There can be no greater confrontation with yourself than to abandon all your attachments (job, house, belongings, friends/family) and walk into the wilderness to live as a hermit. That’s what the protagonist Edward Buckmaster does in Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel “Beast”. This short novel begins with him squatting in a broken-down shack in the West-country moors with its makeshift roof on the brink of collapsing under torrential rain storms. He’s already lived here by himself for shortly over a year and does not plan to turn back. Just why he’s made this radical life decision is the mystery which propels the novel as well as an enigmatic dark beast he sometimes glimpses darting through the heather-filled landscape. But this is a story more about the process of his inner spiritual/psychological quest than finding any true answers. Kingsnorth conveys this in innovative and subtle ways through his use of language and narrative format. Reading this novel feels like you’re travelling on a fascinating, absorbing and sometimes terrifying journey as Edward teeters on the brink of madness and/or enlightenment.
I don’t want to give anything away, but Kingsnorth gives a clue as to just how much was at stake when Edward decided to abandon everything for a solitary life. Early on in the novel, he suggests a conversation Edward had with a woman who chastises him for leaving because it means his baby girl will never know him. This immediately colours how the reader feels about Edward’s self-subsistence and inward revelations. He’s not a man who had nothing to lose; he’s abandoned his child. Is this a brave act of rebellion against a dysfunctional civilization or a cowardly decision by a man who can’t face responsibility? Will his quest lead him to a profound understanding about the world or will he tumble into ever-more complex self justifications for why he shouldn’t be a part of it? These are questions only the reader can decide as she/he picks through the tangled weeks that pass as Edward traipses over the desolate landscape. Whatever his reasons are, he’s resolute that this life of solitude and sacrificing all possessions/comforts is the only way toward achieving a true understanding of existence. He states “you can think for three decades and your thoughts will be worse than useless because you have not touched this thing not really. you have to live in this dimension your hands must be calloused your heart scarred or what are you.”
Edward’s act of fanaticism is akin to some saints and mystics who equally abandon everything for a life of solitude. He references some early on and knows well how they tread the fine line between great seers and madmen. Usually when people seek deeper spiritual understanding they turn to religion which is something that Edward emphatically rejects. He states “We built a world of alters because we could never put the mystery into words.” But he believes these temples and churches have only served as approximations for finding the meaning of existence. What’s needed is to face the stripped down and barren fact of life in the hermetic way he’s chosen: “Nothingness extends itself emptiness moves and when you stare into it things happen to you.” The things that happen to Edward are predictable in some respects. He goes through bouts of intense desire for what he’s abandoned: food, cleanliness, sex, companionship. His mood careens from serenity to outright violence. Mixed with these desperate moments of longing are glimpses of seeming revelation for seeing the world as a primitive landscape based on survival: “For a moment the world cracked open and I saw myself as the wild creature I was as one caged a wild creature among billions as atoms as meat as animal as prey.” The beast he encounters could be a manifestation of this inner creature or it might be a more insidious force that’s stalking him.
Those who read Paul Kingsnorth’s much lauded novel “The Wake” might have been intimidated by the book’s use of the author’s version of Old English. I had a go at it, but quickly felt puzzled so put it aside vowing to go back to it again (unsurprisingly, I haven’t yet). There is no such trouble with understanding the language in “Beast” – but getting at just what Kingsnorth means by this convoluted soul-searching quest will be confusing. And rightly so! He’s asking questions rather than posing answers with this fascinating story. However, the author also uses subtle variations in his style and his composition of language over the course of the novel. Gradually grammar breaks down. Tense bends as time is warped. The first person narrator eventually changes his tone from a proud capital I to a lower case i. At a few points, the narrative breaks off completely mid-sentence only to pick up again after a couple blank pages to find him in another place. Language itself becomes an inadequate vehicle for what he’s trying to convey: “It is so hard to put into words into these clumsy words that say nothing.” The scenes become increasingly hallucinatory as the story progresses so in one paragraph he’ll be hiking over the moors and in another he’ll be wandering through “slums” with “barefoot black children” who encourage him to jump naked into a freezing lake or he’ll appear on the wing of a plane that’s plummeting the ground. Whether these are fantasies, delusions or visions of another time and place are debatable. Whatever their meaning, I found his journey fascinating just to see what bizarre things Edward would encounter next and where his logic would take him.
It’s interesting thinking about this book in relation to other novels such as Evie Wyld’s “All the Birds, Singing” which similarly features a recluse – in this case, a sheep farmer who lives on her own on an island. Similarly, there is a mysterious and threatening something prowling about her land (and killing some of her sheep). It’s not surprising that someone living on their own would be prone to fear of attack as they are relatively defenceless without the support of a larger civilization. Confronting this fear or demon might mean only overcoming psychological obstacles which cause that fear in the first place. Equally, it’s interesting to consider “Beast” in relations to Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novel “The Buried Giant”. Instead of a lone journey, his novel features an older couple on a quest through a seemingly medieval landscape to find their son. The threat comes in this case from what has been buried and forgotten: a giant. Similarly, Edward encounters mythical beings which function both as real physical threats and manifestations of his subconscious. He proclaims “Yes there were giants in the Earth it was all real all of it.” It’s as if there is an inversion of reality as we know it so fairy tales are true and our tangible existence is false. In doing so, Kingsnorth and these other authors force us to question everything that we take for granted.
The compelling question at the heart of this novel is whether Edward’s solitary practice actually leads him to greater knowledge or total despair. He is absolutely convinced that “There has to be a secret.” But I wonder if there really is a secret? Maybe there is no mystery to the deep questions Edward prods through his rigorous rejection of everyone and everything. Maybe he’s living the most honest existence possible. Or maybe he’s a coward. This is a dilemma that Kingsnorth artfully poses in this accomplished and compelling novel.