David Hebblethwaite reviews Marc Nash’s Three Dreams in the Key of G
Three Dreams in the Key of G feels like an intervention. That’s how it has been published: the editorial aim of Dead Ink Books is “to bring the most challenging and experimental writing out from the underground”. That’s how it appeared on the shortlist for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize this year: chosen as a wildcard entry by the previous year’s judges, who commended its complexity and difference. Even judging it from only its prose style, there’s the sense that Marc Nash’s book means to shake up conventional notions of what a novel can be. Here, for example, is the character Jean Ome building sandcastles with her daughter:
I am left to fill buckets with loose sand, then to compact them with a spade, before emptying them into miraculously firm constructions by inversion. The further proceeding delight of discovering beach flotsam for adornment (been there). The excitement of sieving for them and watching the percolating wisps of sand slink away to unveil the interred treasures, those gnarled frangibles from which all life once emerged (done that). Then there’s the alchemy of excavating trenches and filling them with water which evaporates quicksilvered from sight (bought the T-shirt).
There are several aspects of Nash’s style on display here: elaborate ways of describing mundane things; words that might be unfamiliar on first sight (“frangibles”); patterning and wordplay (“been there… done that… bought the T-shirt”). The voices that narrate in this way are more articulate than a typical narrator — one might even say extravagantly articulate — in that they express themselves with an unusually wide range of words and structures, and can therefore be more precise and nuanced. But they may also be less clear, because it can take time to decode what they’re actually saying. The net effect of this is to make the reader slow down, concentrate, and listen — which is appropriate, because the owners of the voices speaking in Three Dreams are from groups who tend to be marginalised.
Nash switches between three narrators. The aforementioned Jean Ome is a mother of two living in Omagh, Ulster; most of her contributions are from the disordered pages of the journal she keeps between the 1980s and the early 2000s, through the peace process negotiations and beyond. Jean Ohm is an elderly British woman, now running a women’s refuge in Florida; the place is currently surrounded by the authorities, and we are given the messages that Ohm relays to the world via the internet. The final voice is the human genome itself, which comments on humanity’s attempts to discover the secrets of DNA. Although Nash’s narrators are not explicitly constructed as three aspects of the same being, their voices and names sound similar, and this acoustic unity emphasises the parallel concerns that run through and bleed over the narrative strands.
Jean Ome acts as the reader’s anchor (“home”, if you will). She is the first and last narrator we hear from, and the domestic nature of her circumstances helps to ground the novel’s more abstract concerns. Much of Ome’s narrative is given over to the minutiae of parenting (such as describing the beach holiday incidents above), but she also considers the political and philosophical implications of being a mother. She is clear that she has subjugated herself to the immediate needs of her daughters: “although I may be locomoting dynamically, firing and bursting on all fronts, I have no perception of myself other than as numbed stasis. My conscious self has been kid-napped for the duration.”
The specifics of time and place exacerbate this problem: Ome feels that the “small-town prejudice” which worked to keep her in Omagh for decades was exacerbated by the political realities of the day: “My escape velocity was always spiked by the barbed wire of sectarianism, counteracted by citizen barricades and retarded by army checkpoints.” Furthermore, as there is a social expectation that children will carry on the sectarian conflict, Ome is determined that her daughters will play no part in it. She’s clear that conflict is a social dead-end:
Now, everyone around here determinedly acts under God’s sanction, but in doing so creates an uncertain, hapless, hazardous world. Certainly all abjure the consequences of their actions, except to proffer the prognosis of extinction as the ultimate consequence, were they not to behave in this way. Since this is the operation of natural selection here in Ulster.
Natural selection is one of Three Dreams’ key motifs; two more are language and writing. Language was going to be what would help the young Ome escape her circumstances: she had planned to study linguistics in Belfast, until her father decided it would be too dangerous. Reading a novel is one of the things she tries to make time for as a mother, but it doesn’t often work out because she is unable to concentrate on the words: “Thus does literature go the same way as needlepoint, am-dram and cycling. Replaced in my hormonal biochemistry by caffeine, nicotine and TV daydream.” The one thing that does help Ome is writing in her journal, which is presented to us out of chronological order. She specifically sees the journal as a space for herself following the birth of her second daughter, Amy: “Since my enclosure has yielded its purpose before another who is now out in the world, I seek to return it to me via my journal.” Through the written word — not to mention her excessively articulate voice — Ome’s life and concerns are given a weight that she feels they lack otherwise.
