Weird Objects in Improbable Situations

Helen Marten, The Boiled in Between

Prototype, 200pp, £12.00, ISBN 978-1916052062

reviewed by Huw Nesbitt

In early December, something strange happened on Twitter: someone wrote something funny. Or to be more precise, someone posted something funny — a screenshot from an article by The Spectator’s Panagiotis Theodoracopulos explaining why, having exhausted ‘the Russians’ and a dozen other authors, he’d stopped reading 50 years ago because new literature, he protested, contained ‘millions of words that didn’t exactly get to the point, instead describing weird objects in improbable situations’. Apart from the astonishment that Theodoracopulos — a reactionary known for empathising with Golden Dawn and the Wehrmacht — has ever opened a book at all, what was striking about the passage was that, despite its author’s apparent contempt for literature, it offered one of the most precise definitions of literary fiction of recent times; one that neatly sums up The Boiled in Between the new novel by the Turner Prize-winning British artist Helen Marten.

Millions of words about weird objects in improbable situations that don’t exactly get to the point. Flaubert, who famously said his greatest ambition was to write un livre sur rien, should have stayed at home. In Marten’s case, what for readers such as Theodoracopulos is an obstacle to their enjoyment is employed as a strategy that confounds yet compels. In this debut, the reader is placed in what, by 2020, should be a familiar setting to even the offspring of Greek shipping tycoons: a novel where nothing happens. Its protagonists Ethan and Patrice are getting divorced and live in a distended version of Austerity Britain. Narrated respectively from first-person, their chapters (eponymously named with subtitles alluding to their contents) are interspersed by a third, the Messrs. Addressing their remarks as a “we”, this omniscient collective voice paradoxically exists both within the fictional setting and outside it, their chapters labelled ‘External’ and their observations voicing the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings.

At the outset, they explain that Ethan met Patrice while she was working at a supermarket, ‘her plastic apron flashing slick with fish guts.’ Already, their relationship is described in the past tense, and neither is flourishing. During his first appearance, Ethan visits ‘a room with thirty-five wooden panels’, ‘a cosmology of abuse’ in which he hears ‘the groaning shuffle of sex’ and purchases an unnamed service by pinning money to a wall. In their subsequent segment, the Messers. remark that when ‘he doesn’t drink a little he will crumble’, and throughout the novel, Ethan is portrayed as an alcoholic whose litany of emotional issues prevent him from holding down a job. Later it seems he kills his neighbours’ cat and is involved in a serious traffic accident leaving him hospitalised — emphasis on the ‘seems’, as everything in Marten’s book is rendered tentatively. After a disturbing meeting between the ex-couple, Patrice suggests she feels ‘pissed on’ by Ethan and it is uncertain whether that is meant figuratively or not. In his final aside, he recalls slashing a friend called Death’s face at school with a knife.

Patrice’s life is far from bliss as well. She goes to a museum and contemplates incest; while swimming, compares love to modal logic; considers herself to be ‘little more than the dull air buffering one database from another’ on the way home; sleeps in her car and goes to the self-storage centre with ‘endless boxes of household mix’ thinking about how she’s exhibiting signs of ‘high level exhaustion’, contrasting the ‘depressed brain’ with ‘a tapeworm’. Her private moments are filled by reenacting past exchanges: ‘When you are the nose of a joke — the butt, the armpit, the plain, explicit arsehole — when you are a figure untethered, you cling to the patterns of other people and are stunned by the collisions.’

In all, Patrice is indeed stunned and untethered. She often talks about herself as if she were a mere object or vegetative thing. ‘Outside I feel the acuteness of being a body,’ she remarks. ‘I don’t think of moving, but I do sit at the window because people are by nature phototropic: they move towards light.’ Like Ethan, she is also unemployed, having lost her job at a florist, and ends up living in a hotel (English local councils often use them as emergency housing), reminiscing about times ‘Before my money ran out. . .’ She dreams of ‘a classification of time more plastic, not flattened by continuum,’ an atemporality unmoored by capitalism’s thirst for days measured by working hours, yet ends the novel mourning in the pluperfect. ‘When we had, we had lived together near a church,’ she says, acknowledging the incontrovertible sequence of past and present in the world she inhabits.

While Ethan violates social norms and Patrice dreams of ways of reordering them, the Messrs. play with convention. Technically a first-person narrator, as discussed, they subvert the reader’s expectation of such a speaker, employing the aforementioned ‘we’ instead of an ‘I’, behaving as if they were a third-person narrator by frequently dipping into Ethan and Patrice’s inner lives. Patrice, for instance, is said to have ‘dreamt of the soft pink colour of low-fire clay’, whereas at another juncture Ethan is said to have a ‘craving for salt’. This creates the impression that they are in charge of the narrative like the god-like narrators of yore, a sense entrenched by their comments on the story-telling process itself. ‘We are a fiction,’ they insist. ‘Don’t take for granted that characters here make their meals or meanings with regularity . . . We are collective and all at once nobody at all.’ Despite this, they never assume absolute authority over how events are relayed — never become totally external to what is being narrated itself — but instead appear to hover “outside” and “inside”, ‘neither body nor air, but a silent streaming of temperature,’ as they emphasise in the prologue. ‘We can see it all from a dissolving point of view.’

This vanishing narrative perspective is, as the Messrs. observe, ‘the grand scramble, the boiled in between’ — precisely Flaubert’s livre sur rien, a novel about nothing told by no one. Yet rather than being a pointless endeavour, significance in the novel remains potential, a gesture connoted by the appearance of the modal verb ‘might’ in both the Messers. opening passage (‘One might lie awake lie awake until morning. . .’) and Patrice’s coda to the novel (‘Later there might be a postman’s knock and a letter. . .’). Throughout its pages, sentences appear syntactically cohesive yet not quite coherent, leaving sense suspended — ‘boiled’ — in between. ‘I have begun to believe in garbage,’ says Ethan. ‘That the melanin in our skin has eyes. It sees everything. The body is always eager to enact its own improvised terrorism on our primordial romances. . .’ Marten’s novel therefore questions the presumption, seemingly held by Theodoracopulos and others, that fiction is an exclusively world-making activity, instead foregrounding its own material status as a text. In turn, this invites the reader to reflect on the material conditions in which the book itself exists, and how its themes and ideas relate to it. And this is what makes Marten’s debut a politically engaged display as well.

For in its portrayal of domestic strife, the book also interrogates the contemporary meaning of the domus — the home and its relation to politics. In Classical terms, these two spheres were distinguished as an interior versus an exterior, but today they have merged, and The Boiled in Between enacts this in the confusion of its 'insides' and its 'outsides', as well as through its depiction of homes as mere containers for human beings whose only social value is their ability to perform wage labour. Hence as the Messrs. suggest, even the ‘sunlight is political’, and so too is language, the social glue of households and the powerful alike. Cast to the edges of society, her existence covered-up, jobless, in boarding houses, Patrice uses it to re-assert her place: ‘I am a firm advocate of the fact that every statement we issue bears witness to our being here,’ she says, a reminder that words do not only have to make sense to be significant.
Huw Nesbitt can tell which egg came from which chicken.