Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Remember You're a One-Ball!"

Freud, over-ambitious fantasist though he was, understood (as many had before him) the importance of childhood to the psychological shape of the adult.  His mistake was in over-emphasizing the influence of the parents on the child-mind, and in neglecting that equally great force for socialization, the "educational" system.  Parents define the private life, the personal sphere, but the public persona is as much the product of teachers and the schoolyard.  And how baleful their influence can be.  On some level we all understand this, but we pretend it doesn't matter, that bullying is something to be vaguely regretted in the abstract and tolerated in the real world.  Then, when the horrifying but logical extremes of such behavior break into the news, we tut and make token efforts to address the problem.  But individuals willing to confront these inherent cruelties directly are few and far between.  In his compelling novel "Remember You're a One-Ball!", Quentin S. Crisp joins that distinguished group.

The protagonist, Ramsey Blake, has, for lack of a more meaningful occupation, trained as a teacher, and finds himself returning to his old primary school as a teacher.  The experience of seeing his childhood world through adult eyes is one of potent nostalgia-- as powerful, in its way, as one covering a much great span of years-- and Crisp's evocation of it is quite moving.  As a new employee, low on the totem pole and unfamiliar with the rituals and personalities of his new society, Ramsey has in some ways become a child once again, and as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that he must in fact come to terms with a lesson insufficiently learned during his own school years.  Faced with a monstrous secret that links one of his students and a dimly-remembered classmate, he has no choice but to decide where his loyalties lie, and what his future will be.

The secret Ramsey uncovers is so unlikely, so paranoid, that some readers will be inclined to reject it as a flight of fancy, an overheated metaphor from someone still smarting over being picked last in gym.  But it is precisely that tendency to trivialize childhood suffering that makes the novel's central metaphor so potent.  Only by entering the nightmare world of conspiracy and brutality that Crisp conjures can we come to recognize that its intensity is nothing less than an accurate reflection of how cruelty and authority function in the minds of children.  When witnessing what many would dismiss as boys-will-be-boys naughtiness, Ramsey aptly notes, "I knew that what I was witnessing was as brutal as any mugging or gang rape."  Likewise, the adult behavior that Crisp postulates is no harsher than that which is authorized under the dubious rubric of "toughening children up."

I can hardly deny that "Remember You're a One-Ball!" is often an unpleasant book to read.  Ramsey, as much a product of the system the novel is indicting as any other character, is often difficult to like, very prone to self-pity, and his sense of moral superiority, however justified, can be infuriating.  His social awkwardness, and the victimization he and others suffer, is so well-evoked as to be heart-breaking.  The novel's climax, which is simultaneously a powerful symbol and a visceral reality, is highly disturbing.  But Crisp is so adept a writer that I never felt unnecessarily brutalized.  Difficult subjects require difficult reading.

Crisp is particularly good with the overwhelming power of visual stimuli and the force of memory.  From the almost primal image that launches his strange, strained romantic relationship to the simple yet haunting descriptions of a neighborhood both changed and unchanged by term, his prose propelled me along, so that I finished a 270 page novel in about two and a half hours.  The following passage, slightly modified to prevent unnecessary plot revelations, is typical:
I had no idea why, but looking at [it], I began to experience a kind of rising up as from remote regions inside, or perhaps outside of myself, of a whole array of poignant feelings which, although I fear it is misleading, I am compelled to call nostalgic.  On the tide of feelings were borne scraps of images and other fragments.  I thought of Norman with his knees drawn up to his head, wrapped up in his coat.  "Leave me alone-- I'm hibernating!"  Within the coat was the warmth of blood, red and glowing.  Debris stirred in the liquid and with them came the smell of pencil shavings wrapping around me and blurring the world into a leaden haze.  The haze was a tunnel that led back to some ancient time where boys were playing with conkers and girls were skipping to their skipping rhymes.  There was a chant, an absurd and menacing chant.  All I heard was the word "remember" bullying in my head over and over.  I was as alone as this hand in my pocket.  A hand in my pocket.  Hibernating.  For years.  Down the haze of the leaden tunnel to focus upon one small object.
I fear I've only begun to capture the richness of Crisp's prose, and of his novel, which manages to encompass a number of related themes without ever drawing away from its central, darkest one.  "Remember You're a One-Ball!" is both a powerful piece of dystopian horror and a literary novel of the first order, pitiless in its judgments yet blazing with compassion.  It stands alongside work by acknowledged masters of dark social observation, and deserves thorough consideration by the widest possible audience.  If you only read a single book I recommend this year, make it this one.

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