Close Your Eyes, By Ewan Morrison

A searing novel of a cult community and its casualties captures both the thrill and the costs of escape.
  • @thoughtland

For those with revolutionary yearnings, it's one of the more seductive whispers in our hearts: if all modern life is rubbish, then we must commit to a form of existence that challenges all existing behaviours, that lets us taste the future.

In the manifesto of Eva, the charismatic but controlling guru at the heart of Ewan Morrison's elegant and urgent novel, this truth "came to me like a voice... whispering to me, to leave the world of noisy clamour, to find others like me and no longer be alone".

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The reader of these words is Rowan, whose new child has unearthed in her a chasm of family trauma suffered at the hands of Eva and her "intentional community" named Ithaca, nestling in the Highlands. Yet even the postnatally-depressed, searingly cynical Rowan – fleeing from her baby to solve the mystery of her mother's death – has to admit to being moved by Eva's words. Indeed, the whole of Close Your Eyes is an admirable and intimate wrestling with the damages incurred by trying to heal, as Adorno once called modernity, "a damaged life".

Morrison has a good ear, apparently rooted in his own folkie childhood with Communist parents, for the self-justifications of radical living from the 1970s until now. When modern life is understood as a poisoned totality – where the "plastic people" around them are already "dust", dull-eyed consumerists sleepwalking their way to nuclear armageddon – the alternative is a swirl of experiments, an embrace of mess and chaos.

Closing your eyes becomes a moving trope. It's the sleep that Rowan desperately seeks for herself and her child, and the state in which her mother takes her on long drives to protest marches against Polaris and Dounreay, listening intently to folk and Beatles songs in the back seat. But it expresses Morrison's broader point about the destructive results of too much liberation and free expression in the family unit: children with multiple parents, parents coupling before their eyes, a militancy of the "organic" that dissolves the necessary boundaries between the "I" and "we" that prepare you for a functional adulthood.

Morrison is, however, a generous and wide-ranging dyspeptic. His novels have been steadily sharpening their dissection of the creative classes on these islands. He delights in their elaborate pratfalls of self-delusion and misapplied competence, slipping around on a permanent grease of sexual desire. So it's not just formless hippies that get it in the neck in Close Your Eyes, but the all-too-calibrated yuppies too. Rowan's husband, Josh, is a deliciously sketched prig – a PR man intoning baby manuals. In his cold emails, texts and voicemails, picked up by Rowan at the end of her quest, Morrison takes brutal glee in plumbing the puddle of metrosexual empathy.

Morrison's version of radical failure is at the shabby end of other recent renditions. Movies like Uli Eidel's The Baader-Meinhof Complex or Bertolucci's The Dreamers balance out the dangers of revolutionary narcissism with a 1970s sexiness. Hari Kunzru's novel My Revolutions is chiefly concerned with relativising our fears of Islamic terror by reminding us of how easily our own secular desperados once slid into violence.

Morrison's main beef is with the kind of hippie communalism and sub-Buddhist ontology ("it is what it is") flown from California. It sups greedily from the Celticised mists'*'mystery of the Scottish Highlands. In the search for her mother, Rowan discovers that at least she saw through the veils of self-indulgence, committing herself - however disastrously - to anti-nuclear protest. But Morrison is unsparing in his disdain for the forced communion and incoherent yearning that generally characterises the spiritual consumer. Anyone preparing their next trip to the Findhorn Community in Scotland should float past this book. But anyone wanting to read a wise, emotionally literate gauge of the burdens - and blarney - of alternative living should buy it immediately.