A ghost story without the scary bits

Scott Blackwood’s ultra-clever See How Small is a novel written to be studied, not read

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

See How Small Scott Blackwood

Fourth Estate, pp.208, £12.99, ISBN: 9780007580934

Two men walk into an ice cream parlour in Austin, Texas, order the three teenage girls working there to undress, then tie them up and gag them with their own underwear, and set fire to the place. However, See How Small is not interested in the why or the who, but rather in the lives of a group of characters affected by the incident. We learn about these lives both before and after the murders, mostly after.

This book is a kind of modern ghost story, without the frightening bits. Kate Ulrich is the mother of two of the girls. She is haunted by them. Jack Dewey is the firefighter who discovers their bodies. He too is haunted by them. Hollis Finger is the mentally traumatised ex-soldier who lives in a car outside the parlour, which is decorated with ‘seashells, buttons, beads, metal army men and hairless dolls’. And yes, he also is haunted by the girls. Michael Greer drives the murderers’ getaway car. He is haunted by his dead brother. Rosa Heller is a tall newspaper reporter whose father is dying.

There are recurring motifs. After ghosts the most common is fire. Rosa is thrilled by burning cars; an aeroplane crashes in blue flame; Hollis’s father’s car’s engine explodes; Django Reinhardt’s nightshirt catches fire; a gas station blows up; there are firecrackers and fire ditches, and the book ends as it begins, with arson. Dreams, too, figure largely, often as places where the haunting goes on.

All the families are dysfunctional or damaged. Spouses generally don’t stick with one another, either dying or otherwise absconding. Parents are demented or sex-crazed or paranoid. Children are resentful.

This makes the book sound rather exciting, but actually this is a cold read. It is sometimes difficult to keep tabs on everyone, because the eras shift, the points of view shift, the character of the narrator alters, and the stories, such as they are, are related in discrete chunks. Occasionally there are mysterious intersections in which one character unwittingly intrudes on another’s patch (teacher would say ‘narrative’). In other words the curse of Creative Writing is upon the reader. Just in case we are not aware of how clever and literary this all is, we are reminded from time to time: ‘How can you make a story from what you don’t know?’ demands Kate of the author. ‘You’re leaving out so much,’ she later complains. This is an arch, post-modernist tic, and irritating.

See How Small, with its annoying cut-phrased title, describes a Lynch-like world of suburban irrelevancies, full of teasing pretend symbolism. There is a hint here as well of the recent true-crime podcast Serial, but sans the curiosity (it was apparently inspired by a real event, though to what purpose is hard to gauge). See How Small is a book rather in love with itself, and reads as though written to be studied.

At its best it has a fugue-like quality, and the writing itself is free of cliché. Intelligent young men may like its actually rather mild form-busting; academics will enjoy teaching it. But it is neither warm nor filling enough for a grown-up general reader. It’ll probably win lots of prizes.

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