THE BLOATER by Rosemary Tonks
“Are we fully adult, responsible pillars of society? Certainly; it’s simply that we’re allowed two or three safety valves nowadays, and rank silliness is one of them. You cannot listen to electronic sound for seven hours a day, and keep sane without it.”
Rosemary Tonks was an English author and poet who worked for the BBC’s radio service and produced two collections of poetry and six novels before converting to fundamentalist Christianity in the 70s, disappearing from public life and destroying copies of her published works. She was at the forefront of English avant-garde writing, but is now largely forgotten, her works out of print and fetching unreasonable (read: I can’t afford them) sums on the internet. Fortunately for us, Vintage Classics this year has reissued her classic 1968 novel The Bloater, with an enthusiastic and informative introduction by Stewart Lee. Now we can all enjoy Tonks’ bizarre, larger than life satirical novel and revel in her astonishing narrative voice. The Bloater is hilariously witty and bracingly grotesque. I read it in a day and loved it. I can only encourage everyone else to immediately rush out and buy a copy, in the hope that you will love it as much as I did, and that this encourages Vintage Classics to bring the rest of her works back into print.
Min works for the BBC at the radiophonic workshop, where as an audio engineer she is tasked with challenges such as replicating a human heartbeat for the workshop’s latest project. She spends her time split between ignoring her almost-invisible husband George, flirting with her male friends, charming old man Claudi and handsome and seductive Billy, winding up her colleagues Jenny (based on pioneering electronic musician Delia Derbyshire) and Fred, and trying to avoid the attentions of her lodger Carlos, a large and smelly opera singer she has nicknamed the Bloater. And that’s about it for plot in The Bloater. Min bitches with Claudi about their mutual friends, contracts gout, gossips with Jenny about their respective love lives, goes to work, and goes on a disastrous date with the Bloater to the opera. The joy of the book comes from Min’s narrative voice, hilariously and utterly scathing in its bitchiness. Min allows Tonks to cast her jaundiced eye across the middle class society that she was a part of and utterly tear it to shreds, whilst the fact that Min is clearly such an unflattering self-portrait of Tonks herself allows her to acknowledge her own complicity in this culture. Thus The Bloater can be utterly scathing and brutal whilst avoiding smugness by using Tonks’ own foibles as a focusing lens – it’s no surprise that comedian Stewart Lee is such a big fan.
Tonks’ writing is feminist in that it sees the everyday life of its female characters as a worthy artistic subject in its own right, and in how it incorporates Tonks’ own lived experiences into fictional writings it anticipates the highly regarded autofiction of today. The Bloater is a novel that is relentlessly alienated from its own subject and self, perhaps anticipating the alienation from her own society that would regrettably drive Tonks to fundamental Christianity in her later years. Min has lived through the liberation of the sixties, only to emerge into a world of excess and indulgence where she is unable to form any remotely meaningful human attachments. She is drawn to Billy because he, handsome, vain and vacuous, is the only person she knows who is quite as shallow and self-absorbed as she is. She inhabits a world of polished surfaces, in which she struggles to communicate across the hidden depths of mundane conversations. As such she is expertly placed to highlight the hypocrisy and shallowness of the middle-classes as they crawl towards the hedonism of the 70s, shucking off any vestiges of spirituality, meaning or greater empathy they may have experienced during the Summer of Love like a snake shedding its skin. In its nihilistic repudiation of itself and its bubbling undercurrent of resentment, The Bloater anticipates the arrival of punk whilst being much more charming and witty.
Bolstering the whole affair is Tonks’ remarkable prose. Tonks writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, building up to oblique and poetic images only to undercut them with references to tawdry consumerism. Her imagery juxtaposes the sublime and the grotesque, often leaning into surrealism. An example:
“I’m captivated, enchanted. My soul rips herself to pieces and by the first interval is whining for more champagne like an overheated violin. The B., much moved himself, leads us off to the little table just by the staircase where two gilt tête-à-tête chairs are propped inwards. Champagne and bucket, too.
Smoked salmon. I groan; and eat it. All I want to do is to get drunk and look for Billy.”
The poetic drive to a bathetic climax manages to be both funny and oddly moving, Tonks demonstrating that even in her contempt she finds poetry in the everyday interactions of human beings, however contrived. The penultimate chapter, from which this was taken, in which the Bloater and Min go on a date to the opera, is an incredible sustained exercise in comic release. The effect is somewhat like listening to James Joyce doing a particularly sarcastic stand-up routine, only to walk away and find you’re still thinking about the characters in his skits.
The Bloater is both utterly brutal and effortlessly charming, an incredible feat of writing. Tonks’ imaginative imagery and deft way with words means the novel sticks with the reader long after one has finished reading it. I can only hope my review will encourage more readers to check out this unjustly forgotten classic, and that Vintage Classic plan on bringing us more of Tonks’ work in the near future. Not to make this all about me, but I NEED more and I can’t afford the inflated second-hand prices on the internet!