AFTER 12 YEARS AWAY from novel-writing, William Golding returns unchanged: still a moralist, still a maker of parables. To be a moralist you must believe in good and evil, and Golding does; indeed you might say that the nature of good and evil is his only theme. To be a parable-maker you must believe that moral meaning can be expressed in the very fabric of the story itself, and perhaps that some meanings can only be espressed in this way; and this, too, has always been Golding's way.
Golding has located his parables all over history, from the Paleolithic period to the future; but he has also made parables out of the present, and that is what he does in Darkness Visible. This new novel begins in a World War II air raid on London, and ends with a kidnapping and a terrorist hijacking that are out of this year's or last year's newspapers. The setting is grimy present reality: an English country town decaying into the modern world, where trucks fill the narrow streets with their roar, and jets scream overhead toward Heathrow, and every amenity has been defaced by progress.
But as the title from Milton's description of Hell suggests, the town is also a place where evil is at home, and the action of the novel is once more good's struggle with the power of evil. It is, you might say, a parable of three obsessions. Most inportant is Matty, a man obsessed with religion, an Old Testament prophet in the wrong place, a sort of porody-Jeremiah. Matty enters the novel out of fire -- the fire of the air raid, from which he emerges a horribly burned, unidentified child. As he grows up, so hideously scarred that he will always live outside human relationships, he asks himself first "who am I?" and then "what am I for ?" He finds his answer in the Bible: his role is to prophesy Judgement. But though he is obsessed by his need to phophesy, he is almost incapable of speech,and his efforts to preach by another language of signs are ludicrous failures. He abandons his Jeremiah-role and becomes a servant at a boy's school, and waits for a Sign.
His antithesis is Sophy, a young girl in the town, who is beautiful where he is ugly, and empty-hearted where his is full of inexpressible love. Sophy sees herself, in a disturbing image, as a creature who sits at the mouth of a black tunnel, looking out at the world, wholly isolated, and with only black emptiness behind her, a creature who can only belong to herself. Matty asks "who an I?" and waits for an answer; but Sophy simply asserts "i am." Matty's vision of the world is Bibical and passionate; but hers is scientific and cold, a vision of entropy, of the universe running down. Her twin, Toni, is more of the same: a beautiful, composed girl, containing, as her sister says, only "ideas and emptiness." Sophy becomes a criminal, Toni becomes "the perfect terrorist."
Matty's Judgment Day and Sophy's entropy are antithetical visions of apocalypse, They came together in a night of climactic vision when Sophy attempts to kidnap a boy at Matty's school, and Matty has his Sign, and in an act of immolation returns to the fire he came from, and saves the child. Violence meets violence, and God's violence wins.
Lurking through the novel is another obsessive character, Mr. Pedigree, a pedophilic ex-schoolteacher (he taught Matty as a boy) who has served prison sentences for his molesting ways, but without dimnishing his obsession. Like Matty and Sophy he is an extreme case -- love at the very edge of possibility. But he does love, and so it is he who finally can understand Matty's love, a kind of angel come to free him from his bondage. Readers familiar with Golding's other noels will see that this one repeats Folding's own obsessions: with the mental processes of abnormal consciousnesses, for example -- minds like Simon's in Lord of the Flies, and Lok's in The Inheritors, and here Matty's, minds confronted with experience beyond what they can verbalize. Golding has often placed himself there, at the limits of language, with characters who can see but cannot say what they see: hence the parabolic forms, hence the preoccupation with signs and revelations as a way of expressing the inexpressible. The thing to be expressed has often to do with the destructive poswer of evil -- and especially of that evil that comes from the empty heart -- and with its opposite, the heart that is filled with love. Golding's lovers (like Nathaniel in Pincher Martin ) are visionaries: to love at all is to have a kind of vision, to see more that the eye sees. They are also, in their heterodox ways, religious -- like their author, who once described himself as "an incompetently religious man."
In the midst of a meditiation on entropy, Sophy thinks that the end of everything will be a simplicity, and that the way to simplicity leads through outrage. All of the principal characters in Darkness Visible behave outrageously and violently, and perhaps that is Golding's point -- that outrageous violence is a condition of our time, and that we cannot avoid it: we can only choose what kind of outrage we will suffer. Matty chooses outrageous faith, Sophy chooses outrageous nihilism, Toni chooses outrageous terror and poor Mr. Pedigree doesn't choose at all, but simply accepts his outrageous love. Though, thinking back over Golding's novels of other times, I can think of none that doesn't have its own kind of violence; so perhaps it would be better to say that the form of violence changes, but that violence itself is a condition of existence. Darkness Visible is a difficult novel. But unlike many other contemporary novels, it is difficult because its meaning is diffcult: it is not a complicated word game, or a labyrinth with a vacuum at the center. Golding, the religious man, has once more set himself the task of finding the signs and revelations, the parable, that will express his sense of the human situation. Difficult, yes -- isn't morality difficult? -- but worth the effort.