‘Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god’ Wrote Aristotle in his Politics (1.2) Benjamin Myers’ third novel, Pig Iron (Bluemoose Books), asks this question of his protagonist, John-John Wisdom. He delights in the teeming solitude of the woods, his ‘green cathedral’ and seeks the ultimate solitude of being nameless, unfathered without any filial connection, entirely singular in a world of others -in other words, a god.
But the violence he encounters and even engenders suggests that he is a beast, despite his gentleness and compassion. We discover however, that John-John is nothing so Manichean, as either/or, he is both and neither beast and god. He is a traveller, born ‘under a bad moon’ into a world of bare-knuckle fighting and honour, burdened with a mythic history and his father’s name. He was fashioned in the green light of the woods but the name he bears is anvil heavy, a beast’s name written in blood and sealed in dirt.
When I first met my father I was 14 years old. He was tall and strong and wore a version of my face. He had long hair pulled back in a stringy ponytail and wore a loose linen suit. He also drove a sports car and his girlfriend had been a model. She was thin with dark hair permed into a curly frazzle. Her sister was a famous page 3 girl. I thought they were the most glamorous people imaginable.
John-John Wisdom has done his time in a young offender’s institute and on release has got himself a job driving an ice-cream van. But his attempts at going straight are undermined by his lineage and he is bound to the fate bequeathed him by his father like a Nietzschean hero, subject to what seems to be an eternal recurrence of violence and rage producing the same miserable end. It seems John-John must settle his father’s accounts.
This genetic inheritance is measured in his pulse, in the tap-tap, tap-tap, beat of his heart. It sounds out his name – Wis-dom, Wis-dom. An Iamb. The meter that limps, dragging one heavy foot. It proclaims him, his being. I am. I am. I am Wisdom. The crippled foot-steps of his father drum out the rhythm of his life force. He longs to be nomadic and yet is fixed in place by that name.
I chose my own surname to free myself from the tyranny of lineage, to belong to myself and myself alone. At birth I was given my mother’s maiden name as my father wasn’t around – my birth certificate states father unknown. It was then changed a couple of times with each new ‘daddy’ that came and went and each time I felt further and further isolated from the shifting family I was supposed to be part of.
Myth stalks Myers’ text, though perhaps its better to say that our human lives form uncanny continuities with mythic narratives. John-John is an Adonis, sprung from nature, begotten unnaturally, a deity of rebirth and vegetation. Like Adonis, John-John is entrusted to a maternal figure not his mother. The novel itself seems to produce and comment on the knots and ties of literature, it reflects back the lineage and incestuous couplings that narrative and storytelling undertakes. And it’s those incestuous couplings that interest me here; in particular, father/daughter relations of which literature and myth describe in abundance – from Zeus and Persephone, Cinyras and Myrrha, Lot and his daughters to Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, DeMaupassant’s Bel-Ami, Lolita etc.
The relationship is objectionable – and in many of these narratives (Lot, Cinyras in particular), the daughters aren’t necessarily innocent victims (though one could argue against this) – but there seems to be an acknowledgement of the complex and sometimes unthinkable nature of desire. Leaving aside (for now) the obvious accusation of paedophilia and the corruption of minors, why might a father be attracted to his daughter and vice versa?
Perhaps, if the couple haven’t met till the daughter is already grown, the incest taboo – reinforced by nurturing a young baby, watching her grow, establishing the filial division/connection between them – isn’t present and the man meets with a woman he is unable to consider as a daughter. Perhaps, she looks like her mother, a woman he was once attracted to. Perhaps she is ‘just his type.’ And perhaps the daughter wants her father’s attention and love so much she interprets this as reciprocal sexual desire. Perhaps she has believed that one day her father would come and protect her and right all the wrongs in her life recasting him in the role of Prince Charming.
For whatever reason, the father desires this woman – his daughter. He tells her that she looks just like his own mother and this complicates things even further. He tells his daughter that her boyfriend looks just like him, and that delights the father, proving that she wants him but is too scared to just come out and say it. He takes his daughter and her friend out to a bar and asks them to kiss each other, so he can watch. He tells his daughter intimate details and asks her to share the same. The daughter is always wary, but despite this says nothing. She worries that this is her fault.
He never touches her, however. The relationship is not consummated and yet, the daughter grows more afraid of him and eventually shuts him out of her life. He rages about this and refuses to accept her decision, calling and texting, shouting and sending abuse until finally, he writes to her to tell her she is dead to him. That he is done with her.
She should feel relieved. Free. But like John-John Wisdom she will find dragging herself clear almost impossible. She is molecular, inextricably bound – a beast.
Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers
Published by Bluemoose Books ISBN 978 0 956687661