TRISTAM ADAMS: HIGH JOHN THE CONQUEROR BY TARIQ GODDARD
The opening narrative of Tariq Goddard’s novel High John the Conqueror (Repeater Books, 2022) is sandwiched by the following lines: “I always wanted to be a writer, but I became a policeman instead.’ and “I wanted to be a writer, but I became a policeman instead.” These are the words of DCI Terence Balance.
Between these lines of Terry’s are the observations and confessions of a successful writer, living a writer’s life – Terry’s dream. The satisfaction of validation, a loving family, a house larger than most looking out onto a view greater than many to a chalky panorama of Wiltshire—a dreamy Albion—are all described in Terry’s dream of being a writer.
Terry dreams of being shortlisted for prizes, of healthy sales and a series of cosy validations; these, and material and monetary niceties— luxury accoutrements—of success are a prelude to the more existential bonuses—validations—of a successful literary career. These existential reassurances and validations are profoundly summarised as “self-assurance and self-respect, the emotional closure and intellectual finality, the lasting satisfaction and deep sleep that are the gifts of being able to sum up everything in words.” ah, to be a writer!
It is a slightly goading gambit of Goddard’s, to present the reader with this writer’s life, to voice this scene as Terry’s dream, Terry’s confession, by way of (ostensibly) an autobiographical prose piece, and then to close the passage, to awaken, and say “I wanted to be a writer, but I became a policeman instead.” It is confident; it is slightly, but only ever so slightly, smug. Structurally, it is an effective trick. A sort of reverse hypnic jerk, whereby the details of a life rooted in this world are framed as fantasy and denied further elaboration and the reader is instead wrenched into a fictional diegesis voiced by DCI Balance. This opening (or is it a closing?) betrays awareness on Goddard’s part and a wilful toying; it is briefly and lightly performative and post-modern.
It is a brassy ruse. It risks informing the reader that they are indeed reading fiction; that what occurs next is not to be believed, that it is only fiction. On a certain level this opening gambit does risk ruining the book before it even starts… but it is soon forgotten like, indeed, a dream, and Balance is able to tell ‘his’ tale: but listen, believe me when I say… It is the textural equivalent of the smirking magician (well, don’t they all smirk?) that declares ‘I’m going to show you a magic trick, it is a trick, it is not real magic you know, but you’ll believe it nonetheless. You’ll believe in magic. It goes like this…’
Goddard is not the first writer to explore these narrative inversions, to pull the reader through the Klein bottle of diegetic narrative and self-narrative, to explore metaphysics, to indulge in what one might call, were one pretentious enough,—moi?— ontological acrobatics. John Banville’s Shroud springs to mind (the clue is in the title), although it is nowhere near as close as Goddard’s brush with autobiographical detail. Banville’s Shroud is a frame within a frame, the outermost of which isn’t quite as brashly autobiographical as Goddard’s opening prose of Balance’s dream, for we know Goddard is a writer that lives in Wiltshire where the hills are chalky, we know he has a family. Nonetheless, both these texts offer a curious satisfaction of a parallax view, a double sense of wanting to know a little bit about the character, and a little bit about the breath behind the character’s voice. ‘I’m going to tell you a story, it is true I tell you, trust me, I’m an actor… no seriously, honestly, I’m a fiction writer you see, it goes like this… it is true, I say…’ I’m not sure there is a term for this parallax voice, this inter–zone between autofiction and fiction. It is not subtext. Paratext? Maybe…
A comparison of Goddard to Banville is not immediately obvious. But there are some conspicuously uncommercial stylistic traits. Roger Boylan in ‘Banville the New Nabokov’ wrote:
Regarded as the most stylistically elaborate Irish writer of his generation, John Banville is a philosophical novelist concerned with the nature of perception, the conflict between imagination and reality, and the existential isolation of the individual. (…) Banville marked out his non-realist territory and his interest in metaphysical ideas, but was criticised for technical self-indulgence and verbosity.
