That famed animators Timothy and Stephen Quay provided the jacket image for Sweet England, Steve Weiner’s third novel, is not surprising. Weiner’s connections to the film industry are oft-noted, and his earlier essay on the Quays’ work encourages reflection on aesthetic commonalities. His fictions join their films in eschewing narrative time as a function of causality and the necessity to characterize coherent metaphysical subjectivity. Similar, too, are their uses of images presenting surprising combinations of organic and inorganic materials, a fascination with dissolution and recombination, and the investiture of the malformed and disregarded with mythic resonances. This final, most important, point allows recognition that the space of Weiner’s fictions is that ground where the sacred, profane, and abject interact.
Sweet England presents the interplay of these three qualities in a fairly rudimentary plot: a nameless man wanders near and throughout London. As the narrative is focalized via this protagonist, the reader realizes his apprehension of the world transpires through rather damaged faculties, and thus comprehension and even presentation of some key events will meet resistance. After being named Jack by another character, the man falls into a relationship with an obese, suicidal alcoholic, Brenda Leigh. He assumes responsibility for selling goods at a street market, pursues a potentially non-existent girl, loses his flat, is jailed, attempts to bed down at a flophouse, and visits a morgue. Among the several other way stations are a number of pubs and chapels. The treatment of the characters and much of the imagery is uncanny and absurd, darkly humorous in a fashion familiar to readers of Bataille, Burroughs, and Beckett. The book’s repetitions, banalities, and periodic hallucinatory passages wear at first, but the structure of episodic accumulation impresses as a means for conveying sublimity from the more debased quarters of the quotidian.
Weiner’s cominglings of verdant virility and sterile artificiality, and the everyday and the fantastic, are realized in a rich number of variations. The opening of the novel offers a “flint and stone church on a grassy rise” that, despite its pastoral setting and invocations of the continuity of cultural tradition, has no roof and a broken door. Later chapels will bear similar marks of decay yet remain beacons of something more than bare mortality. As settings change, the ambiguities that are the marker of the abject persist, as when one character declares Jack to have been “on a mission of lust disguised as a religious experience” (136). The veracity of this man’s pronouncement appears less than certain to Jack, and the reader is left without sufficient evidence for evaluation. Is this quest holy or perverse? With Jack as our only guide, the lack of definition is ontological and epistemological. The crises are also cultural. The final pages find Jack surrounded by “a Muslim . . . Hindu boys . . . a Hebrew burial ground” and an “African-British woman” (161). Such diversity indicates that the complexities Jack negotiates obtain in the national socio-political register as well.
Connecting all for both reader and Jack are the peregrinations of a richly symbolic boat, Sweet England, glimpsed on the move at the start, making its way periodically throughout, and docking at the close of the text. The question of resolution for a post-imperial nation dealing with its multicultural inheritance, for the existentially homeless, for the lovelorn, and for those cast-off and displaced in any other serious sense remains nothing other than problematic. Jack’s confusions are not to be alleviated. Also, these are the difficulties for readers of a book which refuses to accept the artificial redemption or conclusion; Sweet England may have docked, but where its crew will step ashore remains mysterious. This is not to say the book is without strange beauties and flashes of hope and even potential salvation. Despite the violence and idle chatter that precede them, this book’s final paragraphs are peaceful, indeed lyrical. Such calm is the visionary addendum Weiner offers as he casts a wary eye on the weary world, and its words.
CHRISTOPHER K. COFFMAN