July 24, 2012

Vault: An Anti-Novel, by David Rose -- a review

I'll admit, I first bought Vault for its subtitle - "An Anti-Novel." I thought it took some gumption for the author, David Rose, to give his novel a tag like that in our current publishing climate, and I hoped that the book would make good on its promise. The splendid cover made an additional temptation; on the Acknowledgments page Rose himself even offers a disarming remark about hoping his book lives up to it. On both counts - subtitle and cover - it does.

Vault is structured in alternating chapters that give two different versions of the protagonist's life. One set of chapters tells the story of McKuen, a cycling enthusiast from the Southeast of England who becomes a sniper in WW2 and a freelance operative for the intelligence services in the Cold War. This might sound like the well-trod territory of espionage novels such as those of Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton, which functioned in their day as fantasy compensations for the real decline of England's status in the world. But these chapters are intercut with their revisionist counterparts, first-person chapters in which the hero's "real-life" prototype comments on and criticizes the "legend nonsense" and "novelism" in the alternate sequence. He protests that the author's appropriations of his biography distort it in the service of false heroism and spurious glamour, and against these he offers the corrective of his own more prosaic account.

Rose's anti-novel goes beyond merely questioning conventional literary heroism, however, finally implicating both versions of its protagonist in a condition of moral ambiguity. The key might be found in the "real" main character's description of his relationship with his racing cycle, the "sensation of control" and "exhilaration of being one with a mechanically-perfect machine," so fused with it that he "no longer had to think." It is the same relationship that he has with his sniper rifle. But bicycle races can be rigged, lovers can turn into double agents, and the figure of the lone existential hero, seen from another angle, might turn out to be just a pawn - as much a mere instrument as the rifle and bicycle are to the hero. The intelligence service's deployment of McKuen against the antinuclear movement broadens the frame dizzyingly, raising the possibility that the same commitment to instrumental expertise is behind the construction of the H-bomb and the specter of nuclear annihilation.

If Vault is therefore also something of a historical novel, it has the advantage of never reading like one. It's not upholstered with boring period detail and barely-digested chunks of research; rather, it convincingly distills an atmosphere appropriate to the era in which it is set. An earlier, more convivial way of life is hinted at only by its absence; cycling as a genuine people's pastime and the "Great War" as a popular, mass mobilization have been chiseled down into grim existential choices made in the cold and dark. I've seldom read a first novel written with such economy, in which so much is suggested in such spare and unsparing prose. And while Vault refuses many of the easy consolations of more mainstream fiction, it shouldn't scare away anyone who might mistakenly believe that "anti-novel" equals willful obscurity. It's a novel about cycling, guns, and novels that suggests with great clarity that what is obscure is our fates.

Vault, an Anti-Novel, by David Rose (Salt Modern Fiction, 2011), available here, here, and here.

An article by Rose, "Dark Matter:  Modernism and the Anti-Novel," here.

An interview with the author here.

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