Ellis Sharp - Unbelievable Things.
Someone once said to me, upon finishing Ellis Sharp’s Unbelievable Things, that it is rather like a singular traditional story told by a multitude of competing voices and idioms, some real and some fictional, all stretching and distorting the narrative in their peculiar telling – imagine, for instance, Jane Austin lying in a large unmade bed with Tolstoy; the two of them seriously blocked with amphetamines, having various breakdowns, while downing their fourth bottle of red. As farfetched and hyperbolic as all this may seem the above description is actually, after reading this extraordinary book myself, quite true to form – only I would take it a step further: imagine, if you will, the same surreal scene on the bed only it being suddenly gate-crashed by William S. Burroughs, Laurence Sterne and B. S. Johnson and various fanatical film aficionados of every description, all carrying their own stash of heavy intoxicants, dribbling, yakking, jabbering, pouring out their thoughts, all at once, in a cacophony of literary and linguistic brilliance. You see, then, and only then may one begin to realise the grand landscape Ellis Sharp has created within Unbelievable Things.
It has to be said, again and again, that Ellis Sharp writes fiction unlike any other writer I have encountered to date. Quite a bold statement in itself, but I can assure you, just like Blaise Cendrars before him, reading Ellis Sharp is like stepping into another universe – and it’s rather ironical that it takes this gargantuan sidestep away from current literary form for Sharp to begin to tell us most about ourselves. Surely this is the fundamental purpose of literature? And if this is the case then it seems Ellis Sharp has what it takes. You see, it’s impossible to walk away from any of Sharp’s fictions having not learnt anything about the world in which we live. Yet, still, his novels and short story collections are seriously askew whilst still maintaining, and here lies Sharp’s strength as a novelist, this driving current, this maddening stream which threads the blips and malfunctions of our present together with that of the past, and the future, to form a crystallised narrative; in short, his books are jam-packed with wondrous things.
So what’s it about? Well, owing to Unbelievable Things’ gargantuan scope and a fear of losing oneself in each of its minute particulars, it is better I refer to the blurb on this occasion:
“When the old man died, Dr Brunner found in Gallagher’s room five boxes of manuscripts. They told the story of the Gorst family and their rambling house in southern England, and how Gallagher had fallen in love with Monika Gorst. But there was something odd about this story and the way it was told. And then Brunner died and the story went on without him – which did not seem to bother Bezerides, who once said that he was not from earth.
Moving between The Clock House and a psychiatric institution, the western front and the Bolshevik Revolution, this postmodern story may be the first to rewrite the English country house novel and the history of the twentieth century from the perspective of Alpha Centauri.” [Blurb, Unbelievable Things]
The core functionality of Unbelievable Things is that of a conventional realist narrative being slowly teased, slowly split asunder as it is mercilessly subjected to the strong-willed gravitational force of the post-modern. The old narrative is yanked and finally relents as it is tugged away from its rather conventional, some would say staid, foundations towards a futuristic, and utterly irrational, bitterly anarchic new form. Sharp takes great pleasure in pulling the rug from under the reader. Whole Passages in Unbelievable Things, in spite of this, are often laugh-out-loud-funny, yet the narrative, regardless of the Sharpesque pitfalls which constantly threaten its very existence, still manages to sustain its ruthless, acerbic and ultimately telling edge.
Unbelievable Things is split into five parts, part one ‘From Another Planet’ being the most difficult segment in the whole book. It’s a kind of reverse Far From the Madding Crowd in which the usual earthly ponderings of the sky above are turned inside out and we see the earth perceived from another planet. It makes for a confusing, yet interesting, start. Almost immediately we start to see glimpses of the breakdown in the novel. The first paragraph, while starting with all the eminent confidence of an ordinary third-person social-realist narrative, buoyed, quite naturally, by its unforced omniscient charm, soon begins to suffer a nervous breakdown of sorts, a porthole of what is yet to happen, as the structure begins to stammer and spit, staggering to the end. Sentence structure is broken but still readable, for example:
“Wonders he, the doctor, recalling, total.” [Pg 9]
This sentence appears on the very first page and is a sign of things to come. Upon first reading it can seem pointless [this is the third paragraph of a book 539 pages in length], but taken in the right context makes complete and utter sense. We also see buried within the same sentence a reference to the film Total Recall [an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story] – the first of many film and sci-fi allusions and references which Sharp purposely juxtaposes with the country house setting of the book. These shifts in narrative and breakdowns in structure forge the underlying image of an unstable narrative voice jostling for attention within the main structure. The polyphonic nature of Unbelievable Things is in tune with the Skaz of Russian post-modernist’s such as Victor Erofeyev. Skaz is an upturned recycling of separate eras, mixing classic literature with modern satire, producing an aerated medley of current pot-boilers with their idiosyncrasies, vernacular and argot and the classical Russian canon with its seriousness, meaning and standing. In the very same way Sharp mixes current styles with British tradition to form his own prose-styling and structure – half parody, half disparagement and in the true essence of Skaz Sharp develops something refreshingly tangible and innovative from this. All this adds to the timbre of the voices, especially the intruder who buts into the narrative at fleeting intervals within the text, at first it is hard to decipher whose voice this is, but it soon becomes clear that it is in fact Gallagher [although this is a quite difficult task as his identity oddly changes throughout the entire book, this is a classic Sharp prank; sometimes he is addressed as Charlie Bunch and other he is the mysterious Bezerides]. Gallagher is the key character, the lynchpin which holds most of Unbelievable Things together plot-wise. Although, it has to be said, nothing is revealed too overtly by Sharp. The first chapter soon pulls itself together, only after names and spellings of characters begin to change. Font size begins to change shape and size, lower case and upper begin to infiltrate whole sentences – something is happening, something is disturbing the narrative. An outside force maybe?
