Genuinely surrealist novels are as rare as hen’s teeth. They are a different form from the magic realist, the absurdist, the wacky, the mimsical and the nastily satirical. But Brian Catling is a genuine surrealist novelist, and it no doubt helps that his artwork is surreal (he is professor of fine art at Ruskin College, Oxford: how Ruskin would have loathed him). He has previously written a trilogy of novels, The Vorrh, which has been among my highlights of the past few years. This is a more slender book, but it is slender like a stiletto. If there is one defining feature of truly surreal literature, it is that it defies the imposition of meanings while retaining an affective hold on the reader. Oh, and horrifying them.
Earwig is actually a character called Aalbert Scellinc (yes, I have tried anagrams and etymologies and came up with zip: he resists meaning too). Scellinc is a veteran of the Great War, during which he was an expert listener, tasked with using his preternatural hearing to listen for the incoming. Now vaguely vagrant and definitely misanthropic, he takes a job looking after a very peculiar ward, a child called Mia.
She has teeth made of ice, which must be replaced on a regular basis, and is agoraphobic; which means that when his mysterious employers who contact him only to tell him she must be taken to Paris, he is in a quandary. Not least because he has become implicated, even provoked, into a bar brawl, maimed a waitress, possibly met the devil and now has Mia’s adopted sinister black feline to add to his troubles. It’s not a spoiler, really, but the scene in which Earwig (his grandfather’s nickname) tries to strangle the cat is as ghastly as in Bulgakov or the cat-killing in Nicola Barker’s Darkmans.
What elevates this is the sheer, dazzling uncertainty of the prose. It might have been just a gothic horror, but on every page Catling introduces an unexpected word. One character has a ‘prolonged face’, night is ‘bullied away’ by dawn, influenza is ‘carried in its blindness’ of the freezing weather. None of this elegance would matter except that the book has a core of empathy. The characters are traumatised in many different ways — and the cures to those traumas (alcohol, early forms of psychotherapy, silence, even pets) — are as traumatic.
Earwig is a book full of sadness, madness and badness and illness, and its unique style makes the reader all the more prone to all four.