Saturday, August 11, 2018
The Many Paperback – June 15, 2016 by Wyl Menmuir ( Salt Publishing)
Before I say anything else about this eerie novella that has just appeared on the 2016 Man Booker longlist, let me confess: I have no idea what the title means, even after finishing the book. But I have not much idea what the rest of it means either. It started simply enough, when a young man, Timothy, comes to take an abandoned cottage in a run-down fishing village, hoping to fix it up before being joined by his girlfriend. There are strong hints of Gothic, in the inhospitable nature of the place, and the Straw Dogs way the locals form up against the incomer. Or of environmental dystopia, as it becomes clear that the waters are poisoned, the rare catches are confined to strange mutated fish and jellies, and a cordon of empty container ships marks off a no-go zone offshore.
But as the story progresses—slowly at first, very slowly—other elements come in. Timothy's cottage is known locally as Perran's, even though this Perran has been dead ten years. Try as he might, Timothy can find little about him. Was he old or young, a village leader or a preternaturally wise child? What was his special relationship with Ethan, a local fisherman who acts almost as though he has lost a son or lover, and blames himself for Perran's death. Is there hatred, envy, or grudging kinship in Ethan's relationship with Timothy, on those occasions when he takes him out his boat? Who is the woman in gray, who appears with her henchmen whenever a catch is brought in?
I tend not to like the use of dreams in novels, and there are a lot of them here. There are also long flashback sections in italics. At least they seem like flashbacks, but as you read on you discover that the relationship of the various time-periods is not always what you assumed—and further that the distinction between dream and straight narrative is not so clear either. Eventually, Menmuir will bring in some episodes that seem to have a different kind of reality, leading perhaps to other theories of what the book was about. I don't imagine that any two readers will entirely agree, but at the end I personally found it very moving indeed.
But I still cannot explain the title.