Terror on the Mountain
“Fiction, Fair and Foul.” John Ruskin was right, and ever since 1880 the Foul has been gaining, all the time croaking its characteristic claim that fair is foul and foul is fair. Both Carlos Fuentes’s A Change of Skin and J. M. G. LeClézio’s The Flood are novels which hover through the fog and filthy air. They are about fog and filth and degradation, and they court the accusation that though a reader can never see what is going on, he can certainly smell it. The Flood is not lucid, but it does combine a hallucinatory clarity à la Robbe-Grillet with a casual violence and squalor such as Beckett redeems—the scene where the “hero,” François Besson, for no discernible reason kills a stranger invites a comparison which it cannot sustain: the killing of the stranger in Molloy. A Change of Skin belongs in a different tradition—what if Cambio de piel had found itself translated as Second Skin? Fuentes shares with John Hawkes a burgeoning rhetoric, a profound skepticism about burgeoning rhetoric, a fascination with the cruelty of power and the power of cruelty, and a frankly self-conscious Gothicism. “The business is Gothic”—but Fuentes knows we need to be vigilant about that too, now that we have “Edgar Allan Poseurs complete with the Gothic castles and the dripping dungeons.” Like Hawkes, Fuentes is a writer who arouses suspicion, perplexity, and anger. Like Hawkes, it may be guignol but at least it’s grand.
Both The Flood and A Change of Skin are stuffed to bursting with what a modern reader expects to find with dismay and yet would be disappointed not to find. Both speak of life as trick mirrors or a hall of mirrors. Both see modern life as peopled by zombies—“They are dead, I know it, no question about that” (LeClézio); “the living death of the town,” “living phantoms,” “They’re dead, you see, and they don’t know it” (Fuentes). Both welcome a deadly banality, as if written both by and for men suffering from a desperate hunger for print, any print. So LeClézio’s François Besson records with blankly solicitous indifference the obsessional minutiae, and the reader is handed the permutations of a neon sign, the numbers on a pin-table (from 500 down to 10, with the page number “89” providing, fortunately, an inadvertent relief), names from a telephone directory, words from a dictionary, clues from a crossword, figures on a self-service check, and the print on a bus ticket. If we then feel like screaming, that—we will be told—is the point. Fuentes is less extreme, less dominated by the paralytic, though he too recognizes the hydroptic thirst for print:
He raises the opaque bottle with the green label and reads: 10 mgs. hydrochloride of 7-chlor-2-methyla- mine-5-phenyl-3-H-4-benzodiazepine oxide, with excipient 190 mgs., following the formula of F-Hoff-mann-LaRoche & Cie., S.A., Basel, Switzerland. He places the bottle on the shelf.
But then medicine deserves such meticulousness—from metus, fear.