In what way is the mind connected to the body? Can thought and material substance be intertwined? Are we all just organic machines that will eventually break down or do our souls extend beyond the limitations of the body? These are some of the philosophical conundrums pondered in Jack Wolf’s bizarre and fascinatingly engrossing Polari First Book Prize Nominated novel The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones. Set in mid-1700s England the story is narrated (in the language and style of the time) by Tristan Hart, a boy raised by his stoic father who is in perpetual mourning after the death of Tristan’s mother. From early on the boy is shown to have a high intelligence and analytical engagement with the world: “The World was as an open Bible; the Challenge was in learning how to read it.” Tristan develops a medical fascination for the workings of the body regularly taking specimens of rats and other dead animals to dissect and preserve their bones for display in his room. However, Tristan is prone to dark fits where his mental unbalance leads to a breakdown. In these sections the narrative becomes much more hallucinatory as his vision of the world is skewed by visions of the demonic forces of the fairy tale figures of Raw Head and Bloody Bones as described to him when he was a child. After slowly recovering from one such fit he is given the opportunity to go to London to live with his father’s acquaintance, the writer Henry Fielding. Here he comes into his own remarking “Life was become a Joy to me instead of a Chore. I even began to forget mine apparent Madness. No longer did I study Descartes and Locke with the Desperation of a condamned Man. I suffered no Delusion, no Phrenzy, no Melancholia.” He begins medical training and studying anatomy properly. Slowly he develops theories and embarks on research which makes him believe he will produce groundbreaking work which will change the medical practice forever.
A large part of this novel is devoted to exploring the murky areas of sexuality not often touched upon in a way that is both meaningful and philosophical. Tristan realizes early on that standard missionary sex doesn’t excite him as much as it does others although there is a girl who works at an inn who teaches him the basic mechanics of giving pleasure remarking hilariously at one point that “Every Fool knows how to fuck. You needs to learn how to make my Cunny glow.” It’s only when he gets to London and visits a whorehouse that he is able to act upon some of the darker fantasies that have been brewing in his sexual imagination. Tristan seeks connections to understand his own sadistic nature and the relationship between pain and pleasure. As he observes at one point after whipping the face of a man he looks down upon as an animal, “Pain needeth neither Language, nor Reason. It crosseth all Boundaries: betwixt Man and Beast, Monster and Angel, even between Sinner and God. Did not Christ Himself suffer the most enduring Agonies upon the Cross? ‘Tis a Species of Love, I thought.” He sees pain as a purer form of connection between one person and another that can be more tender than a gentle caress. When matters of the darker side of human desire are written about in novels it usually focuses on the more sensational side. While the sexual scenes covered in this book strike a rhythm that sometimes builds to what might be titillation for some, they are handled with style and care.
When Tristan finds a soul-mate in his closest friend’s younger sister Katherine the two discover a bond over shared sexual desires of an edgier nature. Tristan admits to Katherine that their activities and sexual compulsions are “‘terrible, and vile, and cruel. But beautifull, despiting all of that.’” The ecstasy achieved through dominating the submissive Katherine creates a strong bond between the two and helps Tristan understand his true nature as both man and monster. Katherine says to Tristan, “‘you are no Raw Head; I say you are Bloody Bones; the Fiend who collects the marrow-Bones of the Dead, and prizes them more dearly than the Living.’” His interest in medicine and building upon his intuitive understanding of the bodies’ mechanics isn’t purely scientific but inextricably linked to his sexual drive. This is demonstrated in a disturbing scene where he observes a surgery on a cancer patient. It drives him to work upon theories regarding the connection between the body, nerve stimulation and the mind. He ponders whether thoughts and memories reside in the matter of the body or in electro-chemical processes of the mind: “Where doth any ordinary Memory exist when it is not in Process of Recollection? It hath not ceased to be. Yet it is neither in Man’s Awareness, nor is he aware of its Lack.” Tristan seeks to understand the ways in which mental facility is affected by a person’s physical status and vice-versa. As he progresses in his research and through pondering with references to great thinkers like Descartes he comes to understand how language acts as the bridge between mental activity and the physical: “Thought hath, or Thought is, a material Substance. How else could it be shaped into a Word?” Questions such as these loom in the background as Tristan carries forth on his journey and succumbs again to fits of “madness.” The book eventually becomes quite fantastical. A great deal of suspense is created as the reader must decide whether the events are only occurring in Tristan’s troubled imagination or in the real world. This in itself raises the question – if we believe in our minds something to be true does it therefore make it physically true?
Tristan is a fascinating character and it’s interesting to see his transformation throughout the novel. In some cases his personal struggles reflect the larger struggles of society at the time. Tristan’s late mother is Jewish and his heritage, as is made evident in his physical characteristics, arises periodically as an issue from which he cannot escape. He becomes aware that some people make judgements about him based on this seeing him as “someone alien: my Mother. I looked like a Jew.” As described in the novel, the government at that time was debating the hot topic about whether to pass a law allowing Jewish immigrants to become citizens. Issues of class, religion and sexuality loom large in Tristan’s tale and his personal struggles. There is a great deal to ponder and enjoy in The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones. Scenes are described in brilliant metaphorical language and the dark story has a powerful gripping effect. It’s very seldom that an author writes intelligently about sex. Edmund White’s fiction and Jonathan Kemp’s novel London Triptych also do this. Wolf also breaks boundaries showing how sexuality can be explored in a ways that are creative, frank and relevant to everyday life. I haven’t read any of the other books nominated for this year’s Polari First Book Prize, but I think this would make an excellent winner as Jack Wolf is clearly a talented compelling author.