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oh build your ship of death

Red Shift: The Happiness of Love; the Real of Sex

Happiness plays at most a fleeting role in Alan Garner’s Red Shift, which like The Owl Service before it is a book about trauma and traumatic memory, about the unhappiness of repetition. The lesson Garner draws from myth and history is that there are recurring patterns of human interaction, repeatable configurations of intersubjective violence. The mythic story is both an abstract template of experience and, as narrative, a realization of that experience, a way of binding its emotional energies into a concrete form (like the plates in The Owl Service, literally imprinted with the form of the lady of flowers/owls). The power of myth is a power of repetition: Garner’s characters find themselves seized by myths and compelled to act out (or work through) their assigned roles within them.

The metaphor Garner uses for this process is one of energetic accumulation and discharge: like a battery storing electricity, the myth holds emotional energies in reserve. The person seized by a myth becomes a conductor for its energies, undergoing in the process a partial loss of selfhood and autonomy. It is not a coincidence that Garner’s main characters tend to be adolescents who experience their own passions as both inner turmoil and alien compulsion, as if sexuality were a kind of haunting and sex itself a kind of poltergeist activity.

Red Shift is putatively a “Tam Lin” story, a story about possession and rescue. In two of the book’s three overlapping narratives, the male epileptic character is rescued from his own inner violence by the steadfast love of a long-suffering woman. In the third story, the pattern appears to be broken: the relationship between Tom and Jan reaches a point of crisis from which it may not recover. (The book’s - literally - cryptic endnote has suggested a possible reconciliation to some readers, and a threat of suicide to others). Unable to go all the way with Tom in his “debasement”, Jan ultimately refuses the role to which the myth would have committed her: “It would like to go now, please. It feels sick. It’s had enough. It has a train to catch.”

It can’t go on; and in Red Shift it apparently does not. By referring to herself in the third person, as an “it”, Jan separates the debased object of Tom’s sexual jealousy and rage from the “I” who had loved him. Love cannot survive this separation: in the person I love there is always an “it”, an intractable element which refuses narcissistic identification; conversely, to be loved is to be “it” for another, to experience oneself as containing a part which is literally unloveable. Jan identifies this as the reason why there is always a period of surprise and resentment when they meet again after being apart: “The longer I’m away from you, the more certain my love for you becomes. Because we don’t have each other, we have memories, and these memories simplify themselves. We forget our flaws and create ideals of each other. Then, when we meet, the difference shows”.

What is always disastrous in love is to try to force this point - to demand to be “wholly and completely” loved, not in spite of one’s faults but because of them; or to seek to possess and control that in the other which one cannot love as oneself. This is what Tom’s jealousy of Jan’s former affair with a German wine-grower drives him to attempt, to blot out the “it” of his own shameful inferiority by obsessing over sexual performance:

“Catch up,” he said. “Rub out. My mistakes. My clumsiness. Next time it’ll be all right, every time, and it isn’t. Next time will make up for him - and me. Never. Poached eggs. Galactic. Red shift. The further they go, the faster they leave. They sky’s emptying. God, this wind’s cold.”

(“Next time it’ll be all right, every time, and it isn’t” - very Beckettian formulation, that). The consequence of this obsession is that he, too, becomes reduced to an “it”: as Jan says, just prior to the above quotation: “You used to give so much, oh, it was marvelous to be with, everything new and giving, like colour for the first time. Now you’re all one thing, and I don’t know what to do”. The unfortunate truth is that Tom’s cleverness, wit and powers of invention, the marvels he is able to produce for her, the shared poem of their lovers’ language, do not finally have any traction over the real of sex.

But what is this real? For Tom, sexual shame is correlated with class anxiety (“More of a caravan sticks to you than an old fry-up”); his parents’ simultaneous prohibition and noisy enjoyment (at close quarters) of sex; overhearing his father saying “I’ll not beg” to his mother, a line he repeats almost unconsciously to Jan. The German wine-grower Jan slept with before him was a well-off, indulgent, older man - “that warm man”, Jan calls him, contrasting with Tom’s repeated cry of “Tom’s a-cold” - whereas Tom is callow, spiky and skint. Whereas for Jan her first sexual experiences enable her to grow more fully into herself, becoming the person who first attracted Tom’s attention and interest, for Tom the gateway of sex opens onto a maelstrom of insecurity: it is precisely as a sexual being that he is most unloveable, lapsing into a variety of borrowed poses from disgust-filled puritan to callous working-class tough.

Red Shift is such a bleak book that it is easy to overlook the compelling portrait of real happiness that Garner makes of the early part of Jan and Tom’s love affair (paralleled by the scenes with Alison and Gwyn in The Owl Service). The problem the book poses is how the happiness of love can accommodate the real of sex, when the latter is indexed to humiliation, shame and violence; it suggests that the means available to Tom’s doubles from past ages (represented by the votive axe, or “thunderstone”, which Tom in turn acquires but gives away to a museum) are no longer accessible in the present day. But Red Shift itself is such powerful myth-making, or myth-retelling, that it may perhaps become a touchstone in its own right for some of its readers.