In this crucial first chapter earth is seen from afar, we are being scrutinized – this is exemplified by a narrative structure which is openly prodded and poked before finally succumbing to such scrutiny. This unworldly interference has a point all the same. Juxtapose this irrational interference with the staid descriptions of the Hampshire landscape known to Jane Austen and we have before our very eyes all the raw ingredients for honest, literary tomfoolery and satire – something Sharp exudes with glee. The slips, slurs and general unease in this opening chapter turn out to play a primary undertaking in the events towards the close of the book, and as I have subsequently mentioned, everything is happening for a reason. Running through the entire narrative of Unbelievable Things is the prolonged metaphor of a landslide and coupled with this linguistic breakdown, serves as a platform for Sharp’s deconstruction of his novel. Unbelievable Things is put under a strong microscope. Sharp doesn’t want to see a stationary narrative, he wants it to evolve, to split and divide like a cell; he wants the whole structure to flit, to move along, to be pushed and shoved by the same unrecognizable forces that govern us all. And these forces aren’t godly, no way, they are swayed by our very own curiosity, our very own tampering in the machinations of everything that makes us tick, from the thoughts we hold to the actions we take. This force, one presumes, manifests itself as the unidentified narrator who pokes in his nose, sticking it merrily into the gnarled face of authoritative traditions, those of the social realist narrative – the form in which amuses Sharp the most. It is obvious to all his readers that Ellis Sharp loves to mock this aging traditional form, seeing such realist foundations as nothing but an aged, limping stick-in-the-mud which hampers, as Sharp sees it, the progress of language and form in the British novel.
In using a faithful and believable landscape which, in turn, serves as an allusion to the literary landscape of traditional formalists such as Jane Austen and, to a lesser degree, Edward Thomas we are brought to the actual landslide at the end of the novel which puts an end to everything once and for all. Like the mud and slurry violently sliding from a hillside in its entirety Unbelievable Things gradually slips, as the novel’s traditional stanchions begin to give way – strange things begin to happen, such as characters disappearing, totally, from view, the only explanation given that they only existed in the “first draft” and are now not needed. Whole paragraphs of action are rendered meaningless because plot has shifted, changed and parts have been lost whilst saving onto disk in Sharp’s deconstructionist writing process. At one point in the narrative, with the temerity only the insouciant can muster, Ellis Sharp nips out for a cup of tea and to play records in the other room as characters go about their constructed business or sleep [when the characters are not alive on the page, then Sharp steps into view], the focus shifting over to Sharp and the nuts and bolts composition of Unbelievable Things, in fact Ellis Sharp is as much a central character as any of his protagonists are. All this plunges the narrative into political, post-modern and fictional disarray – and yet, somehow, Ellis Sharp forces this mishmash of ideas, style and waywardness to make perfect sense. Unbelievable Things, in spite of all this interference, is an easy read, the prose swift and direct, the whole metaphor believable and fitting.
Ellis Sharp’s prose-style suits his surname. It is barbed, slick and streamlined. Unbelievable Things blurs all preconceived notions of how novels should, in fact, look and read. Old fashioned structure is harangued by mainstream sci-fi imagery in films such as The Terminator [and as stated earlier Total Recall]. Yet again, Sharp mocks deep-rooted composition with conventional modern imagery drawn from popular culture; he cheapens social realism in this respect by showing literary elitists that their treasured literary cannon were once ostensibly a mainstream fiction.
The five parts of this extraordinary book [themselves literally found within the novel] cover a gargantuan literary range and political history. Part One [From Another Planet] comprehensively covers a time scale running from the mid-nineteenth century up to around 1914. Part Two [Century Plant] is set in the summer of 1914. Part Three [Zero Line] is set in France in the period from 28th August 1914 to 1916/1917. Part Four [Before Your Time] is set in Russia in the period spanning 1914 – 1941. Part 5 [Blood Star], apart from the first chapter, which takes place the day and night before, is set entirely on 8th September 1917 and returns to the provincial English landscape of Parts One and Two.
