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A draining experience: Insignificance, by James Clammer, reviewed

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

Insignificance James Clammer

Galley Beggar Press, pp.76, 9.99

Spare a thought for the white van man. It’s not yet nine on a summer’s morning and already Joseph, a plumber and the hero of James Clammer’s arresting novel, is having a pig of a day.

He’s slept poorly. It’s the umpteenth day of a heat wave, and the biscuits left by his client Amanda Margaret Hollander are ‘a dispiriting selection, childish and sugary… unmanly biscuits’. Plus, despite her tight, ‘iridescent’ trousers, Amanda Margaret seems uninterested in a ‘little dallying, a little flirting’ and dashes off, leaving him to the job. Which, it transpires, is far more difficult than promised: ‘Truly, if it isn’t one thing it’s the other.’

For the rest of Insignificance, we follow Joseph as this breathless day crests into endless, greenish night. Yet beneath its sunshine ordinariness, something ghastly stirs. This, we learn, is Joseph’s first time back on the tools after a breakdown, an unravelling which has left his insides knotted and alien. It bequeaths other legacies too. His body is failing him: the skin of his fingertips has become thin and old-womanly; it tears easily. And he suffers blinding migraines, a flash of ‘golden lighting’, auditory hallucinations, the sounds of his tools and the coiled pipes rising in terrifying orchestration.

Yet it is his relationship with his wife Alison and son Edward where the collapse is most precipitous. Edward is in prison after an awful act of violence. Joseph ignored the signs of his disturbance: a Tarot card interleaved in the family Bible; the discovery of a mannequin of Alison buried in the flower bed, throttled with a lank of her hair. These ‘eerie, uncancellable moments’ are all the more memorable because they take place in a landscape of Ballardian banality: littered and heat-exhausted verges, rumbling A-roads and hosepipe bans. Like the films of Ben Wheatley, Clammer sounds depthless dread beneath the thin crust of suburbia.

He writes with languorous lyricism and wit. Occasionally the narrator’s arch interjections wobble our confidence in Joseph’s world; but the range of references — from the correct application of a G-clamp to Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts — ensures that, for a slim book, it breathes deeply. Like Mrs Dalloway, a clear landmark for Clammer, it immerses us in the rush of a different life, the strangeness of another body. And, above all, it suggests that all lives, however lowly, hold one thing in common: significance.

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