Goddard’s influences are likely very different to Banville’s. But his prose is notably verbose, a little baroque to pass unremarked in this age of prize winners reliably producing ultra–concrete–reading–age–12–airport–waiting–room titles to compete with social media (confession: I am only quasi-performatively tutting into my pint of tepid bitter here). Balance’s voice, despite being that of a detective, lapses into ruminations of a philosophical nature quite readily. Verdicts on perception, politics, the human condition, desire, lust, intoxication and their shadowy penumbrae are offered frequently. Intricate descriptions of clothes, movements, the drably scarred and economically Wilting Wessex, pepper the main narrative.
Goddard is not kowtowing to popular style or, bravely, a tenor befitting a policeman. The philosophical ruminations, the descriptions, can at times read a little Jamesian (and that—I shouldn’t have to say—is no bad thing). The verdicts on perception, politics and human natures have a whiff of Kingsley Amis, in particular the stickily tipsy Amis of The Green Man, the most autobiographical of his novels). In each case, High John the Conqueror harbours a voice confident enough to take up the reader’s time and express abstract questions and thoughts by way of a fictional proxy protagonist in a crime caper narrative. Such ruminations (indulgences were one to be cynical) do not hamper narrative action. Despite this tendency of style and metaphysical ‘distraction’ from the police procedural narrative, there is a wonderful momentum, a pace, a beat about this novel (forgive me).
Were this not the case, one could turn the opening lines around to suggest a failure of voice “I wanted to be a policeman, but I became a writer instead.” Of course, this type of absolutist reading is not right. The task of creating and finding voice is not an either or exercise; enchanting 1st person narratives are literary constructs, not necessarily exercises in verbal realism. Goddard, thankfully, does not provide an unfiltered, unembellished or undramatised policeman’s telling; instead he provides something more absorbing.
Goddard provides a convincing and empathic narrative of Balance’s adventure. It is a text that is by turns insightful, introspective, vivid, and panoramic and pointedly dry in awkward humour. Goddard’s voicing frequently eschews any effort towards a fealty with the protagonist’s verbal register and instead explores the unsaid, the unspoken. This approach brings the frequent apathetic wit and verbal ticks of Balance’s colleagues into stark relief; the sparring dialogues of posturing coppers feel gauzy, as do their exchanges with the public. Spoken language in this novel is often a bantering carapace, a sarcastic mask. There is a keen sensitivity here, not just to the inexactitude of language but its downright disingenuousness of commonplace use. Like-literally. No, absolutely…
Counterpose Goddard’s voicing to the stories of Wendy Erskine’s Dance Move. Goddard opts for 1st person with dialogue speech marks. Erskine opts for 3rd person with unmarked lines of speech. The latter embeds the distinct vernacular and verbal ticks of her protagonists within her prose. For example, in ‘Bildungsroman’ the prose slips into that of a naïve young man on work experience. One instance occurs as a feint into the protagonists learned rapport skills: ‘They had done units on that in school. You start with a topic sentence, something like that. Use adjectives and all that shit. If you’re talking don’t mumble.’ A page later the tone slips into coarse suburban stonerisms: ‘He found a picture of a topless woman who looked over thirty. So fucked already dunno if I am even gonna make it to da work! Fuck dat anyway life is for da living.’ Goddard’s approach is less dexterous and fluid, and opts to inhabit Balance’s world in a 1st person tensed voice that, in terms of dialect and vernacular, does not befit a bobby on the beat, but does allow flight to wider questions and perspectives:
Not to be outdone, these thrift stores are sandwiched by reviled high-street names that cyclically disappear with recessions, cafes that serve their bacon rare with margarine, and the mobile phone outlets that prove technology makes for poor window displays, the latter the single thriving businesses graced by every sector of society, who in the absence of much to say face to face, passionately communicate it over screens. These reliable highlights would be nothing without their trimmings: the local markets that are outdoor jumble sales, with only the fruit not having come from China; civic buildings that are indistinguishable from the STD clinic and lavatory blocks; a bypass built on backhanders that redirects traffic into the jammed city centre, suffering worse congestion than Los Angeles, without the redemptive consolation of the real estate and Hollywood; and, of course, pubs — more per head than anywhere else in the country, each an entry into a world eerily like its neighbour’s. One cannot hate any of this, but nor can one be inspired, and though I failed to notice most of it for the first couple of years, the place and its rituals have entered me and belong as much to my unconscious as they do to themselves in all their gloomy vividity.
