"My life seems to have lost all direction," remarks Clive Benson, the 60-ish novelist and protagonist of Barry Unsworth's 1990 "Sugar and Rum," just issued in the United States. "I am not aware of any operation of the will, any progression. One minute I might be sitting down, the next I am standing or walking. There is no sense in my mind of an interval between those two states, no moment of purpose or decision."
Unsworth's book is a journey through the dark, claustrophobic places of depression, both personal and economic, as well as a dazzlingly ambitious work of fiction. Set in a Liverpool festering under the Thatcher regime, it conveys Benson's misadventures as he struggles with writer's block and ministers to his "fictioneers," the ragtag assortment of aspiring authors whose manuscripts he critiques to eke out a living.
The fictioneers' prose and Benson's glosses deliver consistent belly laughs, as when Sheila and Albert, the perennially frustrated lovers of Mr. Carter's opus, finally copulate: "She eased the implement of his power into the deepest fronded recess of her being." "There was a disturbing touch of the Black and Decker in the description of Albert's member," Benson muses. The varied fragments of student narrative, though, along with Benson's own scrapbooks and his unfinished novel on the Liverpool slave trade, also form a daring, sophisticated counterpoint to his restless meanderings through the city streets and alleys and his quest for "a thread, a pattern of meaning" in the "sickening welter" of words, memories and events on which he ruminates -- a quest that culminates in encounters with two fellow Second World War veterans of the harrowing Anzio campaign, one a homeless drunk, the other a pompous, socially ambitious leech.
It's an undertaking worthy of Italo Calvino in its dizzying layers of inter- and intratextual references. Though Unsworth lacks the Italian master's deftness, you can't help admiring his command of this intricate material and his graceful, evocative way with what his hero refers to as "the mildewed Logos": "Benson swept the glasses slowly through a world that was arbitrary and intense, disconnected, vivid green of the lawn, deep blue glow of the canvas, glittering sections of the lake, woods a depthless tangle of sunlight and leaf." Just as remarkable is the way that silence permeates this story of wordy undertakings and characters. Much of the dialogue is, in fact, monologue, either uttered by Benson to dazed vagrants during his nightly wanderings or exchanged by him with impossibly defensive interlocutors -- his students, for example, and the political zealot he is courting.
Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the novel's breathless, surreal conclusion amid riots and terrorism doesn't tie things up rather too neatly, and whether the continual winking at cultural icons -- a would-be muse named Alma, the Tolkienesque subdivisions "Signs and Portents," "Middle Passage" and "Reunions" -- isn't finally cloying. Still, "Sugar and Rum" is a rewarding meditation on literature, with its limits and consolations, and its shifting, elusive interplay with the obscure, disreputable places of the body politic and the human heart.