Jean Ome can trace many of her problems back to men: priests armed with the Word of God, or her absent husband. Jean Ohm, however takes Ome’s situation up a level: she has the freedom to act where Ome cannot. Ohm (a figure of resistance in more than just name) was abused by her husband in the UK, but because there are no official records of her in the US she can now do as she pleases. And what Ohm wants to do at the women’s refuge is entirely take men out of the picture of human reproduction. She’s trying to use the randomness of genetics to create a new order:
I’m after a spot of in-house cleaning. Some genetic re-engineering. We women have more than held up our end of the species, without any internal input from a Y chromosome, so it’s obviously vestigial. A relict. Should be a simple enough task, since we only need attend to one single pesky unit of sex. X-cise it. Replace it with an androgene. No more ‘Y’s and wherefores.
Ohm holds that even finding the ‘right’ man wouldn’t make a woman feel complete. Where Jean Ome took to her journal to retrieve her sense of self, Jean Ohm is adamant that a woman’s selfhood, her “substance”, remains within; there is potential for a man to harm it, but it retains its integrity nevertheless.
When the authorities surround the refuge as a potential terrorist threat, Ohm relies on the internet to reach the outside world. Writing is therefore as important to her as it is to Ome, although in this instance it involves publicly accessible, digital communication. Ohm is not able to catch an act of domestic violence as it happens, so instead she has to hope to persuade abused women to leave their destructive relationships after the fact: “Would that I could project my e-banner through their screen, to scoop and furl them up in it and whisk them magically away to my oasis of safety.”
As a consequence, whereas the act of writing makes Jean Ome’s existence more solid, it does the opposite to Jean Ohm’s: what she writes is ephemeral, and in a sense her writing is all that she is. But this is also what gives her power: Ohm comments that she has “made a deposit to the bank of human thought”, and this gift has spread across the internet such that she — not the human woman, but her thoughts — “can be passed down and inherited”, taking form as a meme analogous to DNA. “You can’t kill me,” she says. “For I am a notion. An idea.” In her own way, Ohm has become permanent through dissipating herself.
If Jean Ohm is a human who has effectively turned herself into an idea, the genome in Three Dreams is (more or less) the opposite: an abstract concept given a voice. As a narrator, the genome largely comments on what it perceives as humanity’s hubris. This will often place its perspective in opposition to the voices of the two human characters. For example, Ohm sees the potential of genetic engineering as liberating, but to the genome such research is akin to torture:
I am the mystery of life and you would pound and pummel me? I didn’t know what to expect exactly, but I thought you’d treat me with a little more reverence. After all, aren’t you accustomed to raising any guiding principle above yourselves and on into divinity?
Where language and writing have been so important to Ome and Ohm, the genome lays bare their limitations. Words have enabled humanity to pass knowledge between generations more easily, and writing has only accelerated the process, but this situation has led to overconfidence, warns the genome, as human beings “regard me as a finite number to be counted and crunched.” What people overlook, from this perspective, is that our species emerged from the genome, and so (the genome says) any attempt to understand genomics through human frameworks will inevitably be inadequate: “While the resolution of your lenses and language grows progressively finer, still my precise, arrayed lore forever remains beyond reach. Though your analogies are elegantly cast, they are misshapen.”
Tied to this view is the notion that the expression of human thought in words will always be linear, while the expression of DNA takes form as a network of relationships. Furthermore, humans are inextricably part of that network, so that a person seeking to investigate the genome might as well be a two-dimensional entity trying to grasp a three-dimensional phenomenon; they have no hope of objective understanding, because they can’t step outside of the system that encloses them. The genome-narrator offers a solution, but wonders if the price may be too high for humans to pay:
Now, were you to suspend your aware self and somehow diffuse your consciousness, so as to attune simultaneously with every one of your cells, then you might be getting near. But could your entrenched sense of identity handle such a retreat? To acknowledge that you are just a discrete articulation in time?
This helps explain why Three Dreams takes the form that it does: the lack of a conventional, linear plot reflects the unguided nature of genetic reproduction; the three narrative strands create their own network of relationships; complex language tries to capture complex realities. This cannot be done perfectly, of course — everything is still rendered in human language, there’s still a human mind behind it all — but then, DNA is not reproduced perfectly, either.
Fittingly, the full effect of Three Dreams emerges from the interactions of the different prose passages in the reader’s mind. Nash invites us to contemplate life lived at the human scale against fundamental questions of biology and existence, and vice-versa. No matter how deep the novel goes, it always returns to the human narrators, to the level at which we live from day to day. Up here, despite everything, it proves possible to perceive light in the darkness. “There’s always room for some more wondrous, sublime beauty in the world. Here’s hoping,” says Jean Ome as the book closes. Thus a novel of complex language and ideas comes down to a relatively simple proposition — but one which is no less articulate for that.