BERG by Ann Quin (BOOK REVIEW)
“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…”
And with that iconic opening line, Ann Quin’s remarkable debut novel Berg hits the ground running and never lets up. On its release it catapulted Quin to the forefront of British avant-garde writing, and almost 60 years later it has lost none of its revolutionary power. Quin draws on detective and pulp fiction for the scaffolding of the Oedipal tale of a man trying to murder his father, from which her radical approach to stream-of-consciousness prose spirals out into a swirling synaesthetic state of delirium. Berg is funny and grotesque, hilarious and frightening all at once. In its dream-like portrayal of the collapsing mental state of its protagonist, it echoes the work of Anna Kavan, whilst Quin’s sharp eye for social satire and brutal wit recalls her contemporary Rosemary Tonks. But really, Berg is like nothing else, a step beyond the experimental mental states described by William Burroughs or the impressionism of James Joyce.
Berg is told through the perspective of its protagonist who, resenting his father for abandoning him and his mother, tracks him down to the seaside town of Brighton in the desolation of winter, where he is holed up in a dismal inn with his new mistress Judith. Greb rents the room next door to his father and Judith, inveigling his way into their lives without telling them who he really is, intending to seduce Judith and murder his father. But Greb’s plans quickly collapse around him, as he wrestles with his complex feelings for his absent father, numbs himself with alcohol, and becomes sucked into the dangerous seedy underworld of off-season Brighton. As Greb’s sense of reality unravels around him, his attempts at violence and seduction become more unhinged as the world gets stranger and more nightmarish around him.
Quin expertly plunges the reader into the shifting landscape of Greb’s psyche. The novel is told in a stream-of-consciousness form, in which Greb’s thoughts, memories and sensory impressions mix with the characters’ dialogue, often with little to mark in the text where one ends and the next begins. As such the reader is immersed in Greb’s mind and personality, following him from reflections on his upbringing with his overbearing mother, of whom he feels overly protective, to the drunken haze of the present as his perception of his strange surroundings become warped by the effects of loneliness and alcohol. Quin has a fantastic ear for dialogue, the words and tone of each snippet making it clear which character is talking, whether it is Greb’s recollection of his mother’s complaints, his father alternating between posturing and pleading, Judith caught between flirting and despair. But it is the psychological portrait of Greb that most defines the novel, Quin’s inventive and poetic prose capable of moments of poetic insight one moment and wonderfully cataloguing alienation and despair the next.
Though Berg is far from science fiction, I feel it definitely partakes of the speculative and the weird. Quin uses the scaffolding of a pulpy, noirish plot and brings in pulp and noirish elements, which manifest as both the grotesquely funny and the unnervingly strange. In one sequence, Greb finally summons up the courage to dispatch his father, administering a brutal beating and trying to dispose of what he believes is his father’s corpse, only to discover it has been a ventriloquist’s dummy he’s been carrying around. The novel has a palpable sense of paranoia, as Greb begins to believe the police and the local gangsters are both hot on his trail. This frequently erupts into the nightmarish, as in a sequence where Greb leaves a party to find himself drawn into a crowd who are trying to ritualistically burn his father’s dummy. These moments of the fantastic and the strange are countered by the kitchen-sink mundanity of Greb’s family drama, the grim realities of growing up in poverty in a single-parent home in 1950s Britain. Quin allows the two to exacerbate and feed off each other as Greb’s mental state becomes decidedly more unhinged.
Greb’s spiral into delusion and possible madness is echoed by Quin’s atmospheric and evocative descriptions of Brighton in winter. Quin brilliantly captures the uncanniness of old British seaside resort towns out of season, the strangeness of finding oneself in these places shut down for the bleakness of winter. As events move further out of Greb’s control, he begins to question the very reality of the town around him, perhaps even to suspect that he is a fictional character, a shadow puppet in someone else’s play:
“The seafront, the pier, and the beach were islands that might float on over the sea, yet each section remaining untouched. Why did the town seem so scattered, worse as though it would any minute disintegrate into flotsam if one dropped down and walked amongst it all? Were those small dark figures who inhabited those islands aware of the same feeling this very minute?”
The nightmarish Brighton Greb staggers through, with its islands of coherence emerging over waves of turbulence, has become the perfect mirror of Greb’s mind.
Berg is a challenging and unsettling masterpiece. It is a brilliant work of fiction that demonstrates just how powerfully elements from pulp fiction and speculative fiction can be used to create something powerful, new and disorienting. The haunting strangeness of Quin’s luminous prose, as well as the starkness of her character insights, follow the reader long after the book is put down.