“He woke with no memory of the recent past, just a cold blank tiredness and a vague sense of disorientation.”
So opens ‘The Bet’ and it is followed by a lengthy sentence, the kind of sentence that you’d expect to mirror the thought of what’s occurring in the character’s mind at the time. It’s an over-thought sentence, a reef-dive of a sentence, it surveys so much depth, but with such shallowness. It’s a keep-you-awake sentence.
We immediately get thrust into depictions of nature, of the ‘fluorescent glow’ of light off snow creeping through the windows, this man trying to wall himself, his consciousness, off from the blinding light, the biting cold, but it’s impossible. The external weather is impossible to ignore.
One of the key aspects of decadent literature, its fight-against-nature approach, is that it does not eschew natural imagery. Sure, some writers do. They write mainly of social interactions and allow only nature and decay to enter into the mix as a reminder of why people are behaving as they are. But the best decadents throw nature about with abandon but use those images, use that natural encroachment to reflect the internal.
Now the two main key terms are ‘pathetic fallacy’ – which is the attribution of human feelings to the inanimate or non-human. The other is ‘personification’ which is the attribution of anything human to an inanimate object or non-human. Then you have ‘zoomorphism’ which is the attribution of animalistic character traits to humans. There are a lot of terms, I will try not to use them and just describe what is being done instead. Needless to say, Vivienne employs these techniques in her writing.
You have no idea that this is a pathetic fallacy, that this is nature being employed as a device, until you get a little bit further, and that is magic. From a British author, where talking about the weather could just as easily be casually padding out the book, here it is meaningful. This snow means something.
It creates uniformity – “a white, featureless expanse” – and even those vestiges of society, this person’s radiator, the very essence of technological advances made by humans against the elements, cannot save him. It is not nearly warm enough to the touch.
No matter the effort we try to make in order to defy nature, nature can find a way to make it not enough. It can always be hotter, it can always be colder, it can always be drier, and it can always be wetter and, just as we’ve built irrigation to break the drought we can be drowned in flood.
There is mention of how in days past people would have “lit large fires and worn heavy clothing of wool and fur” – An adaptation to suffering. Modern comfort makes it harder to know how to suffer, especially when nature invades the human space. At one point it would have been a given to wrap up, to keep the fire burning etc. but in the days of central heating who needs this? Yet our character is in such a position, frighteningly, anachronistically cold. He is experiencing something of the suffering of the past and has none of the nous of how to deal with it.
His car, too, that modern carriage invented to replace feet or horses, is broken down. He must brave the cold, at least as far as the bus stop. His middle-ground and the concession he is willing to make in this fight against nature.
Our man arrives at a hospital, not a modern invention by any means but one which modernity, with some irony, infects and spreads in. Advances in science and technology spread in hospitals, like disease, as we, unnatural, forge a path to immortality and yet…
“Domes and humps of snow” sit on the roofs, like so many Tumuli, burial mounds or barrows; and the “flowerbeds like plump white eiderdowns” remind us that our final bed is the cold, muddy ground.
Even the hospital cannot bar the natural, the painfully inevitable. Death is coming.
He is at the hospital to visit his wife and newborn son, but he is tired, in a daze, he hears people “as if from under a blanket of snow,” as if somewhere between life and death.
On taking his son into his arms he feels an “atavistic surge of pride,” he has already fought cold, weather, modern technology’s inconsistency. He is already primed to feel primal.
For a moment he commands the room, his wife submissive, his baby curled up “like a rosebud” or “a daisy against the night,” and he gets what he wants. He is taking his baby home. His wife does not object. The baby does not object. He dominates and strides confidently out into the cold, night air with seemingly no sense of fear.
His atavism grows. He no longer needs the bus for he is primal man, self-sufficient. He will walk.
It is not long before such confidence is shattered. This is not the “proper way”, he has dragged his newborn from its mother, trudging through snow that “saps the energy” and strains the muscles. His tiredness catches up with him and he has hallucinations, “pursuit, voices and footsteps” are all heard in his mind, until he runs. He falls. We all fall, eventually.
Snow falls again, too, no matter his stop or his pause, nature will not stop with him. The snow lands on his “dark hair”, “turning it slowly white.” This premature aging, the cold, the situation, life, nature, stress, sleeplessness, it will age you. It will turn your hair white before your years.
Eventually he makes his way home. How meaningful is it that he wraps the baby up in a “small soft white blanket like the snow outside”?
Outside was a hive of activity, of lights and sights, of noises both real and imaginary, outside there was life, even in the deathly white glow of all the snow. Inside is “Utterly silent and empty.”
