Books: Fiction in brief

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Quinsigamond is a run-down New England industrial town, carved up into ethnic, criminal fiefdoms. Its grandest buildings are architectures of decay, its inhabitants refugees. Word Made Flesh (No Exit Press pounds 10), the first of three O'Connell novels set in this imagined city to be published in the UK, mixes "real" American references (Elvis) with marginally altered ones (feminist poet and suicide Janine McBell). Its quirks are a function of an intensified awareness of and craving for language. Gangsters live off child comic-book copiers, cops extract confessions with word-association, word-junkies fall victim to a readers' plague. Ex-cop Gilrein mourns his murdered wife in the house of Edgar Brockden, who hacked up his family while hunting "the divine alphabet" in 1798 (a reference to America's first professional writer, Charles Brockden Brown). Meshed into this obsession with text is an equal analysis of flesh. The first sight we witness is the skinning of a shrieking man. O'Connell calls the skin a "jacket", like a book. In this thriller, the mystery is what words mean. The solution that's sought is a book: the mythical Alicia's Testament.

O'Connell is not shy of the sources for his city. One character rants at "all the arrogant, logocentric rationalists before us ... with their cannibal picnics and their Japanese fashion shows", suggesting Williams Gibson and Burroughs. What O'Connell adds is the possibility that language's inadequate rule can ruin reality. Alicia's Testament, it turns out, is a book by the sole witness to the massacre of a Jewish sect, scrawled with such force her tendons tear; its pages are then bound in her skin. In his alternate world, it allows O'Connell to tell the Holocaust's story again, through another survivor. As Jews are fed into a grinder, this narrator pushes language to its limits, describing pressure "like the palm of God breaking through the sky to crush his people into the ground, but slowly, with all the force of an omnipotent enemy". The speaker wants his listener to put himself in that place, to remember, to "imagine". But how can he? Imagine "is a word. Nothing more. It cannot do what it was not meant to do." Can a genocide really be recorded, if its victims are put where words can never go?

In attempting to answer such questions, O'Connell treads a delicate line. In building up a world of unlikely bibliophilia, he risks the "linguistic solipsism" his characters exhibit, a merely academic obsession. Though he tries on many narrative styles (biography, myth, journal, thriller), there is a sense of claustrophobic inwardness for much of this book, of words being clinically chosen, sentences scientifically composed, and semiotic theories severing O'Connell's grip on any useful reality. "He thought he could French-kiss the Almighty and detach himself intact ... An atheist to the bone, the Inspector thought he could turn the entire system of language around and bugger it, make language his prison-bitch, the slave to his boundless ego," it's said of one character, and there are times when O'Connell seems to hover on the edge of such hubris.

But his book's closing passages suggest that this has been a calculated risk; that O'Connell has lingered on the impossibility of complete communication with words, only to make a daring counter-claim. In a journal Gilrein's dead wife left for him, she offers a leap of faith in love, to burst through language's bonds. It is the same leap Alicia made, trying to trap a Holocaust in words. O'Connell is caught in his crime novel plot at the end, not quite able to extricate himself. He's still done enough to give his world of words and flesh a soul, and to show himself to be a writer of terrific gifts.