Neil Godsell’s debut fiction novel Crump Redivivus, published by The Voidery Aperture in 2016, is a work of contemporary fiction that experiments with language and literary form. The novel is described by its publisher as “a stark exploration of a life given over to the observation of other, equally unsatisfactory lives.” It is a prose-play in which scenes and relationships are constructed through conversational dialogue between the narrator, Lomas, and other characters, as well as their own internal monologues – we literally read their thoughts.
Godsell borrows from detective fiction, as Rebecca Solnit describes: “In a detective novel, you begin in a state of ignorance and advance toward knowledge, clue by clue. The little indicators add up at last to a revelation that sets the world to right and sees that justice done, or at least provides the satisfaction of a world made clear in the end.” Arguably, Crump Redivivus is deliberately unsatisfactory in its delivery of the genre. Clues are embedded throughout, for example, in the first instance, the title. The word crump means “a loud thudding sound” and redivivus, from the Latin, means “come back to life” or “reborn.” The novel, then, might be interpreted as a story of something coming back to life with a great thud, referencing itself in subtle stresses: “Pounding music woke me up.” We can piece these clues together but they lead us down a road to nowhere.
Lomas is looking for Crump. But Crump is always already somewhere else: he is the void around which the narrative is structured and into which it sinks. Lomas is “trying always to be meticulous and vigilant when the body, the physiological thing, the flesh, is predisposed to ruin everything, by which I mean one’s plans.” The plot is loosely fastened to Crump’s ankle and dragged through the gutters of modern dystopia on the fringes of a barren society: “I stayed on the edge of things.” Lomas drifts between obscure landscapes of decay – “the moors below dissolved in their own acid” – in search of the man who is missing. Lomas moves, in non-linear trend, between times and places, questioning a series of women from Crump’s history of failed relationships. In the process, Lomas reflects: “I kept reducing people to leitmotivs and symbols, bits of facial and bodily motion, bits of hair-smell, as though collecting bits and pieces for a collage.” Godsell comments on the reality of writing fiction, of attempting to transform pieces of the world into a unified narrative.
At the beginning of the novel, Bettina explains that “[Crump had] gained insights which were said to have the potential to transform the life of any given person, making that life not only bearable but pleasant and even rewarding.” If Lomas is looking for Crump, then he may in fact be looking for the solution to make life, among all its complexities and contradictions, bearable, pleasant and rewarding. The question is whether he finds him.
The reader expecting plot twists and resolution will be disappointed. The novel intentionally fails in giving itself over to its reader: Godsell withholds information and asks us to try to piece together disparate fragments and conflicting truths. The narrative curdles on the margins of an unknown place where something-might-happen, something-could-happen, something-should-happen, but never reaches the totality of a meaningful and definitive end.
The failure of the investigation seems to be a wider commentary on failures of life. It is a conversation about research, writing, and experimenting in order to break with traditional forms and expectations of literature. It is important that literature, as a representation of ways of life, remains open to these interrogations. On the subject of politics, Saoirse tells Lomas: “[Crump] talked about it sometimes, the state of the world, the probable imminence of catastrophe, the ethics of refusing to participate.” The reader must not be passive and desolate but active and responsive.
Thematically philosophical, the novel wades through concepts of love, hate, sex, travel, entrapment and, more generally, the spite of modern miserabilism. It enjoys its depression and wallows in itself. The characters are complicated and well crafted, and at times seem to merge into one another through suffering and melancholy: “I felt I should be looking more closely at Constance and Adele, at how I’d conflated their identities.” Life has been unfair to them – “Extreme things happened to ordinary people all the time; gross unpleasantness was everywhere, people were hunted down for trying to do the right thing, people were hunted down for having done the wrong thing; the variations were unending” – but between the mild dysphoria and grot of their animation lies something strangely familiar to us all: “something to do with the nature of human existence.”
There are strong depictions of female identity at the heart of the novel. Though the plot is geared towards Crump and, in consequence, Lomas’ investigation, it is mostly constructed through interactions with female characters: Bettina, Saoirse, Juniper, Constance, and Adele. These women are actively fighting and constantly altering themselves in order to survive, from redecorating to moving home to acts of self-mutilation.
The novel is perplexing but worthwhile. The unconventional narrative is the coup of Godsell’s experimental prose, as we bear witness to the complexity and disjointed nature of human interaction. He manages to expose some of the problems with language and the ways we use it (or fail to use it) to communicate, demonstrating how language can actually make situations more complicated. Thinking and speaking through language might only obscure the realities that it is trying to align. Godsell uses this dissatisfaction, not only in the external world between its characters but also in the internal world of the self:
And the words, as I said, looked beautiful on the page. They seemed to represent something good at first: the prospect of moving on and starting anew, existing more fully somewhere else, cleansed of the language that had hardened your failures and mortifications into fact, a place where all you needed to do was made the effort to speak and keep on speaking and listening, using this wonderful, alien architecture of syntax and vocabulary, and everything would be open to you – a new culture, all these new friendships and connections.
Crump could represent some ideal that is always beyond reach, tangled up in psychological and physiological hints at a deeper meaning: “It’s just like organisms have to wither and die before an ecosystem can enter its new season.” The novel’s dissatisfaction is specific to language and mirrors the shared delusions of human experience: it is a question without an answer. It presents the world as it is constructed through language, and a need to escape that construction by exploring the gaps between language, or by learning new languages and new constructs altogether.
Crump Redivivus questions the resoluteness of detective literature to investigate, above all else, the human condition and what it means to live well. The end is a rapture of disillusion.
About the Publisher:
The Voidery Aperture publishes contemporary European fiction and poetry, with a particular focus on experimental writing and literary miserabilism.
Review by Kirsty Watling
Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.