This is not ‘how people speak’. Goddard is not wedded to verbal realism (for how many coppers use the indefinite pronoun ‘one’ in earnest?) and instead pursues a narrative richness that is effective in enveloping the reader in the ‘gloomy vividity’ of the locales Balance travels through. Aptly, it is intoxicating.
This is the illogic, the magic and enchantment, of voice in writing and reading. The words might not fit the character, the words might not be apt or ‘correct’ seeming, but a voice may ‘resonate’ all the more by virtue of this disjunct, this departure. Voice floats beyond signifiers, beyond sound and text: there is a voice that does not ‘fit’—that is not accommodated by—speech, accent, jargon, vocabulary, slang, dialect or vernacular, a voice in excess of these tenors.
On the subject of things that don’t fit, DCI Balance is nonetheless a square peg in the blues. Balance, in his parlé with colleagues (many of whose’ names are nods to Throbbing Gristle) is a figure recalling Jimmy McNulty from HBO’s The Wire. He is ambitious and slightly selfish in pursuing a morally superior endeavour he persistently regards as absolutely autonomous from protocol, law, evidence and practical use… Balance is something of an idealist; a crusader who’s thwarted as much by his own profession and colleagues as by the web of murky goings on he investigates. This is parsed out particularly well with his frustrations and minor triumphs over his superior Chief Constable Grace, a character of political pragmatism and diplomatic reticence in his recalcitrance to allow Balance the free reign he (Balance) feels is right to investigate the oblique avenues of inquiry around a spate of mispers days before the British Queen’s visit to the city. One can feel the glare of Cedric Daniels, the chagrin of William Rawls in Grace’s dealings and discomforts—like the grimace of trapped wind with no prospect of parole—with Balance.
Of course, this type of relationship is a classic hook for a reader’s engagement. It is, indeed, difficult not to ‘root’ for Balance in the way one does or did for McNulty, despite his idealism and unprofessionalism, as he rubs up and pokes those within and without the law. Balance’s idealism and intuition bring him close to a point of straying from the empirically qualified route, at times he seems doggedly ignorant of the world and those around him: not attributes that serve a detective well. Of course, this approach doesn’t make life easy or win him many friends in the force. It is a major facet of almost all police procedurals; swimming against the current of protocol and institutional apathy whilst navigating and striving to out wit the mercurial caginess and evasions of those that must be brought to justice: a sort of negative pull and push against their moralism, a doubling up of a protagonist’s challenge: a torsion to relish.
Beyond some similarities to The Wire there is also a heavy dose of True Detective in High John the Conqueror. The title refers to a plant-fungi hybrid, a sort of mycelium substance that grows in the New Forest and ripens to hallucinogenic toxicity every forty years. The array of persons entangled in the economic and emotional rhizomes (like many drugs) spreads from the ultra–rich crowd (with shades of the Yew–Treesque old British establishment and popular entertainment nexus), their political and uniformed corrupt cronies, down to young vagrants and addled gaunt desperates. Throughout this cast, a macabre murkiness of ‘alternative’ lifestyles is impressed (the Throbbing Gristle references are more than apt in this sense). We are off the beaten track. We have antique wheeling cads and fakes, pink corduroy trousers and sticky Barbour jackets and we have a number of characters that conjure up dreaded and landed (as in property) tie-dyed ‘Crusties’. New-age festival types whose roll halted in Wiltshire for some obscure lacking negative. There is a distinct impression this place has more than its fair share of amethyst and acid: a place where grimly lurid juggling balls go to rest.
