‘Or maybe, after all, it should begin on the plane, mid-air above those squares of damp green pasture as we moved away from London.’
Miles Allinson’s debut novel Fever of Animals begins with a conjunction and starts as it means to go on. Its first sentence almost acts as a lede for the novel that follows: the hovering, hesitant tone; the free-floating, singularly transitional state of being away; the return that never arrives. Beginning with the bare-bones narrative of a plane flight (departure-travel-arrival) is an early feint as the novel shuffles chronology as thoroughly as a luggage carousel.
Allinson begins his novel by having his namesake return to Australia to be at the bedside of this dying father, present at an undeniable end.
‘It’s rare, I suppose, that our lives are given such definition, are marked out as clearly…’
The shape given to life by grief or a passing is essayed several times in Fever of Animals: in the death of a language with the death of its last speaker; in the memory of a failed relationship; in the protagonist’s half-hearted research into a mythical Romanian painter, Emil Bafdescu, who walked into a forest in 1967 and never re-emerged.
Despite the studied diffidence of much of its prose, this is a tightly wound and self-referential novel. The protagonist shares the same first name as its author, Miles, and the name of the artist that the protagonist is interested in, Emil, is also a near-anagram of Miles. This mirroring reflects well the inescapable self-involvement of sorrow.
In a novel abundant with references to literature and fine art, the choice to make Emil Bafdescu at first a surrealist painter is another tell, an indication of the work’s fundamental interests. From the fur cup to melted clocks to an unplumbed urinal, the surrealist movement raged against the idea of usefulness. Its commitment to expressiveness above all else is what has endeared it to adolescents ever since. Surrealism was also, with some significant exceptions, at its origin a movement largely directed by men and often fixated on a sexual expressiveness that can resemble the scatology of lad mags. This self-conscious naughtiness was justified as a determined effort to upend moral strictures by embracing the unconscious and its animal lack of prevarication.
But the spasms of the id allow for bewilderment as much as they do bestial intuition. The real absence at the heart of Fever of Animals is Alice, Miles’s ex-partner. Variously described as lacking a centre and possessing a child’s voice, even her giggle is described as ‘…slightly unnatural … something deliberate or willed, as if she was straining against her own nature.’
At first I considered Fever of Animals a benumbed cousin to French author Laurent Binet’s break-out success HHhH. For most of its length, HHhH is breezily at war with its on own fictional status, until it resolves into a climatic scene of Ian McEwan-like novelistic virtuosity. Fever of Animals has a similarly sustained querulousness which flares into beautifully resolved scenes of lasting presence. Allinson is especially good at the space that solitude allows for the hollow accounting of self-perception.
As the novel progressed, however, it began to feel less like HHhH and a great deal closer to the novel written by the self-described high priest of Surrealism, Andre Breton.
Nadja, Breton’s 1928 novel, is a fragmentary retelling of the narrator’s (like Fever of Animals, a namesake of the author) relationship with the woman of the title, whose name contains the echo of the Spanish word for no one (nadie). After striking up a conversation with her in the street, Andre sees Nadja first as an object of desire, and then as a provocateur, an animalistic presence. He finally finds her banal when he considers that he has understood her as plainly mad. Nadja’s eventual confinement to an asylum ruthlessly gives Andre a necessarily absent muse.
Nadja echoes through Allinson’s novel like a painting dropping to the floor of an empty gallery. Fever of Animals is a similar homage to absence, but one much more likely to turn in on itself and its influences at almost every level.
Still the novel’s persistence in the figure of Alice to re-enact Breton’s refusal to relate to a woman as a subject left me with an impressed bemusement. Impressed because Allinson writes at a high level and essays well the self-lacerating lack of curiosity of many a twenty-something male. Bemused because the purpose of now navigating a woman as an increasingly hostile enigma remained unclear beyond the novel’s final pages.
Allinson is clearly a writer of considerable talent, and I look forward to his next book in the hope that it is less bound to a note-perfect homage to objectification.