How Did We Get Here?

MacKenzie Warren reviews Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest

Tony White, The Fountain in the Forest
Tony White, The Fountain in the Forest. Faber & Faber. £14.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Isn’t there something contradictory about the state-of-the-nation novel? If there’s any truth to Ezra Pound’s dictum that “literature is news that stays news”, then the state-of-the-nation novel is a vehicle for radicalism: it flirts with being outdated before it even hits the shelves. Yet there’s rarely anything radical about the content, scope, or style of the state-of-the-nation novel: it props itself up on a rickety old crutch — the aesthetic conventions of social realism — in order to sketch a cross-section of contemporary society and to pinpoint the intersections of the various social strata.

Philip Hensher is probably the best-known proponent of the state-of-the-nation novel in this country. His most recent book, The Friendly Ones (2018), is an apt example of the genre; it traces the faultlines of class and ethnicity, with a national scope, through the intertwined stories of two neighbouring families in Sheffield. Jonathan Coe stands out as Hensher’s half-smirking, half-grimacing twin, more acerbic, less poetic, and Sebastian Faulks and Martin Amis have produced state-of-the-nation novels that fall somewhere between these two poles. None of them have much longevity — least of all Lionel Asbo (2012) — because, well, there’s no animation to the style; the words are dead on the page. That might not be a problem for readers who turn to these novels in the hope of actually learning something about the state of the nation, or at least one novelist’s view of the subject. But what about the rest of us? Is it too much to ask for a state-of-the-nation novel that “stays news” after its topicality has faded, because the radicalism of its contemporaneity is matched by a radicalism of form?

Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest is a state-of-the-nation novel distorted by more than a few formal kinks. What’s fascinating about it is not just how these kinks invigorate the narrative, but also how they supercharge the novel’s political ambitions and also scramble its political message to the point of inscrutability.

First kink: the novel starts off with a leap into the mystery genre, complete with a hardboiled detective antihero and the careless, occasionally cheesy prose of pulp fiction. It opens with Detective Sergeant Rex King on his way to investigate a case at a London theatre: the body of a man has been found backstage, missing most of his face, after having lain there undiscovered for several days. King is something like London’s answer to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus: a hard-bitten cop, quick-witted, self-composed; laconic, if not taciturn; wry, if not cutting. How did the corpse come to be where it was found? Misadventure? Foul play? King will pound the pavements until he comes up with the answers.

Second kink: one-third of the way into the novel, an abrupt shift in time and place seems to put a damper on the first part’s state-of-the-nation ambitions. Suddenly the year is 1985, the setting is rural France, and a new protagonist, a young English man named JJ, is bumming around Europe when he falls in with a group of political activists, outcasts, and ne’er-do-wells. Now there’s more than a dash of romanticism to the tone, especially as JJ becomes involved in a passionate but doomed love affair, and the hackneyed prose of King’s story gives way to something sweeter, more refined, tinged with wonder, innocence, and nostalgia.

Third kink: provocative disconnection. No doubt aware that readers will be tempted to search for connections between King’s story and JJ’s story, White gives The Fountain in the Forest a disjointed structure that only inflames the temptation. He opens a chasm between its two narratives — resisting any and all intimations of a bond based on cause and effect — and, at the same time, he peppers them with throwaway details that tease the possibility of concord, of harmony.

And then there are the kinks of the novel’s Oulipian constraints. That’s “Oulipian” in the literal sense, since the author’s notes at the end of the book admit to an aping of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OuLiPo), and it’s also “constraints” in the plural, because the novel is subject to two different conceptual constraints at the same time. So, then, the fourth kink. A central motif of the novel is the French Revolutionary Calendar developed by Sylvain Maréchal in 1793: a cryptic reference to the calendar appears at the scene of the crime investigated by Rex King, and the calendar itself is a daily touchstone for the people who welcome JJ into their company. As White explains in a preface:

The French Revolutionary (or Republican) Calendar created a new way of measuring time from Year I of the Revolution (which was retrospectively designated as having begun on 22 September 1792): a non-hierarchical and secular system of ten-day weeks (or décades) in thirty-day months, without days of religious or royal significance. Instead, each day of the week was merely designated ‘first day’, ‘second day’, etc. In what became the dominant version of the Revolutionary Calendar, each day of the year also celebrated a different item of everyday rural life (although their precise distribution can vary), whether a herb, a foodstuff, a livestock animal, a tool or a utility: wild thyme, rhubarb, goat and beehive are just a handful of examples.

