Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I first heard of Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967, but republished in 2006 by Peter Owen) when John Self reviewed it on his blog almost exactly a year ago, and it went right onto my list of books to check out in the future. Going back to his post now, I had forgotten that he connects the book to Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, both of which were in and out of my mind as I read Kavan.

Vonnegut’s novel is an inescapable point of comparison from the point of view of content (a sci-fi dystopia with the world ending in ice), although the two foster such completely different reading experiences that the comparison is far more interesting than it might otherwise be. There are numerous general words we use to describe styles that can be applied to both novels, pointing out how arbitrary and context-dependent such terms can be: surreal, fragmented. Both of these terms apply to both novels, but neither captures the wildly different inflections gained: on the one hand, Vonnegut’s dead-serious whimsy and easier fit into sci-fi expectations (he is the most classically “postmodern” writer that no one talks about except peripherally in studies of postmodernism, probably because he is relatively easy to digest); on the other, Kavan’s extension of modernist experiments with surrealism and stream-of-consciousness that better fit expectations for literary difficulty (although the novel remains pretty readable at that).

Kavan’s modernism is what provokes thoughts of Ishiguro’s long novel. By one of those strange moments of serendipity in reading, of course, I just read The Unconsoled at the beginning of the year. I have to say that I find Kavan a little more appealing and successful in her take on this particular style of surrealism. My problem with Ishiguro’s novel was that I felt he wanted me to have more emotional attachment to the characters, especially the protagonist, and their situations than I could maintain given a style that kept detaching me from their reality. In Kavan’s novel, though, the form works with her portrait of a protagonist who is, frankly, fairly appalling, and whose attempts to save and protect “the girl” from “the warden” are only in service to a deeper desire to destroy her. Several of the narrator’s moments of displacement from reality into fantasy involve the girl succumbing to the aggressive ice that comes alive to surround and strangle her: sometimes he joins her in time to die with her, sometimes he doesn’t get to her in time, but death in any case is preferable to the idea that she end up with the other man. As a result, the novel reads as much as anything like a feminist portrait of wounded masculinity lashing out: the paranoid and persecuted anonymous narrator, evoking Kafka, is here transformed into a persona adopted by a masculine figure who is, in fact, in a position of relative political power (although it is unclear where he gets that power from) in order to victimize someone else. Indeed, the disastrous political and natural catastrophe just puts all the more urgency on getting to her in time to hurt her before he’s lost his chance. Of course, he does not see it this way in his more lucid moments, but it is not for kicks that Kavan has him reflect on the warden as his potential doppelganger.

At the same time that the worldwide disaster is pushed aside by the narrator in the novel in order to focus on his own obsessions, the novel highlights the ice enough to keep it relevant. Indeed, later in the novel the narrator alludes to the idea that the ice slowly overtaking the world results from scientific experiments gone wrong, and that the end of the world is due to human negligence--perhaps we might see that echoed in the narrator’s own solipsism. Here is where Kavan is closest to Vonnegut: in both cases the ice echoes the Cold War emphasis on technological progress at any cost. Yet, reading Ice in the present is also an uncanny encounter with an inversion of our own world situation of man-made global warming, a slowly encroaching disaster that politically powerful blocs hope to ignore indefinitely. Kavan could not have known about this coincidence, but that lack of foreknowledge makes the novel no less a chilling indictment of our own indifference and willingness to harm.