Inside is empty.
Two policemen arrive.
He has kidnapped his baby? Then why hadn’t his wife protested more? Was this what she wanted? What she preferred?
He’s dull, shrugging and speaking matter-of-factly. For a kidnapper speaking to the police he seems unafraid, as if whatever could be done to him could make him feel no worse than he already does.
His internal state is a mess, in decline. I mentioned in my introduction this concept of internal decadence. That the decadent art movement was very much about the natural, the visual decay, the breakdowns in society, the rotting of bodies, the physical and social diseases. Our man here, though, is clearly outwardly strong, stoic, even. He was stood “like a statue” earlier. But inside, it’s like he’s somewhere between hell and the abyss. Inside is empty, already decayed, rotted away, perhaps?
One of the officers mentions a post-mortem.
The baby is dead.
The first sign of life from our man, we see him “flinch slightly.” Still barely the response you would imagine. Yet grief is a strange emotion.
What happens is a variety of human interactions around a man so deeply entwined with the darkness that such allusions of humane light do not even register. The police want to ensure he is mentally stable but what is mental stability, especially when your baby is dead?
We pretend, put on the central heating of cups of tea and conversation, but the winter is out there, that blinding white, the blanket to envelope you, it’s out there. No amount of tea and chat stops it.
The officers talk around him, this man-between-worlds, this Orpheus braving the dark recesses of the underworld in the hope that dragging his baby through that hell, pulling him from Lake Cocytus, Dante’s Lake of Ice at the bottom of hell’s depths, that penetrating cold, wishing he could somehow bring him back. But he can’t. That’s not insanity, anyway, that’s heroism, only in this case tragically human and ill-fated.
We find out our man’s mother killed herself, a year or two back. His father died only around nine months ago.
This is a man bathed in death, a man who has undergone a Stygian baptism. Insanity would be the reasonable response. What he is doing is showing immense strength. Strength, though, is generally built by endurance over time. Much as muscles only get bigger, only work better, only carry more power the more they are used, the more stress they are under, the more they break and repair. What has this man been through that the response to all this death and suffering is merely the hope he can tuck his dead baby into bed and somehow everything will be alright?
We find out, too, that his wife died due to complications in the birth.
Our man had to deliver the baby. His dead baby. From his wife. His dead wife.
The officers keep their distance. Humans are ill at ease with things tainted by the darkness. We do not like creatures of the night, we are barely equipped with minds able to deal with death and those who death touches must be cleansed and purified. They must get ‘back to normal’, sipping cups of tea and having conversations rather than staring into the middle-distance and stifling snorts of laughter at their own misfortune.
The officers establish a “cordon sanitaire”, as if our man is diseased or an undesirable. To the living death is a plague, to be purged and avoided, and anyone who has been in contact with it is filthy too. Numbers 19:11 says “The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days.” This is a Bible book based on a book in the Jewish Torah, rules thousands of years old, written down likely 2,500 years ago or more but based on much older oral traditions, and yet we still feel them, as if they are innate, to this day.
The family doctor turns up and it’s quite apparent from the way he talks to our man that he and this doctor go back some way. The doctor is dry and witty, inappropriate even, the kind of behaviour you don’t expect from a doctor, but the kind of humanity you always want from one.
At the time our man is changing clothes, a shedding of skin, almost a metamorphosis taking place. This atavistic man running on nothing but primality and momentous feeling is now, once again, becoming modern, civilised, washing the stench of death from himself and returning to the world of the living. His clothes are described as “dropped to the floor like the discarded skin of a snake.”
This is where we find out our man is called Antony. A name only made better by the inclusion of an ‘H’ but that’s personal preference.
The discussion he has with his doctor is quite informative. We learn of Antony’s resilience and yet there is a worry from the doctor that this resilience is more of a stuffing-it-down than dealing-with-it. Clearly Antony has been through a lot. We know he is a young man, one of the officers comments he seems too young to have been married so we’d say somewhere around 18-20. We also learn that the doctor doesn’t think he is in need of ‘urgent’ help. Even Antony picks up the tone of this, “with a painful half smile.” I know that half-smile. I’ve had it on my face enough times.
We also get a surname for Antony here as the doctor dismisses the officers by saying “Mr. Ashurst is not in need of hospital attention.”
We then find out his age, nineteen, and that he found his mother after she had committed suicide. Clearly death enjoys bothering Antony.
