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Ellis Sharp: Unbelievable Things
The blurb on the back of my edition says this postmodern story may be the first to rewrite the English country house novel. As I have stated elsewhere, it is not but it certainly is unashamedly and overtly postmodern. Include everything – isn’t that the postmodernist motto? Sharp states in the novel, having let loose with a full range of postmodernist games. Apart from the humour (some of which is very poor), we get the lists of and references to things, books and films (The Swimmer and Céline et Julie vont en bateau are two favourites). The unnamed third person narrator frequently evokes Sharp himself, commenting on why he is writing what he writes and even on his choice of music while writing (he seems too stuck in the Seventies). Characters change name, as do actions, or even existence according to what draft of the text is in favour. Earlier drafts may have been abandoned but references to them and the changes abound. He messes with time and plot. Indeed, he uses the full postmodernist arsenal of tricks to drive home that you are indeed reading a novel. One of the major characters may have been killed in World War I but also may be a contemporary alien from another planet, albeit with a different name. He likens events, particularly those where a specific time of day is cited, to modern films, for no apparent purpose. Homage is paid to authors such as Philip K Dick and William Burroughs, including using occasional characters from other authors. In short, it is immense fun and keeps you frequently wondering what is going on.
There is a plot, of course. The Gorsts have a country house (Clock House) in the Little Switzerland area of Hampshire. Mrs. Gorst runs off with her lover to Canada and is drowned when the ship sinks. They have three children in the first draft but Charles, though he continues to be mentioned, is gone by the subsequent drafts, leaving Monika (earlier, Monica) and Georgina. Monika meets Gallagher aka Bunch aka Bezirides (the alien) but ends up marrying Dr Bonne. Bonne and Monika are killed when the house is destroyed by a landslide, while Georgina goes off to St Petersburg in 1917 to work as a governess but ends ups, twenty-four years later, in a Soviet labour camp. All this is mixed in with the post-modernist fun and games, with the story of Gallagher aka Bunch aka Bezirides (the alien) and with various side stories. The two main side stories are the First World War and the Russian Revolution. As anyone who had read his superb blog will know, Sharp is very much against the powers-that-be. His take on World War 1 is the horrors the soldiers were put through, the incompetence of Haig and the trickery of journalists, a theme he continues in his blog. In the Russian Revolution, he is against the Bolsheviks and Stalin. However, though both stories are ultimately sad (with deaths of the major characters), Sharp does not neglect his post-modernist humour in telling these stories.
Post-modernist novels, you either love them or hate them. I can see why some readers might find this novel difficult. But, in my view, Sharp not only addresses serious issues, not only subverts the novel form and makes us think very clearly about what it is and what it means and why it might be no longer relevant to the contemporary world and not only keeps us both laughing and wondering throughout, he tells a good story or, rather, several stories. Sadly, it is not a book you are likely to find at your favourite local McBooks.
First published 2000 by Zoilus Press