Review of The Distant Sound of Violence
by Paul Xylinides
Philosophic and Marathon-Paced
“… a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy”
(William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children”)
When the logic of a narrative remains hidden, the reader must have faith in its ring of truth and allow its compulsions to lead one to what is embedded and finally realized. An explanation soon comes for the opening line — “You can’t change the size of fire.” — in Jason Greensides’s marathon-paced novel The Distant Sound of Violence. Apparently the renderings of explosion and fire in early films could not for technical reasons match the true proportions of the depicted catastrophe. Equally, in life, how can a scream, an inexplicable loss, a singular act of violence of whatever kind do justice to what is actually taking place? Can the horrific sound of even a nuclear explosion give any idea as to the enormity of destruction present and future? Those characters who come into contact with Greensides’s protagonist who refuses to accommodate himself to a child’s unexplained disappearance identify little more than your run-of-the-mill street person as he apparently has become. The can of spray paint that he wields does nothing to cause him to stand out even less the years that he is a familiar figure haunting the City of London’s boroughs. One friend from the past, however, does remember his character and his philosophical turn of mind. He also recalls the conflicts of their early lives and on his return to London finds that Nathan had abandoned his life at a time of its greatest promise of fulfillment.
“You can never change the fundamental aspects of the world, the universe, or existence.”
Nathan is that exceptional individual who chooses to sacrifice himself and even those about him (who perhaps in the Bard’s words must needs “shuffle” for themselves) rather than accept the unacceptable. What he comes to discover is that a unifying apparently obdurate principle underlying existence as he perceives it does not preclude an ongoing variety of expression both for good and for ill. Some flowers will bloom in short time while others may take years to blossom. The poisonous and the beneficial coexist. Further lines from the philosophic musings of William Butler Yeats’s “Among School Children” come to mind:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Somewhere on a distant planet and long ago, this reviewer seems to recall something that was said of Dostoevsky and how, to be successful, a novel requires an overarching philosophy. It is especially in this respect that Greensides’s work merits ultimate recognition. As with the great Russian writer it is not circumstances that govern a character’s destiny but the ideas and views brought to them. Responsibility is all and determinative. In the end, Nathan shows how one’s actions will cause philosophy, against all reason, unexpectedly to blossom.
Also in a similar manner to Dostoevsky, Greensides comfortably populates his novel with characters in all social positions — from the down-and-out to the police, from ordinary workers and run-of-the-mill bad-asses to respectable citizenry all the while delivering up the hard-scrabble streets in the intimate manner that comes from imagination and familiarity.
What the reader immediately acknowledges are the deft and insightful touches, whereby characters appear in diverting, often sensual focus:
“Taylor’s eyes began twinkling in mischief, her tongue plunging into the side of her too-wet mouth. Evidently Taylor was undergoing the ravages of a new thought.”
“She folded her arms and gazed at each of us in turn — those button-like eyes luminous in the bleak London twilight.”
An uncommon knack for bringing characters to life gives entrance straight into the world of the novel, in other words, right where one ought to be:
“Nathan took off his mask and tapped it against his thigh to generate thought.”
“Nathan felt his groin begin to stir — not at her distress, but at the way her beautiful shoulders shook like autumnal leaves in a breeze.”
The fluidity of the lines displays an enviable ease of composition whatever hard work or not may be responsible for it. Rather than feel like a neophyte’s first essay, this novel gives mature promise of more to come of at least equal order, although in the image making strength builds upon strength:
“Nathan dipped into his shirt pocket and pulled out an antique silver locket on a chain. It was oval with a raised, floral design, and he’d had ‘Stephanie’ engraved on the back. It looked impressive, particularly against the gloomy backdrop of the bridge and the damp, rotting leaves in the gutter.”
Effortless brush strokes deliver prose with a refreshing avoidance of the idealistic:
“Nathan’s hair was dripping with moisture and swept over to one side, yet sun-dried and sticking up at the back. The patchy stubble lining his jowls were making him look like some trashy convict. His eyes were haggard and squinty and brown-stained beneath.”
Or show how the ideal is very much in the everyday:
“… the front teeth sloping inward gave her a look of innocence and someone with no concept of the devastating effect they had on the world.”
It is a self-effacing quality that gives heightened utility to the meditative images:
“It was late afternoon, the sky a lush mixture of violet indigo and amber, streaked with wispy light clouds like campfire smoke.”
“Her Afro hair was unkempt, all knotted and matted like clumps of grass on a neglected piece of common land; her thick lips were cracked and parched; her brown skin an unhealthy hue, like a teabag left out too long.”
Aesthetic impression soars with a writer who is intent on getting things just right and, as with any worthwhile lived philosophy, where is the long read when patience continually nourished arrives at the promised raison d’être?
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