is also being pursued by her husband. These three characters keep crossing paths and interacting in various ways, sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic. That's pretty much it for the plot. Pretty much off the bat, the narrator admits in the quote above that he's got something of a problem with reality. Like Severian in Gene Wolfe's 'Book Of The New Sun', this tips off the reader that everything we perceive here is coloured by the character relating the narrative. From the beginning the sense of encroaching doom is heavy and palpable, yet imbued with a touch of unreality. The disaster overwhelming the world, and the world itself, is presented in a detached, almost dream-like manner. This is heightened by the fact that, as the story continues, events just seem to happen without reason or context, without following the normal rules of cause and effect. Dreams, flashbacks and fantasies all intermesh without warning. The overall effect recalls Christopher Priest's masterpieces 'The Affirmation' and 'The Glamour', in that the impossibility of untangling what actually happens from the protagonist's own delusions leads to myriad possible interpretations. The protagonist's central flaw is so central to the story and their perception of events, which is why it warps the fabric of everything around it. (Appropriately enough, Priest writes the introduction to the current Peter Owen reprint of 'Ice').

Here, our protagonist's obsession with the girl overrides everything else, to the extent that it's only at the end that he realises how much of a monster he's been to her. The book serves as a fascinating and thoroughly disturbing deconstruction of the heroic male desire to save the girl; here it's presented as a co-dependent abusive relationship. The narrator frequently fantasises about the girl's helplessness and has frequent visions of her death. Whenever she shows the slightest bit of self determination he loses interest. He fetishises her victimisation. Yet he feels his life is utterly meaningless without her, and both of them are unable to escape each other. The husband is another dominating male character, strong with an undercurrent of hidden violence. The narrator sees the similarities between them, and even gets confused between his identity and that of the other man at various parts of the book, and at other points there seems to be a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between the two of them. 

The book has nightmare-like ambiance, both in the vivid image of advancing towers of ice and in the way the three central characters are unable to escape from their relationship or themselves. The apocalypse here is not the aftermath of climate change, but something almost fantastical and elemental. It is similar the bizarre dream-like apocalypses in J. G. Ballard's 'The Crystal World' or 'The Drowned Word', as much reflections of inner space as doomsday scenario. The imagery the author uses to describe this shimmering wave of destruction is both beautiful and disturbing. There is something distinctly Kafkaesque about all of the characters' inbuilt sense of paranoia and persecution, and in the way this is reflected back by the people they interact with. Each place they visit is affected by the oncoming ice. While the whole book retains the feeling of a numb, dream-like hinterland, the struggle of everyday people, relegated to the background, is curiously realistic and affecting. Whether people choose to blithely ignore it and go about their daily business, party like there's no tomorrow or simply cause violence and destruction to show the world that they are still there, there's no escaping the pervading sense of doom. 

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