A peripheral character, Fluffy, is aggressively artsy, aspirational, aloof and expensive. She bristles with the prickliness of one with too much at stake in their laissez-faire persona, she’s a witch, a healer, she privileges folk-knowledge and crystals, and harbours an automatic disdain for the mainstream, a default for contrarianism and unspecified alternativeness despite proclivities for middle-class primness and luxuries. Fluffy has more than a whiff of Thomas Ligotti’s Dalha from ‘The Bungalow House’, the fine arts dealer… she’s one of the ‘Dalhas of the world’, one of the more spikey ones. Not so much Fluffy as Cacti.
The Pertwees are framed, and declare themselves as, as the casualties of the forgotten estates, the missing persons from the painter George Shaw’s estate scenes. Nick the Well forms part of a sad pub scene, a sort of loners club for troglodytic alcoholics, sex workers, cocaine fiends and intrepid tourists… neglect is the décor, and shame is the vibe. Hope got barred in 2008. This is one of the novels strengths, Goddard’s touch for squalor, for decay, for an economically wilted-Shire. There is something a little Hotel California, a little forgotten trap, about the world-hole portrayed here, a place no one chooses as a destination: somewhere lives get snagged as they pass by, like the sheep wool caught on gorse and barbed wire on Salisbury plain, the heavy coolness of an indifferent land decorated with cobwebby wisps painting a rural sham of Havisham cryostasis. The ‘antique’ shop, all faded 70s humour and tat, is a sadly gaudy microcosm of this. Forgotten furniture.
There is a distinctly Ligottian decay in this sense, a drabness, a grotesque sorriness where things are permautumnal, on the turn, rotting, gone to seed. Fungi—given its typical season and growth medium—is a key in the narrative, but it also reflects and adheres to a consistent theme Goddard evokes throughout. Indeed, he seems attuned to this strange fustiness, this dim bleakness; where sun bleached posters and the junk of yesteryear scent the air with nihilism. This is a Wiltshire emptied of nostalgia or the romance of patina; it is lost and worn.
The mycelium substance High John the Conqueror is itself a superb fusion of what makes Ligotti’s work (and derivatives such as True Detective) so spellbinding. The substance is a drug with all the usual associations of indulgence, escape, trappings, exploitation, squalor, luxury and darker aspect of post-hippy cultures. Drugs always move through, involve, and are complicit in ‘the underbelly’ (to corporealise complexity) There is always, at some degree, a unique tawdriness about their materiality as substances barred from the disingenuous polish and sterility of mainstream consumerism. Yet, High John the Conqueror is also the name of a metaphysical force; something of great power, something of unknown qualities that’s presence is felt at every turn. This is one of Goddard’s superb observations; that for every empirical aspect of drug use, abuse and misuse, the odd smells and textures, the black market networks of supply and demand whereby the haves and have-notes share precisely the same need, the curious infiltration and connections between disparate peoples from county lines exploitation to celebrity culture in our atomized and fractured—i.e. deeply unequal and unfair—world, there is a metaphysical glimmer. A shimmery otherworld, which is precisely what drugs serve, elicit, promise or provoke: a dream be it respite from poverty, high-frequency trading, grief, trauma or the asphyxiations of celebrity.
Permeating the strata of this novel is the drive to lose oneself, to take flight, to dream, to trip or to shed the grubby anguished skin of a life that clings past its welcome. Escapism and its haste, be it persons on the make, climbing the ladder, reinventing, pretending (to themselves or others), concealing, hiding out as lordly ultra-lux-ensconced eccentrics, or simply looking for a cheap buzz, scrabbles, frolics and cowers in every corner of this novel. In terms of diegesis, the characters almost all adhere to one of these modalities. The Janus voice of the book also reflects theme of intoxicating escape, from policeman to writer, policeman to elsewhere, somewhere, or someone else and, as touched on earlier, on another level, a trip from writer to policeman. This latter metatextual element is a richly lurid fantasy rendered with panache, with the cogency of hallucination, and it is precisely for this reason that the novel offers the drug of fiction; the thirst to keep reading and to lose oneself in the caliginous fluorescence of another.
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