Tractatus psycho-philosophicus

BY STEVEN POOLE THE DUMB HOUSE by John Burnside, Cape pounds 9.99
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Mad and Bad narrators are an old, but still potentially dazzling trick in modern fiction. Map the healthy psyche by rigorously imagining a mutilated one, just as neuroscientists glean most of what they know about normal brain function by studying mental impairment. That's at their best, as in, say, American Psycho - which enraged the moral majority, in whose dictionaries the word "satire" and its cognates lie lonely and unlooked-up, with only satinwood and satisfaction to talk to.

Vicious narrators seem to be becoming more fashionable now, purely as an adjunct to the tiresome mind-of-a-killer fetish. Can't get enough true- confession mass murderers from Brian Masters or ex-FBI consultants? Here's some I just made up. Of course, the people who are the most avid scholars of serial-killer literature, squirrelling away newspaper cuttings by the hundreds, are, um, serial killers.

Hence to John Burnside's gloomy first novel, The Dumb House, narrated by a psychopath. He grew up with a distant father and a glamorous, overbearing mother. He tortured animals from an early age, and now conceives a bizarre scientific experiment. One of the bedtime stories that Mother used to tell him was the Persian myth of Akbar the Great. The king's philosophers had been worrying fruitlessly at the question of whether language is innate or acquired. So Akbar decreed a palace staffed only by mutes, in which newborn infants would be imprisoned. Having no one to teach them language, the children did not develop a language of their own but remained silent.

Pesky myths, of course, forget to provide a sober methodology, so are not scientifically reliable. The narrator, living in modern Britain, determines to repeat the set-up. He impregnates a young homeless woman, who dies after giving birth messily to twins at his home. These twins, his children, he names A and B and locks in a cage in the cellar. He plays them instrumental music but does not speak to them, and has no direct contact except at feeding time. Unfortunately for the twins, they begin singing to each other: a form of communication, it seems, self-invented and entirely private. This weird keening has such an unsettling effect on the narrator that he enacts an ugly surgical revenge.

Burnside, a poet, arrests the mind with a few splendid images. The narrator's mother, terminally ill, demands that her son cover the bedroom mirror: "I found an old shawl, and used it to cover the mirror, binding it with the twine, unable to shake the idea that we were still there, frozen on the surface of the glass, in a last glance." But having lovingly sewn together his monster, Burnside is unable to conjure a vital spark from the heavens. "Mother is the only person who is completely real for me," he admits, but that's one more person than is real for the reader.

Burnside's narrator is merely a device by which the author works through his own obsession with language, and its dangerous illusion of cosmic order. But the conceptual material is insufficient for anything longer than a macabre short story. Given that the narrator spends so much time in the library researching his monomania, it is impoverishing that the story is so indifferent to the theories of Chomsky, Fodor, Dennett et al. This is where the interesting ideas of language glow - things about which The Dumb House, a mean, cold book, has nothing to say.