3 March, 2014Issue 24.4FictionLiterature

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The Resonance of the Excavated Self

Edward Still

Cynan Jones
The Dig
Granta Books, 2014
156 pages
ISBN 978-1847088789

Cynan Jones’ short novel The Dig, though only 156 pages long, is a work of breathtaking scale and ambition. Centering on a small, concrete-skied, Welsh farming community, Jones’ economic prose generates a mythic framework for its protagonists that echoes the muscular resonance of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Even the bold simplicity of the title recalls their timeless works (The Old Man and the Sea, The Road). Jones’ narrative unfolds within a context of eternal essences and truths, within a field of bitter, tragic reality where its two central inhabitants—Daniel, a man struggling with grief and the toils of lambing in the wake of his wife’s death, and a badger-baiting gypsy referred to simply as “the big man”—stand in polar opposition while also appearing interdependent. The tragico-mythical nature of the novel’s events and characters are, however, peculiarly complimented by an attentive maintenance of focus on contemporary reality, and it is the palimpsestic relationship between the modern/real and the eternal/mythical that lends Jones’ work a rare poignancy and profundity.

To focus first on the book’s events, on its narrative markers and their contingent motifs and themes, one notes a tendency towards internal echoing that generates a sense of tragic inevitability, which is compounded by the very nature of these events. A central example of this is the death of Daniel’s wife, which is delicately revealed early in the text and then explained in greater pathetic detail later. We are told that she was kicked in the head by a horse while carrying out a simple farming task and lived for five minutes before passing away without suffering. Later in the text we discover that Daniel is caring for a premature black lamb, which he does not expect to survive, but cannot bring himself to kill. In considering the lamb’s fate, Daniel recalls an adage of his father: “Sometimes you have to choose between a quick misery or a slow misery”. Instantly we are compelled to forge a connection between the fate of the lamb and that of Daniel’s wife, and, as the text continues, we note further connections, notably with the tortured badgers whose demise the text savagely portrays and with Daniel himself. A sense of an inescapable structure is thus generated which is key to the narrative’s tense flow and to the production of resonance.

What gives this repetition real mordancy, however, is an attention to contemporary detail that forces us to adjust our appreciation of these events, to consider them as real, modern happenings. The badgers’ suffering, for instance, is carefully documented, with painful precision (the removal of teeth, the selection of dog breeds), just as the modern context of badger-baiting (the departments dealing with such crimes, the circumventing of controls) is expertly drawn. Daniel’s suffering is treated similarly. Although tied to an inevitability outlined by his father, it also stems from “the paperwork and cataloguing and form-filling [his] parents had never had to face […] which confused and sometimes swamped [him]”. The specific travails of the modern farmer are included with a meticulousness that, while drawing us into a negotiation between the mythic and the real, inform and enlighten us.

Our two chief protagonists, Daniel and “the big man”, are the principal locations in which the mythical and the tangible are blended. They appear as archetypes, as oppositional forces of good and evil, whose personae are reinforced by the text’s juxtaposition of their converging tales, presenting them as adjacent yet separate. Their actions betray their essence, their motive forces, as they appear to be instruments of ancient, eternal constants. Daniel could be conceived of as a conduit for compassion while “the big man”, in his contempt for weakness, would channel cruelty—the two strangely recalling the dichotomy between grace and nature established in Terence Mallick’s film The Tree of Life. This is not to say that the two are not agents in their own right, but rather that they seem peculiarly excavated of certain aspects of the modern literary ‘self’. Though we are party to their interior monologues, especially Daniel’s, they contain a singular lack of self-regard, of ego. We are given an appreciation of their emotional states and of their concerns with regard to tasks to be carried out and problems to be resolved but very little more. A typical glimpse at the psyche comes as Daniel struggles with the resilience of his wife’s presence after death:

There is so much of her about. He was on the verge of anger but then he had this sad, hopeless glow of warmth for her. I can hold on to her, he thought.

Consequently, both polar protagonists come to occupy an unusual state as partially voided agents, as noble instruments of fate, tragically enacting processes set in motion long ago. And yet, just as the contemporary real muscles in on the mythical qualities of the narrative events, so too are Jones’ protagonists sculpted and rendered tangible such that we never lose our grasp on the worldly fabric of the text. From the drawing of Daniel’s relationship with his parents and the exactness of descriptions of his interactions with his mother to the renderings of “the big man’s” home and car, Jones maintains the palimpsestic relationship, which is central to his novel.

And through this, we touch the novel’s core strength. In an era characterised by the importance of the self, by the narcissistic fabrication of the ideal ego, Jones’ work allows us to appreciate our insignificance, bringing to mind Camus’ tendre indifférence du monde with regard to ourselves. His text emphasises the eternal nature of the present and thus allows us to conceive vicariously of our own existence as belonging to the realm of the timeless. Ultimately, The Dig points elegantly towards an essential truth: that the importance of things, of people and of places, resides partially in their contingency, partially on their actual presence. In blending a vivid present with the features and structures of myth, Jones has poignantly and comfortingly underlined both our irrelevance and the possibilities of our importance.

Edward Still is reading for a DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.