Neglected Books: 'Hangover Square,' 'Foam of the Daze' and 'Pincher Martin'
Sometimes you finish the last page of a book, close it, and have to sit quietly for a few moments (reaction times may vary) and let the whole thing configure in your mind. In this month’s selection, I’m choosing three novels, all very different, with endings that kick you hard in the mind, and stay there a long time after the book’s finished.
Don’t worry - there be no spoilers here.
'Hangover Square' by Patrick Hamilton
In case you didn’t know, London wasn’t exactly a cosmopolitan paradise at the outbreak of World War II, especially as depicted by Patrick Hamilton. The author still holds some minor regard in the UK, but his work is incredibly undervalued as a whole.
Here comes a brash proclamation: Hamilton is one of the best at, maybe even nabbing the gold medal for, capturing loneliness. And he takes us straight into the grimy underworld of smoke-filled pubs to do it. Hangover Square is often filed under “crime”, but that seems like a slippery grasp of this chronicle of degradation.
George Bone, a meek and lonely man, is devoted to the minor-league actress Netta. Netta is more than happy for George to follow at her heels, taking orders, plying her with drinks. If you’re thinking this already sounds hopelessly sad, it gets worse. Because George occasionally slips into “blackouts” under which, with utter and disconnected dedication, he realizes that Netta simply just has to be murdered. Nobody’s getting out of this story smelling of roses.
Is George mentally ill? Will someone notice and halt his murderous desires before something terrible happens? There’s no tension there: of course not. This is a world crammed to the brim with the outer scum of ordinary human beings. Hangover Square is still in print, and was made into a British film in its time, but remains under-read. It is a perfect portrait of dreadful people, mad and selfish and alone. A friend of mine borrowed my copy and said her eyes needed a bath.
And the last few lines are a spiked gut-punch of despairing solitude. Please don’t read this if you’re not having a great day. But do read it when you’re feeling better.
'Foam of the Daze' by Boris Vian
Colin is rich, suave, has a manservant, and even his very own pianocktail! (A musical instrument that mixes drinks, so one can drink the music during playing.)
Colin got up and opened the front panel by turning the handle. They took the two glasses that were filled to the brim with shimmering liquid rainbows. The junctiquarian drank first, licking his lips with his tongue.
“It’s got exactly the taste of the blues,” he said. “And exactly the taste of those blues I’ve just played. This invention of yours is super!”
Not only that, but he meets a beautiful woman called Chloe, has a whirlwind romance, and even funds the nuptials of his two friends, Alise and Chick. Everything’s just super, right?
Boris Vian was a french writer. (Ah! Quirky romance. Think of Amelie, Michel Gondry’s films. How charming!) One of his more notorious works was I Spit on Your Graves (Wait, what?) which featured racially motivated murders, morally questionable sex, and revenge. (Oh.) Boris Vian’s Foam of the Daze is definitely quirky and definitely charming. And nobody gets lynched. But he’s not afraid to plunge into the darkness.
For instance, Chick has a certain addiction: he can’t stop buying the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre’s books. The pun admittedly eases the tragedy. Alise can see no other way to save their finances - and their marriage - than convincing Jean-Sol Partre to stop publishing. Meanwhile, Chloe has been diagnosed with a rare illness: a lily in the lung, the only treatment for which is to be constantly surrounded by flowers. Soon Colin’s funds begin to dwindle...
I haven’t mentioned that the book opens with Colin brushing his eyebrows. Or that his manservant catches eels in the plumbing, and serves them for lunch. Or the conscious pink cloud that appears out of nowhere to add enchantment to Colin and Chloe’s date by engulfing them, and is never mentioned again.
And oh God, Colin’s pet mouse.
And the mouse’s friendship with a cat.
Their conversations that interrupt the narrative.
The book is charming and beautifully uses surrealist imagery and language to conjure up a world unlike any I’ve ever read. This would be one of my favorite neglected books of all time even if the ending wasn’t utterly heartbreaking in its gloom. But it is.
'Pincher Martin' by William Golding
William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His most famous book, Lord of the Flies, is taught in schools and read by everyone. William Golding surely is not a neglected author. But here’s something funny: not only is Lord of the Flies not Golding’s best book, it’s not even his best book set on a desert island.
Christopher “Pincher” Martin has had the misfortune of serving as a naval lieutenant on a ship that’s just been torpedoed. Fighting for life (and consciousness) he begins to swim and call out for other survivors. There are none that he can see. But soon comes his possible salvation: a giant rock, empty of life, but out of the sea’s clutches.
There isn’t a whole lot for Martin to do sitting on the rock. We see flashbacks to his military career and life, and it slowly becomes clear that “Pincher” Martin is not a very nice person at all. In excruciating detail, we are privy to his experiences and thoughts as he sits on the rock, alone, waiting for rescue.
Very strange things begin to plague the mind of “Pincher” Martin, as he refuses to give up and die, feasting on anemones and drinking from pools of water. A conversation with God. An alteration of his body. The significance of a toothache. It’s all experienced in a masterfully written book, unafraid to flit between streams of madness and lucidity.
We are pulled through a terrible experience with a terrible man. William Golding never allows us to avert our gaze. This just may be one of the finest underrated novels by a well-regarded author. And the ending, naturally, changes everything that came before it.
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