Thursday 25 July 2013

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

 "All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural."

Well, it turns that out my initial positive feeling after reading the first couple pages of Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye were short-lived and quickly replaced by indignation. This novel tries too hard to be some kind of bizarre satire but ends up as nothing more than an affectedly quaint and nonsensical farce without any substantial value. The characters are all flat; their motivations entirely incomprehensible. Muriel Spark can often be applauded for her sly wit, snappy dialogue and wildly humorous stories but none of these attributes are found here. I didn't laugh once. However, I will admit that some of the dialogue is slightly amusing in a droll way but rendered inconsequential since it is not supported by engaging characters or a credible story, which drifts around without any purpose. The only true redeemable quality here is the Penguin edition's snazzy cover-art. Feel free to admire the striking photograph from afar but I would not recommend venturing to read any of the written content inside.

Let me try and attempt to describe the basic plot and perhaps, highlight some of its many absurdities. A Scottish man named Dougal Douglas  arrives in the town of Peckham and gets two jobs working for rival textile factories as a consultant on the board of Human Resources to investigate and better understand the discontent amongst workers. The main problem is the increased absenteeism and slacking on the job. Dougal describes his field of research as the study of "industrial psychology" (84). In order to fully understand the situation, he decides to personally interact with the workers and establish relationships with them in order to derive a more thorough understanding of the labor unrest spreading in the small town. Spark alludes to the negative effects of capitalism but never fully engages with the issue. This ambiguous approach to narrative recurs throughout the rest of the novel where she cruelly teases the reader by introducing various ideas, characters or plot developments that seem important but contain no value and go nowhere. Dougal is also keen to point out to others that the two bumps on his head are the result of having his horns removed--of course, the implication that he is the devil incarnate. Unfortunately, Spark gives the reader no reason to care. The story could have potentially been a lot more interesting as an allegory but she decides to indulge in ridiculous inanity instead. 

Dougal makes friends with a young man named Humphrey who is a Marxist but referred to as a "union man" although has no affiliation with factory work. He is engaged to marry a teenager named Dixie who holds down two jobs because she wants to save money for the marriage. Unfortunately for her, she is left at the alter by Humphrey for reasons that are never explained. There is also a gang of young thugs lead by Trevor who want to run Dougal out of town and these two find themselves in physical confrontations on more than one occasion. Additionally, a wandering evangelist, a managerial typist, an old landlady with visions of her dead brother walking around the street and a woman working with Dougal to write an autobiography of her life growing up in Peckham all get mixed up in the baffling plot. Dougal is a strange character who is prone to to acts of impulsive behavior: dancing with a trash-can lid, having an emotional break-down at work for "losing his girl," getting into bar fights and his obsession with a tunnel excavation taking place in town. The wild story is all over the place and includes blackmail, violence and even murder but it's all pointless.

It's almost as if Spark had a general idea of what she wanted to write about but couldn't figure out where to take the story, so instead of tossing it in the rough draft pile she decided to string a bunch of arbitrary plot threads together with the hope that utilizing ambiguity would somehow amount to something meaningful. Wrong. I want my time back Miss Spark, this novel was terrible.

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