SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
FORBIDDEN LINE (GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS) BY PAUL STANBRIDGE
Forbidden Line is a brand new book published by Galley Beggar Press, the company behind Eimear McBride’s award-crushing A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride’s novel (released way back in 2013 when I had hair and hope for the future) is a rip-roaring ride, and was so successful it lifted Galley Beggar Press to a prominent position within the British literary scene. Since then, GBP has maintained its reputation, putting out a smashing selection of literary texts. Doing what every good independent publisher should be doing (right?), publishing powerful and unique texts overlooked by traditionalist and/or populist mainstream publishers, gifting to the world great literature that may otherwise have been overlooked, ignored, forgotten or discarded.
Paul Stanbridge’s Forbidden Line is very much a non-mainstream novel. It is experimental, it is genuinely weird, it is focused (at least initially) on rural England and it makes many references to literary works and historical events. It is highly stylised and contains much wordplay, a Fowlesian disregard for literary convention, a lot of violence, a lot of intoxication and implies a heavy engagement with historical sources. It does a lot of interesting things, but – and this is the big one – is there too much going on for it to be enjoyable? However, even if the answer to that question is “yes”, it raises the secondary question about its purpose: is Stanbridge’s novel meant to be enjoyable? And, if it isn’t, what is it meant to be? Maybe Forbidden Line is ultimately a joke, a satire taking aim at a reader’s perceived notions of fiction and normative narrative structures. Let’s have a look in more detail, pull apart the text’s many threads.
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Forbidden Line starts off as an Essex-based retelling of Don Quixote, but rather than believing he is a knight errant, Don Waswill (who is accompanied by his servant Isiah (known as “Is” and then later “Is-Book”) believes in the importance of Chance and the negative effects on society caused by any and all written history. These two characters become embroiled in a 21st-century re-enactment of the Peasants’ Revolt that turns incredibly bloody, and they discover that they’ve accidentally been copying the movements of the historical mob, functioning as lightening-rod-like leaders dragging the recorded past into the present. Additionally, Don had written a non-consecutive encyclopaedia over the twenty-one years that preceded his meeting Isiah, but after he develops an intense disapproval of all written words the two men destroy the encyclopaedia and the crate that contained it. This crate keeps reappearing, no matter how many times they destroy it, while Isiah – who has phenomenal powers of memory – becomes the new repository for a solely oral encyclopaedia, hence the change of name mentioned above.
Still with me?
Stanbridge plays with literary norms throughout, in what begins as a rather trad Modernist vibe but becomes more 1960s/70s later on. We read passages in different styles, initially parts of Don’s encyclopaedia but later on extracts from other texts. We see diagrams, especially maps, and we read written versions of the second, oral, encyclopaedia. Time is liquid, as too are locations – the characters move in ways that match neither reality nor the normalised laws of fiction. (A bit like Mantissa by John Fowles.) The two protagonists believe in Chance in opposition to cause and effect, and Stanbridge’s gently present narrator also seems to have little interest in a structured narrative. In fact, the narrator often seems to have less control over his characters than they do over him. It isn’t the narrator who merges and moves time and place, but Don, or Chance itself. Through this technique the novel perhaps seeks to prove its own internal logic: the unexpected keeps happening, cause and effect do not apply, things are destroyed but then reappear, things that do not happen have happened, people share names with historical figures from the past and identities are coagulated and altered based on popular opinion. In short, it’s weird: the reader is knocked about, confused, constantly on the back foot and uncertain about any of the facts within the novel’s fictional world. No rules are unbreakable, nothing is predictable. The only constant truth is the fact that what we believe to be true may change at any time. The only rule that stays unbroken is the rule that every rule can be broken. This sort of arrangement has the potential to be quite fun, and in many ways the dishevelled and discombobulated reader can take pleasure from the book twisting them into confusion, if exhaustion doesn’t set in first.
The prose is written in an elevated style, long sentences, big words (i.e. polysyllabic vocabulary), and we are regularly bombarded with information, and complex intellectual theories, most frequently w/r/t “the hyperfine transition of hydrogen” – which I didn’t understand – but also about literature, esp Don Quixote and previous variants of it, plus the already-mentioned Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The reader needs to pay attention to every word within every sentence if they are to understand what is happening as meaning is often obtuse. For me, it became tiring – a novel this big cannot be this much work unless the gains the reader receives are equal. Joyce gets away with being verbose because he’s both witty and human; Woolf gets away with difficult prose because she writes deep emotional truth; Conrad’s seemingly turgid prose is a slim veil over the top of great swash-buckling excitement; and well-translated Proust gets away with massive, circling, immersive sentences because it’s gorgeous and glorious and art-affirming. Will Forbidden Line provide these climactic highs for a reader, or am I just setting the limbo bar impossibly low, judging Stanbridge against his stylistic peers?
My big fear right now is that my lack of enjoyment of Forbidden Line comes down to this: either I’m not as clever as I think I am or Paul Stanbridge isn’t.
Forbidden Line is full of conflicting and exploratory and intellectual themes and – to almost patronise myself (the vice that keeps making me late for work in the mornings) – I couldn’t keep track of them all. Stanbridge has loaded Forbidden Line with so much stuff, so many ideas, so many letters in words and so much researched knowledge that I’m prepared to admit that I was intellectually dwarfed. I couldn’t cope. And I’m not stoopid (I’ve got two degrees). Am I stupid?
Stanbridge’s prose has a strong and distinctive style and I regularly had to reread sentences to understand the meaning. The book is fun, it is literarily playful, and when I was most on board with it, it regularly made me smile. Its disengaged treatment of violence, its use of Ian McEwan as a character and its extended section on previous adaptations of Don Quixote are all examples of elements of the text that combined to make me feel uncertain where to look with my mind’s eye.
And there is a lot here to be enjoyed. Multiple time streams and postmodern attitudes to structure, mixed media, twisted expectations, having fun with history and convention and questioning societally normal attitudes related to perception of the present and the perception of society. And there’s so much of everything. Forbidden Line is a novel brim-full of ideas and though I sometimes found myself floundering I feel this is deliberate – it is a shifting, complex, text ON PURPOSE.
Forbidden Line is meant to destabilise a reader and rail against the normative experience of reading even a [standard] experimental book. Forbidden Line offers a unique reading experience – there is nothing quite like this – however this uniqueness does demand a hefty intellectual effort on the part of the reader.
Forbidden Line is interesting and intriguing and a successful attempt at doing something original with the written word.
Since reading it, I’ve done a bit of research on The Peasants’ Revolt, casually, and also on the different versions of Don Quixote mentioned in the book. One of them – which I hadn’t realised – was a fictional adaptation in the real world, taken from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve barely read) but treated like a real life figure in Forbidden Line. Stanbridge’s novel has layers to it, layers that perhaps I lack the cultural capital to appreciate properly. Maybe the whole novel would open up, wide, if I read it in tandem with Wikipedia or I just happened to be more cleverer.
Forbidden Line wore me out, but if it was a lover, a squash game, a meal or a dog, I’d definitely consider that a good thing. A unique read, worth a go if you’re up to it.
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Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.
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