John Hawkes says of his writing that it is ‘not nearly so difficult as it's been made out to be.’ I beg to differ. The only thing more difficult than reading The Beetle Leg is writing about it. I mean, where do you begin? The plot, such as it is, is so opaque, its timeframes so unclear and unresolved, that the reader becomes quickly baffled. Characterisation has been deliberately flattened, giving nothing to latch on to. The words are beautiful, the descriptions vivid, but what is it they are describing? How is it possible to have something at once perfectly clear and utterly unfathomable? Flannery O’Connor said of his work: ‘The more fantastic the action the more precise the writing.’ Yes indeed, I take her point, and yet it remains difficult to establish exactly what is happening. The Beetle Leg present a most curious paradox. So where do you begin?
Hawkes said 'I have always though that my fictions, no matter how diabolical, were comic. I wanted to be very comic – but they have not been treated as comedy.' In that context, it is perhaps no surprise that his work was admired by Flannery O’Connor, another comedic grotesquer. And I can see what Hawkes means: there is something comic in the works, but by that I mean comic in the loosest sense, far removed from the belly-laugh inducing comedy we exalt today. Hawkes views the absurdity of existence trenchantly, and he refuses to be cowed by convention, or to allow his work to be swayed by common perceptions of normality, and to that extent The Beetle Leg is, indeed comic. Just don’t expect to laugh.
The Beetle Leg is a ‘surrealistic western’. It is set in that inhospitable expanse of desert, that ‘lawless country’ that seems to stand in definition of something about the male American psyche, something untamed and untameable, vaguely malevolent, infinite. It centres on a settlement by a gradually shifting earth dam, during the construction of which Mulge Lampson was buried alive, an event which still resonates even many years later, although the shifts in time are unexplained and unexplored. The community is beset by a group of Red Devils on motorcycles, and a tourist and his family stop to fish in the nearby river, only for the son to be bitten by a snake. The Lampson family and the local sheriff, a prototype Ed Tom Bell with a penchant for nipping youthful carnality in the bud, feature prominently. Now this may strike the reader as a somewhat cursory synopsis of the plot and indeed it is, but it’s all your going to get. Make of it what you will. All the aforementioned inter-relationships occur against the baleful, uncontrollable backdrop of the American west and, thus, a thoroughly unsettling air is established throughout. You may not be exactly clear what is happening, but you sense it isn’t good.
So what is The Beetle Leg? Frederick Busch ascribes elements of American western, mythical and even biblical parody to it. I can certainly see it as an anti-western, but the biblical reference seems laboured. Lucy Frost, however, goes even further, reading it specifically in terms of the biblical myth of Adam’s fall. Well perhaps. I don’t begin to understand enough of this novel to give a comprehensive argument against her thesis, but there seems to be little in Hawkes’ make-up that would support it. Roy Flanagan notes:
He did not profess faith in any organized religion, preferring to emphasize the unpredictuability of fate. As he admitted in an interview, “I do not believe in any kind of god or any kind of afterlife… It seems to me necessary to live by creating our own contexts within the constant knowledge of the imminence of anihilation.”
In that, his work seems closer to say, James Purdy, than an experimentalist with a religious sensibility like Flannery O’Connor. Surely, also, the absurdity of the world he creates presupposes an absence of a meliorating God? Rather than looking to religion for a key to Hawkes’s work, I believe there is probably more merit in looking to psychology. Hawkes saw duty in the Second World War, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, and among his postings he was stationed in a mental institution in Belgium. It seems likely that, like Mervyn Peake, Vonnegut, Heller and others, this influenced his subsequent fiction. Certainly, his first novel, The Cannibal, published in 1949 and set in a mythical “Germany”, draws on his wartime experience and dwells in a nightmare world of the psyche. With Hawkes, it seems to me that we are dealing largely with the unconscious, and it is for this reason that there is little point in excavating his work for precise meaning. Hawkes himself wrote:
I write out of a series of picture that literally and actually do come to mind, but I’ve never seen them before. It is perfectly true that I don’t know what they mean, but I feel and know that they have meaning.
Thus, we are clearly moving into the territory of postmodernism. He also explained:
I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thnking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained. And structure – verbal and psychological coherence – is still my largest concern as a writer.
Earl Rovit develops this point. Describing Hawkes’s fiction as ‘controlled assaults against his readers’, he suggests:
The smooth sureties of cause and effect, characterization and behaviour, logos and the subordinate phenomena of the world’s ways are rejected so unobtrusively that the reader is not given a chance to rebel or protest. Rationality is neither discredited nor ridiculed: it is merely non-existent.
Well, I can’t agree with that. Certainly rationality is neither discredited nor ridiculed here, but the fact that it is not there does not negate the opportunity for the reader to rebel or protest. That is false logic. For a time, yes, the reader can be swept along in the tide of Hawkes’s imagining, but eventually there comes a time of reckoning: what is this about? What substance is there here? I am not suggesting for a second that there is no substance, but if the writer is going to go to such lengths to prevent the reader from discerning it, then the reader is justified in walking away and leaving the substance and its creator to their mental peregrinations. There is something engrossing about The Beetle Leg, and the reader is drawn into it, in search, I think, of some depth of meaning which is promised by the grandeur of the descriptions and the beauty of the language. But the further one penetrates the labyrinth of the text, the more one feels that it is a descent into nowhere. There are novels you want to like but can't. This is one of mine.
In passing, though, I will suggest that if a young Cormac McCarthy did not gorge himself on the works of John Hawkes, then I’m a redheaded English ballerina called Joanna.