“It wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but it was worse than most see.” The officer says of this incident. He was one of the attending officers. What rotten luck, some might think. But they were at the house of a nineteen year old lad who’d seen his mum die, who had been present for the delivery of his now born baby, during a birth that killed his wife. I know I’d rather see it as a third party than experience it as a first party.
The officer is clearly judgemental. The doctor notes this, telling him how unfair it is to discuss these kinds of things behind Antony’s back. The fact is people deal with things in different ways and just because someone may be dealing with something in a not-normal way, it doesn’t make it an abnormal way. It is mentioned that whilst attending the suicide of Antony’s mother Antony had insisted they don’t send for an ambulance because she’d been dead for hours. This is not normal, but it’s not abnormal, in fact it’s smart. Why waste the time? Why bother a crew of paramedics who could be attending someone who has a chance to yet live to come and take one look at a dead woman that everyone can see is dead and go “Yup, she dead!”
To people who see the overly emotional, desperately clutching, death-fearing realities every day it may seem a little strange for Ashurst (I will refer to him by his surname from now on, as the book does) to behave as he does, but it resonates with me.
Ashurst is back to be being cold, all eyes on him uncomfortable in a room with a police officer who’d probably rather be sat quietly in a lay-by waiting for a call about joy riders than in this room of doom and gloom, and the chill of death in the air.
We find out he was going to name the baby “Richard” after his father.
“Please don’t talk to me any more, I can’t bear it, he thought, but he couldn’t say anything.” Again, I’ve been there many times. It’s times like those I make inappropriate quips, jokes that make others uncomfortable. Anything to show the other people I’m ‘there’, I’m in the same room. It’s not for my sake. I’d rather stay silent. It is for theirs, yet what I say and do is always wrong.
“Candy says, “I hate the quiet places
That cause the smallest taste of what will be.””
So wrote Lou Reed in the song ‘Candy Says’ by The Velvet Underground. I believe he is writing about the same phenomenon. The officer speaks because if he doesn’t he’s in a room full of the taste of what will be, the painfully inevitable, the final.
Mercifully, before any more inane chatter can come along just to take the uncomfortable officer’s mind off the inevitable cruelty of death, Ashurst throws up in the sink!
I love this.
The entire chapter has been this disquiet, this limbo, stuck in the grey between life-and-death, we don’t quite know what’s alive and what isn’t. Even the weather is simultaneously cold and deathly, yet white and vibrant. Everything is in this stasis until…Bleurgh! In comes the body to remind you, nope, mate, you’re still kicking.
Especially after the tension between him and the officer, this awkward conversation, it’s this visceral interruption, it’s Ashurst’s body doing what his mind cannot! His body telling this policeman to shut the fuck up!
The undertaker arrives and Ashurst insists on going out to see his baby one last time. “I have to.” He says “I can’t not do it. It wouldn’t be right.”
I haven’t been there with a baby but I’ve been there with death and, again, it’s so hard because I know exactly where he is coming from. There is so much shielding from death, shielding the living from the dead and it’s basically for the reasons we’ve talked about throughout this chapter. It’s an uncomfortable and scary reminder that thus goes all life.
It feels like an affront, as a living person of someone you love that has died, to not attend to them. They stand outside “…the gravel floodlit by security lights and speckled by falling snow.” We’re back in this between-world, the security lights like spotlights at a prison-camp, illuminating the falling snow, this intrusion of nature’s coldest touch. It is life and death in one image, the human separation and the inevitable intrusion of the natural in one image. He takes his baby and he says goodbye.
“Then suddenly the door was closing and they were gone.”
What a sentence!
I don’t know how much of Vivienne’s conscious thought went into the writing of this book, as far as I know it owes a lot to the muse, but I’m no believer in the supernatural. This didn’t ‘just happen’. I know Vivienne to be careful with her words and whether consciously or unconsciously this is a very powerful, simple image.
If you want to know the subtlety in Vivienne’s writing that I spoke of in the introduction and the power I spoke of, it’s right there.
What Vivienne does, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is takes the mundane and crafts it into depth.
That sentence is a description of what actually happened. The door closed, the undertaker, the police, his baby, they were all gone.
It’s also a complete summary of the chapter and given that this is effectively the third-act conflict at the start of the book in a very post-modernist way, it’s a summary of the entire plot.
“Suddenly the door was closing and they were gone.”
Is that not how we feel about almost every loved one in our lives as we approach their final hours? Whether tragically, before-their-time in an accident, whether in a slow drawn out, torturous decline of senescence, or even our own selves, as we gaze back on our own years and wonder why we can’t get them back. Is life not the realisation that suddenly the door is closing and everyone and everything is gone?
