15 June, 2005Issue 4.3FictionLiterature

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Amongst the Damned

April Warman

David Constantine
Under the Dam
Comma Press, 2005
196 pages
ISBN 0954828011

The back-cover blurb on David Constantine’s new collection of stories draws our attention to his style, and to the thematic unity of the book. And rightly so — these are two of its strongest elements. As one might expect from someone who has been writing and translating poetry for around 40 years, Constantine’s prose is clean, lucid and spare, with rarely a word out of place, and occasional striking effects: a child leaning suicidally from a high roof is, in an effective revival of cliché, ‘threatening to throw himself away’; children at a party run ‘in and out among the tables and the dancers like threads of living anarchy’; and, memorably, canned music in an airport ‘fall[s] from everywhere like vaporized warm piss’.

Thematically, the book displays a remarkable preoccupation with water in its various states, and its evocations of liquidity (or lack thereof) are among its strongest images: ‘rain in sheets, a strange flopping of water’, ‘the immensity of the immured waters’ of a dammed lake. These can be readily aligned with the situations of the stories’ characters: moving, flowing water represents life and energy. 1 us, the ultimate redemption of the depressive protagonist of ‘Estuary’ is prefigured by her sympathy for the force of the tides:

Had the sea overwhelmed the river? No, there was the river still, water in water but distinct, as a current, a substantial ghost, still purposefully advancing through the leisure of its own great lake. Energies, different energies, from different directions, jostling and in combat. Frances went out, to witness them more closely.

Water frozen (the glacier of ‘In Another Country’), missing (the desert of ‘A Paris Story’), or obstructed (the dam of the title story) denotes deadness or decline in the characters with which it is associated; these are — I think unfortunately — by far the more common states in the collection.

Constantine’s view of the world, as it appears in Under the Dam, is almost exclusively pessimistic. Few, if any, of its fourteen stories are without their moment of violent death, suicide, torturous pain, or at least a snippet of casually introduced child-abuse. The black depression of the main character of ‘The Red Balloon’ – ‘Day came and night came and he sipped black coffee, scarcely fed himself, but lay fixed in a feeling heavier than any earthly substance, a compound of dread, revulsion, sadness, black as lead, heavier than Pluto’ — comes almost as relief, because it is, at least, grounded in a context that presents it as an unusual phenomenon: Tobias is socially outcast, a self-loathing paedophile. More often, depression, anxiety, and meaninglessness are presented as the normal human condition. Constantine’s affectless style does nothing to situate this impression, and it seems we are asked to take it as perfectly quotidian that, when a character’s mental state is enquired into, he will be ‘asking himself would it be possible to die of sadness, to be so sad that in the end, seeing no hope of any other condition, the soul would dim to nothing and go out. Or of anxiety. To be so anxious that [etc]’. And so on, for a good-sized paragraph.

‘Mouse and Bear’, a story of marital discord, botched suicide, and the indignities of infirmity, does contain a couple of the collection’s few truly happy characters: the young Patrick and Rosa ‘were at that stage of hungry love […] abundant enough to create another cosmos. It dawns on each that each is a universe, infinitely interesting and exciting.’ And so, of course, the story ends with Patrick’s death in a senseless car-crash: ‘He was hit head on by a vehicle whose driver, an elderly lady, had suff ered a heart attack.’ Such gratuitous misery begins to create the impression of some kind of grudge harboured against readers: any potential pleasure that might be taken in the book is brutally nipped.

In keeping with this, there is an element of mild sadism in the collection. How else to explain the appearance of a boy with self-inflicted cigarette burns on his eyelids not once but twice, in different stories, and without any apparent meaningful connection between the two instances? There appears a disturbing gratuity of feminine sexual reference as well. The description in ‘Afterlife’ of the narrator’s lover emerging from the shower ‘busily drying her breasts and between her legs’ prompted me to wonder whether this woman prefers to leave the rest of her body wet. To be fair, this is a story of sexual jealousy, and the emphasis can be attributed to the narrator’s preoccupations, but what to make of a beggar girl in ‘Sleepless’ with ‘the foot of one [leg] turned up impossibly and exposed like a pudendum’? How like a pudendum, exactly…? It’s comical, but it’s also unpleasant, as if Constantine were trying to impose a view of the world in which women are easily reduced to sexual function — a trope both passé and uninteresting at best; at worst, simply offensive.

The impression of general authorial hostility is furthered by Constantine’s habitual withholding of information. A story will typically begin with a set of unanchored deictics, references outward to circumstances the reader must wait patiently to discover. Not an unusual tactic, but one which grates after the nth repetition: ‘Straight after breakfast they watched the video.’ Who are ‘they’? What video? ‘When he had gone, I thought about it: what he had asked, what I had answered’. Who is ‘he’ or ‘I’? What had he asked? And, why should we care? This seems gimmicky. Often, what narrative tension the stories possess comes from the gradual resolution of these questions, though the answers rarely seem commensurate with the air of mystery with which they had been introduced. Sometimes, the questions are not answered at all. The story ‘Sleepless’, a confused and obliquely disturbing account of wanderings with a mysterious woman in a generic Eastern European city, remains a spurious enigma to its heavy-handed end: ‘The marble is cold and faintly luminous, the torches rise, one after the other, the pale electric candles rise towards her right hand. I see this whenever I like if I close my eyes and the question every time is will she turn, and am I following?’ Since we’ve never really established who ‘she’ is, or what he’s doing with her, such ponderous introspection leaves the reader cold.

‘Visiting’ contains a typical moment of withheld information, of a gamble on the unquantifiable signifi – cance of the not-quite-heard, the just-out-of-sight. A child narrator, spying, catches the aftermath of a crucial confrontation:

Uncle Jess was at the fire, holding his hands out to the flames. But his face was turned to Aunty Evelyn standing in the door. He had finished speaking, but his face continued in a ghastly aftermath, already his own reproachful ghost. Silence. I saw the terrible black silence among humans in the grown-up world.

Heard revelations are momentous, but those unheard are even more so? The reader starts to desire a chance to judge for themselves.

Under the Dam does contain some beautifully clear observations of human behaviours and foibles. 1 e desperate self-assertions of jealousy: ‘I knew I needed to counter her day with mine. Some act, some absorbing interest, to be able to say: this is what I did.’ The tentative self-relatedness of the first abatements of depression: ‘He viewed himself with more indulgence now, with a wry friendliness.’ There are a few stories concerned with artists in the collection, and Constantine is acute on (male?) artistic self-deceptions and self-regard:

Max had an apprehension of his future loneliness. He dwelled on it, his heart beat faster. He came back again, more tempted than ever, to the notion that in misery, guilt, icy loneliness, he might do better work. […] His face was alert and lit with the idea of loneliness and productive suffering.

Given this degree of insight, it seems unaccountable, and unfortunate, that Constantine himself displays so much of the same solipsistic solemnity. Imagined misery, guilt, loneliness and suffering do seem to be his own prerequisites for creativity, and the resulting stories present a world view that is, in some ways, only the more unattractive for the skill with which it is portrayed.

April Warman is a DPhil student in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. Her dissertation focuses on contemporary poetry.