Sunday, 10 August 2008

"The Leaf" by Frank McGillion

Wagner’s great Ring begins with an almost inaudible E flat, rising gradually both in volume and pitch as he begins to build first octaves and then arpeggios upon it; from this simple note grows imperceptibly yet majestically the river Rhine itself, and the river is in turn an allegory for life, the world and the eternal flow of birth, death and renewal. In the same way, Frank McGillion’s The Leaf begins with a depiction of precipitation, considered first as simple rain and then reduced gradually almost to an atomic level as simple moisture hanging and swirling in the air, blending with breeze and light to produce what is surely intended as an allegory of the building blocks of existence itself, both physical and spiritual.

The subtitle “a novel of alchemy” is helpful but almost superfluous since from the very outset we are left in little doubt that what we are dealing with here are deep matters indeed, and on many different levels. The great themes of creation, renewal and existence run through the work, and we are invited to consider what role man may be able to play in the process, and what limits should be placed upon his efforts. The choice of wetness as an idea to begin the book is surely not coincidental; Thales, the earliest of all recorded philosophers, believed that the essence of all being was water, and guessed at the atomic nature of matter, just as McGillion hints at the combining of individual factors, each invisible in itself, to produce a holistic being. Adding yet a further level of complexity, the reader finds this idea too played out on various planes, but to develop this analysis further would be to divulge a key aspect of the plot.

The writing style is highly distinctive and we recognise from the very first page that what we are hearing is a unique voice. What makes this all the more impressive is that much of McGillion’s earlier work, including On the Edge of a Lifetime, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and its sequel From Shoreline to Mainstream are written in a dazzling mixture of black humour, comic book surrealism and Glaswegian teenage chutzpah, but here we are in very different territory indeed. One struggles to think of other novelists who have written in such different styles. Some may have tried, but surely none can have succeeded so impressively. Simply to underline the difference, and not with any intention of implying that his style is in any way derivative, the voice we hear in The Leaf has echoes of Doris Lessing and William Golding.

The opening passages of the book bring to mind that period of one’s school life before one is trusted with a microscope, and has to observe nature through a magnifying lens. McGillion skewers small aspects of human observation on his specimen board and invites us to scrutinise them meticulously and mercilessly. Again, it cannot be a coincidence that the golden age of natural sciences which forms the inspiration for much of what we are told was itself before the science of lens grinding had progressed sufficiently to allow the development of the microscope, and so the magnifying lens would have been the way that the likes of Paracelsus, whose name hovers unspoken over proceedings in the novel, would have observed nature.

Corporeal existence and the incorporeal, metaphysical world mingle throughout the book, as does the idea of atomic, almost granular existence, and the boundaries are always blurred, one merging into another, often in a seemingly random fashion.

“And his pen scraped and her eyes searched and a silence settled softly on their lives. And the years laid themselves open and unrestrained and they drifted into them and with them and through them like fine golden sand slipping softly away. And lines of time rose from tiny cracking seeds and wormed hazily web-like across their faces, dribbles of time splashing over them, ripples spreading as the encroaching sea beat the edges of its waves around them.”

Incidentally McGillion is far too fine a writer to start a sentence with a conjunction without a particular effect in mind. In this book the word “and” is used over and over again as the first word in a sentence to convey a sensation of a narrative that is gently undulating yet unending; it ebbs and flows but never stops. Even its “end” is not really an end, but the completion of a circuit. Just as Wagner’s Ring begins and ends with the Rhine and a low E flat (he was insistent on the E flat even though it meant tuning the double basses a semitone lower than normal because he believed in the subconscious emotional effect of certain notes) so does The Leaf. In its end is its beginning; to turn the last page is to find oneself back on the first.

“It was night. The rain fell through the city with a soft watery whisper.”

“And outside the rain fell silently around him and froze itself into snowflakes. And he was quite unaware of them falling and landing softly without a ripple on the earth.”

Incidentally, just as the final scene of the Ring uses music symbolising the union of Brunnhilde and Siegfried, so the image of unseen snow at the end of The Leaf is an explicit reference to the occasion on which he (the central male character) first sees his future wife.

“He heard the outside door open and new voices fluttered in with a vague cool draught. One of the voices said it was snowing … He looked again at the young woman standing quietly listening to her companions. And his thoughts fell over her like the unseen snow.”

Novels which grapple with huge issues run the risk of being branded self-indulgent, pretentious, or even downright boring. That The Leaf does not is testament not just to the quality of the writing but also to the fact that McGillion has learned the knack of letting his narrative do the talking for him; again Golding comes to mind. For example, just as Pincher Martin uses an island initially as a symbol of loneliness and isolation and later, in a multi-layered book, as an allegory of death, so an island plays a large part in The Leaf. Initially this seems little more than a plot device to bring about a state of travelling to an isolated location away from the comforting environment of the childhood home, but as the book progresses it acquires various guises. It is a place where perhaps the normal rules do not apply. It is a place where people may go to convalesce mentally and spiritually away from the demands and pressures of everyday life. It symbolises a finite separation between those who go and those who stay behind. It is a place where visions occur which cannot be glimpsed in the city, and a place where secrets are sought, and later half-glimpsed and only partially explained. It is a place which can exert its own magic and draw people back to it to look back over the passage of years.

“The island secreted its influence through her and her days, until she had merged completely with her past and saw things almost as she had as a child.”

The island is where the central female character, Elizabeth, experiences two visions, both of them as a child. We never learn the full spiritual message which they convey, though it is presumably no coincidence that McGillion is an acknowledged expert on the Fatima miracle and that the 1917 vision appeared in sunshine which, according to some accounts, shone through the leaves of a tree. This is apt, because we learn that there is also a real life secret which concerns Elizabeth and it is unclear to what extent she ever fully grasps the truth, although a section towards the end of the book suggests that she does not.

The seeking after truth runs through the book like a leitmotiv. At least two of the main characters have studied the arcane arts; in both cases it disturbs their mental health. The image of drinking from the cup of truth is employed both in the early and closing stages of the tale. Yet is it really the cup of truth? In the Ring the draught which Siegfried drinks prevents him from seeing the truth, a blindness to reality which is lifted only in the moment of death. In The Leaf one character refers to whatever is in the cup as “forbidden fruits” which could refer to great mysteries normally hidden to men’s eyes, but could equally well hint at a new awareness of sin, or to some sort of spiritual opiate helping to dull the pain of knowledge. Those who drink from the first cup go on thirsting after knowledge rather than being the beneficiaries of some sudden revelation, and we are left to wonder why the church is using the same liquid as those whose theories they seek to suppress. Like Wagner with his E flat, McGillion is calling to us at a subconscious level with his imagery of communion wine, truth serums, sleeping draughts and love potions. Again without giving away too much of the plot, what we learn after the final drink is taken calls to mind the line from Hamlet: “and in the cup a union shall he throw”.

This is a very significant work from a very talented writer. When the story of the modern novel comes to be written, the name of Frank McGillion will feature strongly as an unjustly neglected and under-rated craftsman who managed to write originally, entertainingly and thought-provokingly in at least two different styles.

The Leaf is published in paperback by Xlibris, ISBN 0738899097

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