Additionally, as White makes clear in his author’s notes, each chapter of The Fountain in the Forest “is mapped against one day in 1985, converted into the French Revolutionary Calendar… as well as being shot through with the [relevant] daily symbols”. So, for example, chapters bear titles like ‘Pâquerette (Daisy)’, ‘Pissenlit (Dandelion)’, and ‘Tulipe (Tulip)’, and the events of those chapters are inflected with those things and/or their symbolic associations. And these inflections dovetail with the novel’s fifth kink: a mandated vocabulary drawn from an unlikely source. Six out of every seven chapters of The Fountain in the Forest incorporate a list of predetermined words into their prose — “namely”, according to White, “all of the solutions to the Guardian Quick Crossword from each of [the] same days in 1985”. Every seventh chapter is not beholden to a mandated vocabulary because the Guardian isn’t published on Sundays. The result varies from chapter to chapter — sometimes there’s only one mandated word on a page; sometimes there are several — but here’s what it looks like most of the time, with the mandated words in bold:

The scenes of suffering that confronted [King] on the steps of the [Great Ormond Street Hospital] were redolent of the Passion, or a pietà on some grimly rendered Gothic reredos: every mother in the eternal role of Mary; every father gaunt and red-eyed, standing with head bent like some beseeching apostle.

Obviously this is all very clever, but is it any good? What does it bring to The Fountain in the Forest other than playful gimmickry? And, to return to the notion of the state-of-the-nation novel, in what sense does The Fountain in the Forest not only address the state of the nation but also use its formal oddities to augment its commentary?

That this is indeed a state-of-the-nation novel is evident throughout the first section, even if it crabwalks towards its subject. As Rex King wanders the streets of London, he repeatedly muses on the ways in which the city and the country at large have changed throughout his lifetime. In particular, he reflects on certain opportunities for socio-economic advancement that were open to him as a young man and then curtailed by successive governments, and the effects that this curtailing has had on the state of the nation today. He became a police officer by an unusual route, a short-lived graduate recruitment scheme which, when terminated, diminished the hopes of similar graduates with an eye on a future in law enforcement. He acquired a secure tenancy on a flat in central London through the intervention of his local authority, just before those sorts of tenancies dried up and decades of gentrification began. Nowadays, he patrols his neighbourhood in Holborn fully aware that the security he has enjoyed is out of reach for younger generations of Londoners, even though their situations are not dramatically different to his situation back then, and he quietly laments the loss of community that this state of affairs has inflicted on his daily experience of the streets. He also encounters various characters from immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds, characters who not only embody the changes that have swept through the country since his youth but who also feel, palpably, the effects of those changes on housing, employment, the health service, and similar areas of public life. All of these details make The Fountain in the Forest a state-of-the-nation novel in which the nation is scarred by artefacts from its past, like a moving image whose picture is broken up by frozen chunks of earlier frames. Rex King keeps one eye on the past as he observes the quotidian experiences of people whose lives have been rocked by nationwide changes in politics, economics, demographics, and culture over the last forty years or so. The essence of the state-of-the-nation novel is here — the cross-section of contemporary society — but channelled through the perspective of one man, a detective with unique access to the various social strata, and clothed in the conventions of the mystery genre.

Now look again at those Oulipian constraints. Although they may be interesting in their own right, they are much more interesting for the conversation they hold with the narrative to which they’ve been applied. The narrative is one in which the conditions of the present day have been almost predetermined by decisions made long ago in the past, decisions that have retained their potency despite the fading of their historical context, and constraints of The Fountain in the Forest ensure that the novel’s style and structure are held hostage to artefacts from the past in the same way. How does the French Revolutionary Calendar speak to the investigative activities of Rex King? It doesn’t, not really, and yet it gives King’s narrative a prefabricated architecture. How do the answers to Guardian crosswords from the 1980s speak to the romantic hopes and foibles of JJ? They don’t, not at all, and yet they literally list the terms in which his story is to be told. At every level of The Fountain in the Forest, from individual sentences to sequences of events, chapters, sections, and entire narratives, the present state of affairs is conditioned by the fact that it remains in thrall to the past.

