Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Shrike, by Quentin S. Crisp – reviewed

The shrike is a bird that impales its prey upon thorns. This book concerns Brett, a would-be writer in his mid-thirties who travels to Japan after a relationship fails. He becomes obsessed with the idea that there’s a shrike in the garden.

I’m a bit torn with this book. It’s very well-written, there is some fascinating discussion of Japanese literature, there are lots of lovely details, and the central relationship, between Brett and an elderly widow, is touching and unusual. It’s a fine piece of writing.

However, Brett himself is spectacularly annoying and self-obsessed, the type of man you wouldn’t want to sit near in a coffee shop, let alone read about for a couple of hours, the type who talks endlessly about the things he’s going to do and all the trials he must go through to do them, but who never actually does anything at all. He’s a huge drama queen, basically.

That’s not necessarily a flaw: great books are written all the time about people much worse than Brett. But it does feel as if the book is on his side. A long time ago I read a bit of Barthes, and I did understand the point that the author’s intentions shouldn’t make a difference to our interpretation of the text of the book. Nevertheless, knowing the author’s intentions might have made a big difference to my feelings about Shrike.

If it was meant as a satire or even an unsympathetic portrait of a particular type of self-obsessed and obsessive man, then I loved it; it was absolutely spot on. The astonishing 5,000-word dream sequence (in a book of just 37,000 words) supports this reading, for one thing. It arrived at just the right time, too, just as the book was becoming almost unbearably maudlin. I found the book laugh-out-loud funny in other places, though I’m not sure if it was supposed to be. For example, in one crucial passage we read:
“Brett eyed the thicket curiously, as if for the hidden shrike. ‘Shrike,’ he said quietly, now looking about himself. ‘Shrike? Where are you, Shrike? Shrike … I think you’re a god.’”
If the book’s meant as a serious portrayal of a tortured artist, I’d be inclined to think it was all rather silly and overwrought – but then I thought exactly the same thing about Notes from the Underground and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some comments about praying, at least, that seem to be meant seriously:
“And those who did not pray? It was none of his business, of course, but it seemed to him that they must be like people who imagine they are watched every moment of their lives, and so cannot relax their guard at any point and do anything so embarrassing as … praying. They lived in fear of defeat by a non-existent observer – a strange attitude for those who protested more than most that there was no ultimate observer …”
The narrator takes atheism to be a pose, rather than an honestly held belief (or an honestly held lack of belief, I should say). But then Brett is a terrible poseur, and poseurs do tend to assume that everyone else is playing the same game. It would be a naive mistake to assume that every author shares the opinions of his or her narrator, but in passages like this (and I’m aware of not being able to articulate this very well) I didn’t feel any tension between the narrator and the author. It felt that the book was with Brett on that point, that this was a chunk of wisdom dropped into the text like the educational bits on Japanese literature.

So, for the time being, my opinion of the book is in the box with Schrodinger’s cat: I both liked and disliked it. Whatever happens when that box is opened, Shrike is undeniably a stimulating and provoking piece of writing. The critical consensus will almost certainly be that this is a very good book indeed; it just didn’t quite do it for me.

Shrike, by Quentin S. Crisp. PS Publishing, hb, 112pp.

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