Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Scapeweed Goat by Frank Schaefer

I read The Scapeweed Goat over 20 years ago, when it first came out in the UK. I remember absolutely loving it but, apart from it being set in rural America and being decidedly strange, I could recall none of its details before picking it up again. I’m glad to have re-read it but, if I’m being honest, I think my original assessment of the novel may have been a touch inflated. It’s definitely strange and it explores some fascinating territory but, in the end, it all seems a bit flat. It seems to fall between two stools, too strange to be a straightforward historical narrative but not weird enough to be a fantasy. It’s an allegory, and it’s essential that allegory grips you simultaneously by its narrative and allegorical strands. I know my younger self was so gripped. My gnarled old grumpy self couldn’t quite sustain the interest on both levels.

On a personal level, what I find very peculiar is that the subject content of this novel is precisely the material which currently interests me, and has done for a number of years. We’re talking civilisation and barbarism, the nature of humanity, the role of religion, man as primitive savage or as subject of an unknowable deity, the place of good and evil in our psyches and in our lives. Now, while those subjects are what interest me now, I would swear that back in 1990, when I first read this novel, those were not particularly topics which would have set my pulse racing. Perhaps I’m wrong. I certainly first read Rousseau when I was a teenager so perhaps these have always been my interests. Nonetheless, I would say it’s undoubtedly true that they appeal more to my older self than my younger.

So what of the novel? It’s a first person narrative, told by an elderly man known only as J, who is holed up in a cabin in the mountains during a particularly violent winter, looking back on his early life and, in particular, a calamitous set of events which informed the passage of his later years. He is an engaging narrator, at first apparently somewhat curmudgeonly but clearly practical and in control. Gradually, one begins to wonder about his sanity. His constant discussions with his pet mouse, for one thing, arouse suspicion, as does his almost insane detestation of the “gluttons", the wild animals which appear to patrol outside his cabin in search of food and against which he engages in an increasingly demented battle.

In his reminiscences, he returns to the 1840s wild frontier of his youth, when he set off westward with his new wife to found a homestead. They move into a fine place and begin to set up home but their life is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a strange-looking and -sounding man, David, who has an otherworldly presence. So begins a nightmare in which J proceeds to lose everything. David is an escapee from a religious sect which has colonised a huge swathe of wild land in a valley to the west. Pilgrims from Britian, four generations before they founded their own society, shunning the sullied ways of all outsiders. Gradually, their insular society takes on the trappings of a cult, establishing its own gods and rituals. It is called New Rousseau, and the inhabitants are the Noble Savages. Clearly, then, we’re examining the possibility of the return to Rousseau’s ideal of the primitive nobility of our pre-civilisation state of savagery. And just as Rousseau himself explained, such a return is impossible. They become savage, for sure, but there is nothing noble about it. On the contrary, their rituals becoming increasingly barbaric, culminating in human sacrifice. David, born into the sect’s aristocracy, nonetheless deprecates the horrors of their cultish ways and effects his escape. That escape brings terror to J and his wife, K.

Does it work as a novel? Not quite, not completely, although it remains an interesting read. It doesn’t quite grip enough as a thriller – it’s all a bit obvious, in truth, a bit unilinear, with little doubt as to the outcome in either narrative strand. And twin-track timescales are always difficult to pull off, particularly in a novel where the aim is to maintain narrative tension: the result of the changes in timeframe is inevitably to reduce the level of tension. And finally, and most importantly, the allegorical content is not quite intriguing enough to sustain interest. The Rousseauian nightmare is too complete, and it emerges too quickly and too completely to truly draw the reader in. It lacks subtlety. Yes, it gives us an analysis of the dangers of fanaticism, but its analysis is almost cartoonish in its lack of complexity.

Overall, The Scapeweed Goat is worth reading, but perhaps not worth lingering long over.

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