Sometimes, the result is simply absurd. Sometimes, White has to reach too far to meet the demands of his constraints and he ends up jolting his own style out of its groove. In one instance, a character in the midst of getting high on pot embarks on an improbably coherent discourse on the Hesperides because “Hesperides” is part of White’s mandated vocabulary. A little later, White resorts to a different device, a radio broadcast, to lazily tick off a succession of mandated words that would be difficult to incorporate into the prose in other ways: the presenter credits “a certain young French pianist named David Bismuth” and promises to play “a more recent release, some ‘remixed’ Berlioz from 2012’s Opera Riparata by the prolific Italian avant-garde turntablist Okapi and the Aldo Kapi Orchestra—”

No surprise that Rex King turns off the radio right there.

More often, though, the mandated vocabulary is used to shocking effect, especially when White artfully reveals that it has predetermined things which previously did not seem to have been predetermined. In the novel’s early chapters, there’s a subplot that sees Rex King implicated in an internal affairs investigation, but only in Chapter 9 is it made plain that a key character has been given his unusual name because the name belongs to the mandated vocabulary: the mandate shows itself only after the vocabulary has been in use for some time. The same is true for the names of other characters and places, including a woman who becomes close to Rex King in the third section of the novel. Since this woman is characterised by her refreshing spontaneity and her presence as a free agent in King’s life of routine, there is real force to the delayed revelation that part of her identity has been predetermined by a single word plucked from the back pages of a newspaper published in 1985. Printed in bold, a word as innocuous as her name acquires the feeling of a sudden, inexplicable violation — and it pulls off the trifecta of honouring one of the novel’s Oulipian constraints, adding something unexpected to the characterisation, and burnishing the broader thematic treatment of present conditions determined by the past.

How strange, then, that The Fountain in the Forest is ultimately a novel about the varieties and efficacy of political protest. The spectre of the French Revolution is there from the very beginning, of course, but both narratives are shot through with other protests, other forms of resistance. Rex King’s narrative revolves around the countercultural protests that saw activist groups in Britain infiltrated by undercover police officers. JJ arrives in France in the wake of the Miner’s Strike; the end of the strike, a victory for the Thatcher government, raises the ire of the young French activists he encounters, and the village in which they establish a communal lifestyle has a proud history as an enclave for French resistance to the Nazis. Most significantly, the core of the novel’s third section vividly depicts the Battle of the Beanfield — the 1985 clash between police and so-called New Age travellers, at a ratio of two-to-one, several miles from Stonehenge — and its consequences on several characters’ impulses to participate in further political protests.

By the end of the novel, every major character has engaged, consciously and deliberately, in acts of resistance against established authorities, and particularly against those authorities whose power flows from tradition — the past — rather than a case for contemporary legitimacy. This includes even those characters who are the authorities, as they resist the rules and procedures that circumscribe their actions, and so the novel becomes populated by men and women who speak back to the past that puts binding conditions on their lived experience of the present. But who does the novel itself speak to? Does it speak in favour of authority, advocating compliance, by being comprised of words that submit to rigid constraints? Does it give voice to an anti-authoritarian spirit, conducting a chorus of characters whose rebelliousness penetrates the constraints imposed upon it? Its style and structure keep its characters in bondage, aesthetically, even as their narratives enable them to break free. That’s why it’s so strange for The Fountain in the Forest to be a novel about political protest. Moreover, that’s why the novel’s political message — its commentary on protest, on the conditions that incite protest, on a nation whose current state is riddled with those very conditions — is, as above, scrambled and finally inscrutable.

Is it any good? It’s certainly something fresh. The first hundred pages will try the patience of anyone who doesn’t find the mystery compelling or doesn’t have an interest in police procedurals. Its last hundred pages will irritate those who aren’t comfortable with its hazy morality or can’t abide White’s strenuous efforts to connect a few too many dots, too neatly to be credible. But there’s no denying that The Fountain in the Forest thumbs its nose at the complacency of the state-of-the-nation novel and tries to achieve similar aims via a thrilling meld of literary techniques that are alien to the genre. Its radical break with social realism is indeed a match for its radical bid to be both a novel about the present and “news that stays news”. It’s a state-of-the-nation novel that doesn’t just address the state of the nation, and even goes further than questioning how the nation got itself into its current state. It also prompts its readers, periodically, to consider what other states the nation might have gotten into if only its people had entertained the possibility of treading a different path, had given more credence to visions of an alternative political culture not spearheaded by authoritative powers. It is a novel that both depicts and enacts a submission to arbitrary rules — a corollary to the national story since at least the breaking of the Miner’s Strike — and, to its credit, it does not downplay the moral corrosion that must be borne by those who are genuinely committed to the struggle against the status quo.

This is the first part of a two-part essay on the British state-of-the-nation novel in its less conventional forms. The second part discusses Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion.

About MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.