Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pincher Martin by William Golding

He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.


William Golding loves shipwrecks. His most famous book, Lord of the Flies, is a sort of social parable about a group of children stranded on a deserted island. Pincher Martin is what you might call an anti-social parable, about one man stranded on a desert rock in the middle of the Atlantic, fighting for survival and against sickness, madness, and dissolution.

The beginning of the book is, for me at least, almost inscrutable, a chronicle of sheer impressionistic and sensory experience that is frequently difficult to follow:

The pattern was white and black but mostly white. It existed in two layers, one behind the other, one for each eye. He thought nothing, did nothing while the pattern changed a trifle and made little noises. The hardnesses under his cheek began to insist. They passed through pressure to a burning without heat, to a localized pain. They became vicious in their insistence like the nag of an aching tooth. They began to pull him back into himself and organize him again as a single being.

Once "organize[d]... again as a single being," the story becomes more lucid: Christopher Martin, a navy officer and professional actor, has been stranded on a rock because his ship was struck by a German u-boat. In the feverish sensory assault of the wreck and its aftereffects, Christopher nearly loses himself, his personality subsumed by pure feeling. Throughout his ordeal of survival, he fears a return to this state of fragmentation, which he imagines as a kind of madness brought about by isolation. He imposes civilization on his rock, naming its various features, and tries to employ his mental faculties to prop up his own sanity:

He spoke out loud, using the voice hoarsely and with a kind of astonishment.

"Christopher Hadley Martin. Martin. Chris. I am what I always was!"

All at once it seemed to him that he came out of his curious isolation inside the globe of his head and was extended normally through his limbs. He lived again on the surface of his eyes, he was out in the air...

He looked at the quiet sea.

"I don't claim to be a hero. But I've got health and education and intelligence. I'll beat you."

Through flashbacks--which Golding suggests are the symptoms of the coming madness Christopher tries to resist--we learn that in his former life Christopher was something of an asshole. He tries to rape a girl, Mary, "the Mary who carried, poised on her two little feet, a treasure of demoniac and musky attractiveness that was all the more terrible because she was almost unconscious of it." When he learns that Mary has become engaged to his best friend, Nathaniel, he tries to murder him. He is, as an actor, fit to play Greed in the old morality plays:

"This painted bastard here takes anything he can lay his hands on. Not food, Chris, that's far too simple. He takes the best part, the best seat, the most money, the best notice, the best woman. He was born with his mouth and his flies open and both hands out to grab. He's a cosmic case of the bugger who gets his penny and someone else's bun."

Christopher's will to survive, then, is nothing but a greed for life, a manifestation of his own entitled feeling of primacy extended even over death, which threatens to dissolve the self. But in the manner of the Greek tragedian who unwittingly fashions his own demise, it is his self which threatens to devour him. In a really horrifying moment (which might have been more horrifying if I hadn't read about it already, so--spoiler alert) Chris realizes that the rock he's been set on is a perfect copy of one of his own teeth:

His tongue was remembering. It pried into the gap between the teeth and re-created the old, aching shape. It touched the rough edge of the cliff, traced the slope down, trench after aching trench, down towards the smooth surface... just above the fum--understood what was so hauntingly familiar and painful about an isolated and decaying rock in the middle of the sea.

This is the realization that launches him into full madness, or perhaps the realization that he is mad already. His greed for existence cannot stop the "black lightning" that ends the novel by tearing the universe apart, and finally dissolving him in death. Like the beginning of the book, this end part is something of a slog, phantasmagorical and anti-sensory, but unlike the beginning it seems like an earned slog, and it is terrifying even when inscrutable.

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