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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.

By | 2016-08-05T11:21:36+00:00 August 3rd, 2016|Categories: Book Reviews, Wyl Menmuir|Tags: , , , |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Lee Monks August 3, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    I’m now even more eager to get to this. Great last para!

  2. David August 3, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    I have not read the book (yet) so I have nothing to say about it, but the issue of its length interests me. In 2007 when “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan was nominated for the Booker there was a lot of talk that it was too short to be considered a novel and so should not be considered. The book was either 166 pages or just over 200 pages, depending on the particular printing, making it marginally longer than Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”, which won the Booker in 2011 and was not similarly criticized. (Of course, page counts can vary wildly for the same book depending on how the type is set, but we never get word counts on books even when length is the issue being discussed.)

    So at 141 pages this looks like a shorter book than either of these other nominees. I also note that it is three pages shorter than “McGlue” by Ottessa Moshfegh (oh no, not her again! Yes her…). Some people count “McGlue” as her first novel, but most count it as a novella and so describe her Booker nominated book “Eileen” as her first novel. Of course, ultimately it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you do with it (ahem), but you would think it would be easy enough for something like the Booker to set a clear minimum length of what they want to count for their awards (and based on a word count, not ever shifting page counts). Or maybe the occasional controversy is good for publicity.

    Personally, I quite like the novella length. It makes a book closer to the length of a feature film in the time it takes to read. That’s probably part of the reason I have yet to crack open Marlon James “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. At over 700 pages, it might wait a while yet for me to get to it. I could read “The Many” five times over in the time it would take to read “A Brief History of Seven Killings” once.

  3. Trevor Berrett August 3, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Yeah, David, the Booker is interestingly inconsistent in how it puts forward novellas (or, even, short story collections — fun debate on All That Man Is going on as we speak!). The strangest inclusion, by my estimation, is William Trevor’s shortlisting for Reading Turgenev, which was explicitly published as a “novella” in a compilation of two novellas: Two Lives. I can’t think of another instance where a part of a book was nominated.

    Like you, I love the novella length, and I’m glad they don’t have a hardline on length. I wonder when we’ll get one that is only 100 pages? Of course, page count is somewhat illusory. I haven’t done the comparison, but it wouldn’t surprise me if On Chesil Beach were even shorter than The Many in word count. If I remember correctly, those pages were generously spaced.

  4. David August 3, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Trevor, putting short story collections in competition with novels can be a bit of apples and oranges, but I like when a short story collection gets nominated. It is easy to sample a book of stories by reading one or two and then deciding whether I want to read more. But nominating half a book? That is odd. You would think that just as a collection of short stories can make the list that a 2-novella book could make it too, not just half of it. I wonder what this says about the Booker committee’s opinion of the novella they didn’t nominate! I look forward to the day when a collection of short stories is nominated, but only stories 1,2,4,7, and 10 as a group and not stories 3,5,6,8, and 9.

    On the issue of length, I checked my notes for “On Chesil Beach” and “The Sense of an Ending” from when I read them. “On Chesil Beach is approximately 35,000 words and “The Sense of an Ending” is approximately 25,000 words. It is funny to compare these lengths to Faulkner’s “The Bear”, which at 44,000 words is sometimes called a novella and sometimes a short story. So maybe we should count “The Sense of an Ending” as the first stand-alone short story to win? I don’t know if Julian Barnes would approve of that idea.

  5. Trevor Berrett August 4, 2016 at 11:30 am

    I look forward to the day when a collection of short stories is nominated, but only stories 1,2,4,7, and 10 as a group and not stories 3,5,6,8, and 9.

    Ha! I myself might be tempted to do that!

  6. Ian Curtin (@IanCurtin1) August 5, 2016 at 11:06 am

    Very interesting to read this, after the reaction of an august twitter voice convinced me I need not bother with the book.
    It got a pretty strong review in the Guardian as well.

    Hmm. My usual Booker apathy is being challenged this year.

  7. Trevor Berrett August 5, 2016 at 11:18 am

    I was in line with that most august of Twitter voices, Ian. I do wonder if he’d like it if he finished it.

  8. David August 5, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    I (still) have not read the book, but the issue of the slow start of the book (which sounds like it might be being kind to it from all reports) is one worth commenting on. I have a general policy of giving up on books around a third of the way through if it seems to be going badly. I used to be someone who would slog through every book I started, as if reading the first page were a commitment to see it through to the last page, but I found that too often the ones that I was getting little from early on ended up being ones I wish I had not read by the end. The number of books worth reading could fill several lifetimes, so why waste time on a book that isn’t giving me much in the (usually vain) hope it gets better later?

    Now having heard that this one does get better and since it is so short the early slog might not be too long a haul, I expect I will get around to reading it eventually, but that a reader can get two thirds of the way through and either abandon it or want to abandon it suggests a serious flaw in the writing. Going through that far without really having any idea if there is going to be light at the end of the tunnel or just a pit of snakes is asking a lot of a reader and seems to abuse the reader unnecessarily to get to the reward at the end.

    I shouldn’t have to rely on award nominations or reviews to give me some reassurance that the book’s end justifies the hard going early on. If a writer cannot either make the first part rewarding on its own or give us some sort of assurance it will be worth it from within the book (something that is quite conventionally done by the start-at-the-end-of-the-story-then-flash-back-to-the-start technique, a reason that technique is so often overused), then it has a serious and basic problem. It’s nice to know the answer to the question “was it worth the slog?” is “yes”, but it would be much better if that were a question that did not arise.

  9. fulcherkim August 17, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Nice review Trevor – although I think I must have missed what it was that you saw in the last 30 pages as if anything it went downhill to me at that point. Would love to know (via the hide spoiler function on the Goodreads group?) what you think it was all actually about and what I missed!

  10. Bellezza August 21, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    You have written an exquisite review of a book I just finished, and I felt quite the same you did: should I finish it? The atmosphere created is exquisite, the sense of loneliness and isolation palatable. However, a truly idiotic question: is Timothy and Lauren’s Perran just coincidentally named the same as the Perran in the village? I’m confused!

  11. ellie September 7, 2016 at 6:31 am

    Well I’ve got a third of the way through and decided to abandon it. Not only deeply depressing – do we really need that? Not an idiotic question Bellezza – I’ve read a few reviews and your reaction has been repeated several times. If this author writes another book, here’s an avid reader who will be avoiding him at all costs.

  12. Bellezza September 7, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks for your encouragement (to me), Ellie! It’s just such a bizarre “coincidence” that they are named the same.

  13. 60pNick January 11, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Finished this last night and I’m unsure where I stand on it. Unlike some of the readers above, I hugely enjoyed immersing myself in the first 3/4 of the book. Its imagery and beautifully crafted sense of place more than compensated for the slowness (absence of?) a plot. The Jim Crace-like creation of a world very similar to, but unsettlingly different to, reality was right up my street.

    It was the brutality of the big reveal I felt cheated, almost offended, by.

    For personal reasons I found the episode referred to a bit to close to the bone, which left me being critical of the rest of the book. Does Menmuir offer the me enough back to justify thrusting that part of the plot into my head?

    But having ruminated on it further and read some thoughts on other blogs, it could be, just could be, that the author’s genius lies in the almost imperceptible clues he offers throughout the novel as to what’s really going on.

    Either way, the fact that I’m undecided and tempted to give it another go is (as a work colleague just pointed out) probably a bigger recommendation than simply raving about how fantastic it is….

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