As a reader can probably tell Unbelievable Things is obsessed with time in the same way Sharp’s major influence, Laurence Sterne, was. There is also no shortage of intertextuality, including numerous literary allusions and jokes. For instance, the “cockerels” and “bulls” in the rural sequences directly allude to the final “Cock and Bull Story” in Sterne’s masterpiece Tristram Shandy. Likewise Sharp’s prose can often seem Joycean in its timbre and construct:
“Begin to fall, most in the first wave forward flat on their faces, a few arms in the conventional posture of a nine-reeler but some (many, oh many) in queer screaming terrible ways, bodies twirling, bodies twisted up, lungs punctured, bowels tumbling out like chipolatas, lips a pink froth, scores and scores of jerking galvanized men dancing a maddened eightsome reel their dance of.” [Pg 461]
This highly lyrical prose is also reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poetry; the same sake of man is being lamented as they fall into oblivion. Sharp drives the narrative into a paroxysm of Joycean and linguistic wonderment, as the voice snaps, the narrative and landscape slipping towards that final end:
“And. Then. They. Were. Facedown in an ocean of thyme, facedown on the slopes where the whitewhite helleborines are coming into. Bloom or. Was it just dust white dust and the massacre went on on on on on, the German guns hosing away wave after stupefied wave while.” [Pg 461]
The final chapters are exceedingly well written and the actual landslide, when it finally happens, is cut up into tiny cinematic snippets, placing the reader where the action lies with each character – with this we are hit from all sides as Sharp begins to quicken the narrative, each crafted paragraph feeling the almighty weight of this monstrous natural disaster. In these chapters we see much referencing to Malcolm Lowry – the postmodern narrative is about to prevail, pulling its prankster’s rug once and for all:
“Imagine next a stupefying scorching violetwhite flash, an allencompassing dreamlike flash accompanied by the suction of a hundred emptying bathtubs, a thousand squawking horns, the tortured squeal of recorded music played at the wrong speed, slowing down, low batteries twisting a great symphony, turning it into a mash of moans and blurry echoes, a place of desolation, cruelty, endings, where torn papers whirl with dreadful slowness in disintegrating rooms, chairs and cutlery madly circulate beneath cracking ceilings, while somewhere coldly distant dogs bark and klaxons screech. A roar, a sucking swishing roar there was, is.” [Pg 504]
This is the start of the landslide. These cinematic snippets, these short, sudden bursts of action and noise help with the overall quickening of pace. It is a narrative hook used by writers such as Nicholas Royle often within the gritty confines of an urban backdrop, but Sharp differs and is the more original because of it, using this same narrative device to drive and push along a traditional rustic, country-house setting, the result being as incongruous as it is compelling. The landslide is omniscient, nothing is left untouched and Sharp takes the reader from one scene of destruction to the next in the blink of an eye. It is a remarkable feat:
“A dozen mirrors simultaneously crack, slivers whirling across rooms like darts, embedding themselves in human faces and limbs. A half-decapitated girl drops, softly bubbling…” [Pg 517]
This is Sharp’s moment. I defy any reader to tell me that the above paragraphs are not mesmerizing writing at its best, at its most shining and lucid. And here lies the crux of Unbelievable Things as we begin to follow this almighty slab of wet earth as it trundles down the hillside towards total oblivion, within the menacing cacophony of natural violence and intent all begins to make everlasting sense. All Sharp’s slurs of diction and speech and narrative and font-size in the opening chapters begin to make complete and utter sense. We are back where we started and as in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake the beginning and the end of the novel join together, they become one and the same – a continuous recirculation. It is important to mention the passage and ultimate joining of time within Unbelievable Things. The whole book already exists [as it already does when porters Sikorski and Lee discover the box containing the five parts of the manuscript in the shoebox on page 83 – this “bloody rubbish”, in fact, being the five parts that make up Unbelievable Things] in manifold metafictional universes’ and even when the original manuscript, found by Sharp’s unknowing porters, is finally destroyed in a fire the book/narrative continues anyway, regardless, an organic form with a life, it seems, of its own. Unbelievable Things is beyond time.
In short, Unbelievable Things, if read naturalistically, is simply the deranged ramblings of a very old man who has survived the trenches of the First World War and had his heart broken by one of the main characters, Monica, the whole narrative the incoherent reinventions of the key moments in his long troubled life, most of which has been spent in a lunatic asylum. Yet, it could also be stated that [and it has, by the very same reader who first alerted me to Unbelievable Things] this marvellous book may just be the equivalent of a far future games console cartridge, a game played by a stranded starship crew while they wait for the intergalactic equivalent of the RAC to turn up and repair the broken-down ship. All said and done, Unbelievable Things is everything you want it to be – and some more. It will drive you insane and send you into paroxysms of laughter, it will spin you into wonder with its allusions and gimmickry, its intertextuality will force you to read more literary fiction, its numerous voices, idioms and characters will tie you up in metaphorical and lyrical knots. It is up to you to try and untie them. In short, Unbelievable Things does everything a great work of fiction should do – all you have to do is sit, open the first page and get ready to be entertained.
Lee Rourke © 2005.