A few more cuts would help this pow­er­ful take on vi­o­lence

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JOHN McAULIFFE

THELONGTAK­E ROBIN ROBERT­SON Pi­cador, 256pp, £14.99

Robin Robert­son is best known as an ed­i­tor – of nov­el­ists John Banville, Anne En­right, James Kel­man and Irvine Welsh, and poets Anne Car­son and Alice Oswald among many oth­ers – and as a poet him­self, whose first book, Painted Field (1997), in­au­gu­rated a rare run of prizes and short­list­ings. That run con­tin­ues with The Long Take, writ­ten in that most du­bi­ous half­way house of gen­res, the verse novel, and just short­listed for the Man Booker and Gold­smith prizes.

The book tells the story of Walker, a Nova Sco­tian vet­eran of the sec­ond World War who trav­els from New York to Cal­i­for­nia, work­ing in dock­yards and then in news­pa­pers in New York, Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco. The set­ting in­dulges Robert­son’s fond­ness for film noir, with Walker of­fer­ing a run­ning com­men­tary on films as­so­ci­ated with Or­son Welles, An­thony Mann, Robert Siod­mak, Dal­ton Trumbo and John Al­ton (“Mag­yar mas­ter of the shadow game”, as Au­gust Klein­zahler calls him in his clas­sic poem, Noir). Walker sees their films

Abe­ing shot and then watches them in LA cine­mas: they of­fer a set of co-or­di­nates for the book’s tone (blades of light, al­ley scuf­fles that could be lovers or mug­gings), for the time­line of his novel, and for a view of an Amer­i­can era, whose Trump­ish over­tones are clear: “McCarthy­ism is fas­cism. Ex­actly the same. Pro­pa­ganda and lies, / open­ing di­vi­sions, fu­el­ing fear, para­noia.”

How­ever, Walker is con­tin­u­ally dragged away from his LA present by jagged mem­o­ries of war. The ten­sion of the book is de­rived from watch­ing its sol­dier-jour­nal­ist pro­tag­o­nist ward off the demon mem­o­ries of what he saw, and what he did, in a war zone. This is well-trod­den ground, pro­vid­ing the dra­matic plot for the BBC’s re­cent Body­guard as well as books as un­like one an­other as Dorothy L Say­ers’s Lord Peter Wim­sey se­ries and Pat Barker’s Re­gen­er­a­tion Tril­ogy, where post-trau­matic stress re­sults in abrupt shifts and dis­tur­bances.

Robert­son out­does them all with gory war scenes, fea­tur­ing ropes of blood, “red mists”, “wet rags of flesh” and at least one liv­ing hand. His po­ems too have al­ways aimed for Grand Guig­nol scenes, but now the flay­ing of Marsyas (a Robert­son favourite) sheds its clas­si­cal con­text and is re-en­acted by this Cana­dian sol­dier. His po­ems also rel­ish un­set­tling im­ages of sex­ual vi­o­lence (“I wake in her body / bro­ken, like a gun”, from the early Dream of the Hun­tress), and the new book like­wise de­vel­ops a the­ory of vi­o­lence and sex­ual power that bub­bles up re­peat­edly. Walker wit­nesses sev­eral scenes that play out like this: “[He] hit him again: a sav­age one-two to the face. / The way the girl looked at him then. / Like she’d do any­thing.”

The verse novel is an un­usual genre, em­pha­sis­ing in­ten­sity and tone with its line-breaks and stan­zas. Robert­son in­ter­sperses pre­sent­tense nar­ra­tion with ital­i­cised flash­backs and bold-type ex­cerpts from post­cards and diaries that ges­ture at a gen­tly pas­toral rem­i­nis­cence of a teenage love af­fair in Nova Sco­tia, but the over­all ef­fect is un­even and bitty.

His vet­eran pro­tag­o­nist lacks a foil: drink­ing bud­dies in­ter­change­ably come and go; he laments the mas­sive rede­vel­op­ment of Amer­i­can cities, de­tour­ing into ha­rangues about zon­ing laws and cor­rup­tion in the plan­ning process (shades of Chi­na­town), which are hardly saved by lines like “Cities are a kind of war, he thought.” The book’s dis­turb­ing, pow­er­ful de­pic­tion of trau­matic vi­o­lence and its re­ver­ber­at­ing af­ter­math might have been bet­ter served by a shorter take.

John McAuliffe’s ver­sions of Bos­nian poet Igor Kliko­vac’sS­tock­holmSyn­drome (Smith Doorstop), will be pub­lished in De­cem­ber. He teaches po­etry at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester’s Cen­tre­forNewWrit­ing

Robin Robert­son: an em­pha­sis on in­ten­sity and tone

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