Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Noir and avant-garde, 1964: Berg, by Ann Quin

Recently reprinted and hailed as a great work of the British avant-garde of the 1960s, Ann Quin's Berg begins with a premise right out of 1940s-'50s noir: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father..." What follows is a short, frequently funny dismembering of both noir fiction and the literary establishment of Quin's day (she swam out to sea and never came back in 1973), having only published 3 other short novels.

The seaside town of Berg is evidently Brighton, but Quin's evocation of the out-of-season resort is quite different (and much less lurid) than Grahame Green's version in his famous Brighton novel. Quin's style is partly stream-of-consciousness and partly close observation of streets and rooming houses, with large doses of crisp dialogue. Her allusive writing can seem a bit difficult at first, but once you get into the flow, the novel rocks quickly along its downward path.

Berg includes some casual but odd violence (a cat is killed with Berg almost unaware that he's done it, and a canary dies mysteriously). There's also a long and very funny sequence, spread over several chapters, in which Berg tries to dispose of a body--this sequence is the heart of the novel, and it's somewhere between darkest noir and wildest farce. There's also a strange sequence in which Berg tries to disguise himself as a woman and is nearly raped by the father he has come to kill.

There are obvious Oedipal elements (not only in Berg's intent to kill his father, but also his blooming relationship with the father's mistress, Judith, and references to Berg's mother, Edith (whose letters to her son are interspersed throughout). But the symbolism isn't heavy, it's simply part of the salacious, satirical, and compelling scenario: Berg holds a reader's attention (once it has him or her in its grasp) with the fascination of horror and humor combined.

The ending of the novel is unresolved, in a way, but at the same time perfectly clear (involving the identification of a corpse, but I won't spoil it by saying more). Where Berg, the father, Judith, and even Edith end up is captured in an odd loop of the sort that both the avant-garde and Rod Serling liked to indulge in--but, again, the loopiness and the occasional meta-fictional passage (Berg refers to the corpse he's trying to get rid of as having "never been a flesh and  blood character really," a line that resonates in several comic dimensions) add to the fun rather than seeming pretentious. Of all the avant-garde attempts at noir, in fact (such as Faulkner's Sanctuary), Berg is perhaps the most entertaining. Though the novel is more frequently compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet than Faulkner, Quin's writing is less difficult and more evocative of a real setting and a concrete story than either of those writers, more like David Goodis or perhaps Patricia Highsmith. As all those comparison's suggest, Berg combines in a unique way the virtues of both the literary and the crime-fiction worlds, as perhaps no one up to Kate Atkinson (in quite a different way) has done.

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