This is a strange journey into a twilight world of sea and land and ‘We may observe two figures moving in this landscape of cold, dark matter’. The friendship between two young men, based upon mutual dependence and then betrayal, placed against a socio-political background of unrest, dominates Flaubert’s great novel L’Éducation Sentimental. Having found its first contemporary counterpart in Julian Barnes’s Metroland it now finds its second in Ken Edwards’ humorous and moving account of youthful idealism in Country Life. The geographical landscape shifts between a coastal country which has echoes of Dungeness and city life, as Flaubert’s contrasted the world of the upper Seine and the Paris of the 1848 revolution.
In Ken Edwards’ narrative one dominant image is that of the nuclear power station:
‘South of the glory that is the illuminated nuclear power station, lies the Peninsula, a tiny settlement beginning to glow in the shadow of a Sunday evening, under the cold, dark mass of the sea.’
That little word ‘glow’ is mischievously uncomfortable as the world of nuclear power is juxtaposed with the homing sense of lighted rooms with their illusive hint of safety. As the two figures, Dennis and Tarquin, move towards the aptly-named pub ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ they discuss relative positions:
‘The question is, says the big lad with the spiky hair and glittering glasses, where are you in the human food chain? It’s that savage.
He has been talking non-stop since they came out to walk on the strand, here at the end of the world. The talk has been of human handwidth, negative space, power structures.’
Tarquin, the non-stop talker, gives the younger Dennis (a budding musician who is working on World Music Parts 1-25, ‘based on rhythmic patterns’ given off by the surroundings) a lesson in political hierarchies. After all, Tarquin has just finished a 550-page book on Neo-Marxist Aesthetics and the Marketing of the Moment:
‘Like, in the human food chain you might say, the fucking bosses, captains of industry as they used to call them—these days, CEOs of mega-corporations, or chairmen or persons or big-shot shareholders or hedge fund investors, you know what I mean, the Great White Sharks…’.
At the bottom of the food chain, according to the political wisdom of Tarquin, are the tiny ones which are eaten by everything else: krill.
‘Yeah, that’s right, krill. Food for everything else. you understand what I’m saying? that’s the kind of capitalist society we have. At the bottom of the food chain.
Right, says Dennis.
At the bottom. Then you’re fucking krill, man!’
This is an eerie world where the style of Paul Auster meets that of Douglas Woolf: the landscape, brutality and barely submerged violence conjures up the world of Auster’s The Country of Last Things while the quiet but determined humour of domestic engagement brings to mind Doug Woolf’s Ya! in which a father finds his daughter and they both roll out into the darkness. As his daughter, Joan, says “This is wild”, Al replies with a clear sense of what is important, “Yes, it is”. In Country Life an elderly woman clutching a plastic supermarket bag carrying the hopeful logo SAVERS PARADISE weeps quietly because she doesn’t know where she is. When asked by Tarquin and Dennis if she is from round here she nods “Yes, I…don’t know where. I am.” That full-stop after ‘where’ is something to hang on to. She thinks that she lives on the mainland, on an estate, and she thinks that she went to a hospital last week to see her dying husband who has ‘been resting in his grave all these years, the poor dear’. With that glimmer of recognition known only perhaps to the lost she says of her ‘home’ “I’ll know it when I see it…I came out too far.”
This is a world turned upside down with an amphibious life drifting along, a world in which the nuclear reactor ‘will produce enough controlled energy to satisfy the electricity needs of the entire region’:
‘Large magnetised rotors turn inside thick copper coils to generate the electricity that is fed to the grid. Turning each rotor is a large turbine. High pressure steam drives its blades and the rotor revolves inside the copper coils to produce the electricity. Each morning, central heating system boilers will be triggered by time-switches, kettles will be plugged in, radios and TVs will be switched on. The people will wake from their individual dreams, and re-enter a collective dream.’
Country Life has echoes of J.H. Prynne’s Kitchen Poems in which ‘we all share the same head, our shoulders / are denied by the nuptial joys of television, so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck’. And it draws to a close with a poetry reading given by Tom Raworth in a venue that one could be forgiven for thinking resembles the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit.
This novel is wonderfully funny in places and it allows the reader to produce his or her own key to characters that play out their roles on a stage of such poignant shifting moments.
Ian Brinton 16th February 2016