Between the saucy carnival of the Georgians and the splintered genius of the moderns, the Victorians seem like a marble slab of respectability. Very fine and very deathly. The Essex Serpent is not about those marble Victorians. Sarah Perry’s second novel – a follow-up to her eerie 2014 debut, After Me Comes the Flood – contains many things that are unlikely, edging toward supernatural. There is early open heart surgery, hypnotism, contagious hysteria, and of course, the serpent of the title (which may or may not be ravaging the Essex shoreline). But the characters who inhabit Perry’s historical fiction are fundamentally like the Victorians of life rather than the ones of myth: a mix of the curious, the crankish, the sceptical and the devout, the upstanding and the down-low.
Big books don’t scare me. I’ve read Infinite Jest. I’ve read Middlemarch. I might even hit House Of Leaves one day, which is extra tough because the words don’t all go in the right direction. So it’s not the massy text that puts me off Ayn Rand, and even seeing my friends struggle with Atlas Shrugged wasn’t the ultimate deterrent – I spent long enough studying Middle English to let go of the idea that books should give me pleasure.
But the dreary working-out of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy (pathologised here by Johann Hari) in novel form – that’s what makes her books seem not worth picking up. Once you’ve grasped the essentials of the belief system, there’s nowhere for the narrative to go. Altruism is a corruption, capitalism is freedom, weakness is an imposition on the strong, etc etc. Fix the characters in within the cracked schema, and you’ve anticipated the moral conclusion towards which the plot is creaking.
Which is depressing on its own. But worse is the knowledge that Rand offers her make-believes as triumphant evidence of her own world-view. This isn’t the sympathetic curiosity that animated Eliot’s realist “experiments in life”, just a bludgeoning insistence on telling the reader How It Is:
In The Fountainhead I showed that Roark moves the world—that the Keatings feed upon him and hate him for it, while the Tooheys are consciously out to destroy him.
Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, ed. David Harriman (Penguin Dutton, 1997), p. 392
Roark is the genius of capitalism, Keating is the ambitious mediocrity, and Toohey is the collectivist anti-Roark. So Rand started out with a belief in the heroic entrepreneur. Then she wrote a novel in which the entrepreneur is the hero. Then she claimed she’d “shown” the truth of the position she started out with. It’s the basic Littlejohn manoeuvre: making something up, then screaming “you couldn’t make it up!” for the remaining word count.It’s a sort of genius I suppose – just not one that you’d want to try governing by unless you were a splinter-brained ideologue.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009
The features page is filling out. I’ve just added my review of Alasdair Gray’s Old Men In Love, originally published in the Oxonian Review Of Books:
From most novelists, a title like Old Men in Love would be an unappealing prospect. It contains intimations of one of the more distressing sub-genres of fiction — the dirty novel by the aging writer, unaware that there are few things as unpleasant as an old man taking an interest in the sex lives of young women.
Read the rest of the review here.