How does a writer follow up an award-winning first novel written entirely in updated Old English, an invented “shadow tongue,” and set amid the chaos of 11th-century England?
If that writer is Paul Kingsnorth, author of 2014’s most audacious debut, “The Wake,” the answer is simple and bold: create an even more hallucinatory, more challenging tale. In his new novel, “Beast,” Kingsnorth strips out nearly all punctuation and grammatical cues and assigns the telling to a narrator who seems, at best, only intermittently reliable. He also throws in an enormous, mysterious black animal that has absolutely no business prowling England’s moors.
A deceptively slender book, “Beast” cements Kingsnorth’s reputation as a furiously gifted writer. This is not a comforting novel. It offers questions, answers none of them and leaves the reader with a bracing, hollowed-out feeling. But like the huge creature that haunts its pages, “Beast” has an uncanny power.
When we first meet the half-mad narrator, Edward Buckmaster, he has taken up residence in a dilapidated, abandoned house on a wild moor in the west of England. (The narrator of “The Wake,” set a thousand years earlier, was an Anglo-Saxon landowner, “Buccmaster of Holland.” Is Edward his kin? We never find out.) Edward has fled his shrill, tech-obsessed contemporaries in what he calls a “retreat from the encircling, from the furious thoughts and opinions, the views and the positions soldered together with impatience and anger, enfolding the world in underwater cables and radio waves . . . glueing the world up.”
No fan of modernity, this one.
Edward has also left behind a wife and daughter. Memories of them flicker, resolve and, just as quickly, fade alongside his stream-of-consciousness visions. What he hopes to find in the wilderness is never fully explained. But he speaks of saints and seekers and counts himself among them — even as he acknowledges that every saint and seeker is, in some fundamental way, a self-absorbed jerk.
A third of the way through the tale, as a starving Edward, a cross between a storm-wracked Lear and a thoroughly modern neurotic, staggers about the moor, he glimpses a monstrous, indistinct animal — “big and long and dark”— crossing his path. The rest of the novel is, in effect, Edward’s hunt for the creature and, at times, the creature’s stalking of Edward.
What the creature is, or whether it exists at all, is beside the point. Edward believes. He seeks the beast. And, as with all quests, he finds that wanting is more revelatory than having.
With its echoes of Kafka and of dread-filled, myth-driven tales like John Gardner’s “Grendel,” Kingsnorth’s “Beast” is as cryptic as it is thrilling. It’s not for everyone, but for those who rise to its challenge, it’s not easily forgotten, either.
Benedict Cosgrove is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.
By Paul Kingsnorth
Graywolf. 168 pp. Paperback, $16