The Many by Wyl Menmuir (2016) Salt Publishing (2016) 141 pp
In his slim debut novel, Wyl Menmuir takes a massive risk: he writes a story that churns so slowly, that is so deliberately opaque, a reader two-thirds of the way through may well give up (I almost did) and never get to the ending which left me quietly shaking, left me shaking in large part, I think, because of the brilliantly (I say in hindsight) rendered two-thirds I had labored through. When I finished, I wondered if the first two-thirds were made worthwhile by the last third, and with the benefit of some time to reflect I can now answer my question with a firm yes . . . and with appreciation for the judges on the Booker Prize, for there’s no way I’d have finished this book if they hadn’t championed it.
The premise is easy to lay out: a man named Timothy has just purchased a home in a small, provincial sea-side community that is not particularly welcoming to outsiders. The home is falling apart, but he’s going to fix it up so his wife, Lauren, can move down — they had, you see, visited this sea-side community a decade prior, and this seems a chance to escape the oppressive city-life that has been hard on their relationship. The residents, though, are wary of Timothy’s arrival. A fisherman named Ethan is particularly resentful, for Timothy has moved into Perran’s home, and though Perran died years prior in an accident his home is not to be tampered with, especially by a man from upcountry.
For the first two-thirds of the novel, I thought that that was pretty much all the novel was about. And, naturally, Timothy is going to have moments of doubt, like this:
There are two flimsy wooden chairs beneath the window. He gives one a kick and it splinters without complaint. The thin chair legs he arranges in a pyramid over the paper. It is a mistake. The house is a mistake. In the light, the shabbiness is far from rustic or endearing, though he will tell Lauren later it is going to be perfect for them.
However, Menmuir is laying down a much larger and much darker premise than the fish-out-of-water premise would suggest on its surface. Right after Timothy breaks the chair and worries that he’s made a mistake, we get this paragraph, which, if we’re not paying attention (and I’m not sure we would be quite yet) does nothing to suggest what’s really going on in The Many, but which, upon reflection, is filled with clues:
When the paper balls and other scraps he has assembled in the fireplace take, after several attempts to get them lit, he stands, stretches some of the remaining cold out of his muscles and pulls back a pair of stained, orange floral curtains from the window. For the first time that morning he smiles. Laid out beyond the rows of houses below him is the ocean, calm as a millpond, and a lightening sky that fades to a deep blue where it meets the horizon. As he looks out, he draws his fingers the length of the window frame and feels flecks of paint peel off beneath his fingertips. There is a thin line or crack, barely perceptible, that runs up through the window and he adds it to his mental list of things he needs to fix. He has a sudden urge to go outside and breathe in the sea and the sky.
I should say that I wasn’t just a bit dissatisfied with what appeared to be a fish-out-of-water story; I was actively annoyed at how Menmuir was presenting this story: he uses loads of flashbacks, and we are constantly teased about this Perran. Who is Perran? Why is Ethan so disturbed by Timothy’s presence as Perran’s, so much so that even Timothy refers to his home as “Perran’s”? These flashbacks and unsubtle teases about Perran — “It seems to him that Timothy’s arrival has brought Perran’s death back to the village somehow, though he is unsure how this could be” — were really rubbing me the wrong way.
Yet the book was pulling me forward, and the sense that something was wrong, something was severely twisted, grew slowly and kept me going. For example, why isn’t Lauren there yet? Can she not even visit? And did they really buy this house without making sure it was in the right village?
At the edge of the beach, Timothy makes his way out of the cove on the rocks and round to the right, mindful this time of the tide. He does not know why it surprises him that he cannot now find the rock on which and Lauren had clung to each other ten years previously. The memory he holds is clear, unequivocal, and he now considers for a moment he has created an elaborate fiction of this event, that it never took place, at least not in the way he believes it did. Eventually, among the jutting, knife-edge rocks he finds a slab, smoother and flatter than the others, and sits on it looking out to sea, though he is still shaken slightly by the thought this may not be the same sea he and Lauren looked out on ten years previously.
Further clues: the fisherman do not fish because the bay is home only to some warped species of trash fish and is barricaded by a line of metal ships that showed up one night a while ago. If a fisherman does venture out and brings in a haul, each fish is sold to some strange dark woman.
At about the two-thirds point, I started to realize that I was not reading a conventional, if slightly off-kilter and moody, story about a man having a hard time getting his life back together in a semi-hostile village. No, The Many is a horrific, beautifully horrific, tale that I cannot shake, as much as I may like to.