It’s literally a nothing sentence, a seemingly mundane description of a thing that happens. Yet read deeper. It carries an unbelievable weight and, if you’re reading the book along with my analysis keep an eye out for these kinds of sentences. They spring up. I know Vivienne well enough that even if it was not written consciously, or intentionally, her mind is always plumbing for meaning and significance. The sentence may spew with little to no conscious thought, but she’s a poet at heart and knows the value of every stress and syllable of every word. She picks these little sentences perfectly and they are the kind of thing that to a reader not knowing these significant insignificances, you’ll miss the impact.
It is just Ashurst and the doc left and the doc gets to practicalities it is clear Ashurst is not in the mood for and who can blame him. It’s always the case at times like these, crises, deaths, traumas, everyone doesn’t know what to do so they try to do everything when actually it can sometimes be best to just…be…and do nothing.
We also get the impression Ashurst’s aunt is a pain. She will come into things later.
The doctor leaves.
Ashurst is left alone, with the cold, with the silence.
He makes his way to the empty nursery, making up the crib, as if, in some other world, he knows his baby shall sleep there.
He is bathed in moonlight. The moon is a powerful symbol, another representation of the dream worlds. The moon is very much of-the-night but reflecting the daylight of the sun, a dead rock reflecting the warmth of life, a courier, a bypass, between life and death.
“He let a few tears fall untouched to the carpet where they vanished in the patchy moonlight like ghosts…” The moonlight is the tractor-beam, Charon, come to ferry the souls of the dead from Ashurst, to liberate him of their weight and leave behind emptiness, a space that will remain forever empty.
“It was going to be such a long night.”
Powerful words to end the chapter.
Consider Ashurst had been offered a sedative multiple times. He could have had his suffering eased, he could have had rest and sleep, but he refuses sedation and chooses sleepless pain. He insists on suffering.
Somewhere in him is a need to suffer, a need to feel pain, perhaps just to feel anything, perhaps he feels it is his responsibility to suffer? It is martyrdom, a messianic mindset that if he can suffer through his troubles he will overcome better, he will improve, ‘it builds character’ some people love to say.
Unfortunately sometimes it just makes you cry and throw up in the sink. Such is pride, though, and men are often taught to be prideful, men are taught to suffer and endure. Women’s pain is ignored as hysteria by men who have been taught pain is not there in the first place, no matter how much it hurts. It must not be acknowledged, it must be endured, and through gritted teeth one marches on, no matter how sore one’s feet.
In case you didn’t pick it up, this opening chapter is dripping with death and the symbolism surrounding it. It deals with grief in a very real and very uncomfortable way. Everything Ashurst does can make total sense to a grieving person and it is those not involved in that grief, those entirely removed from the suffering who feel his behaviour is not right.
As mentioned, there is an aversion, a human anthropological aversion, to death. Rules and laws about it date back millennia and even today we recognise the importance of rites to do with death because of how impactful it can be on the living human mind. Yet at the same time…It’s like watching your favourite boxer losing…You can shout all the advice you like, it’s different when you’re the one getting punched in the face.
When grieving there is a real punch-in-the-face aspect, there’s an impact, an “Oof!” Followed by a numbness, a grogginess, a foggy-headed, not-knowing-what-to-do-ness. Like a part of you is trying to follow the departed, you end up in this between-world we see Ashurst in here.
Maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to open a book and read that. Maybe you’re untouched by grief in those ways. Maybe your denialism is so strong. Maybe you just dealt with it a different way. Maybe you’re a firm Christian believer and think the departed has ‘gone to a better place’.
But for me, I’m an Ashurst. I’m cold, I’m logical, I’m numb, I’m empty, I’m missing.
As far as opening statements go this is such a simple and deep set up.
It could possibly be argued that starting at this sort-of-end makes reading the rest of the book a bit meaningless. It’s a valid argument of any use of this sort of post-modern structure but the question to be asked is are you curious to find out how it got here? And I certainly was. That’s the point of a device like this.
Why did this young man have a wife? Who was she? We only know her first name, Jenny, we know nothing else about her. How did she get pregnant? We find out about his mother’s suicide? What’s the deal with that? His dad’s dead too, recently, how did that happen?
It’s like the opening chapter is intended to pull your emotions one way and your conscious thoughts another. Emotionally you’re supposed to be horrified and not want to read another word but consciously you’re just so curious about this story, about how this scenario came to be.
The fact is this is just a nadir of pain, of misery and of suffering and we’re about to embark upon a journey of learning just how painful life can be.
It is going to be such a long night!