N. Quentin Woolf is a novelist and broadcaster, and is a returning columnist for our upcoming issue twelve release. Here Phillip Clement reviews his debut novel, The Death of the Poet.
Men are meant to be wounded. That’s how the world sees its menfolk: as so much meat for the mincing machine. A man who doesn’t want to be destroyed is a failed man.
So ends Woolf’s debut, The Death of the Poet, a novel which grapples unapologetically with themes of violence and trauma, suicide and masculine identity. The story is told through two first person perspectives; firstly of John Knox, ‘a liberal West Coast shock-jock in the 1990s who at the height of his success had one of the most widely syndicated shows in US broadcasting history’, who meets the woman of his dreams (Rachel McAllistair) following a one-sided political brawl, and subsequently begins an obsessive relationship with a self-destructive partner who abuses him both mentally and physically. The second strand of the novel is delivered by way of the diary entries of John Rutherford, a British Captain in the First World War, who brought the poetry of James Lyons, a Rupert Brooke-esque Private, to global renown following the latter’s death in action.
Roughly a third of the way through the novel Knox suffers a brutal attack that leaves him physically disfigured and mentally shattered, at this point the perspective changes radically and the reader is introduced (for the first time) to Rutherford who lies in convalescence at a field hospital. The two men become united in their shared trauma and their existence in a dislocated no-man’s land between the miraculous and the grotesque – for Rutherford, a world in which neither can find anyone ‘representative of their state’, or with whom to relate. Through the narratives of both men Woolf explores the depths of human responsibility, and presents the reader with a portrait of humanity that seems more accustomed to a leering prejudice than with deeds of everyday heroism and compassion. As readers, inevitably harbouring our own thoughts concerning Knox’s relationship with Rachel, we cannot help but feel roused with him when, having given his word to help Rachel through her ‘troubles’, he attests:
All you have as an individual are your beliefs. If you don’t act upon your beliefs, my friend, you don’t exist.
The Death of the Poet wears its beliefs unflinchingly. Woolf’s sustained interrogation of violence (whether in war, the home or against the self) throughout the novel is impressive, and is one of the book’s chief driving forces. For much of the narrative this is done by a passionate exploration of culpability and human responsibility often (as the opening quote illustrates) through an examination of masculinity. Perhaps because the novel includes graphic depictions of domestic abuse that conflict with the prevailing attitudes of the day, Woolf dares to question what it means to be a non-violent man in a violent world; as is said by Rachel:
“I thought warfare was a boy thing?” “Well, I try to keep as far the fuck away from war as possible” I was out of credit, so I just let you shoot. “Maybe you’re an honorary woman?” “A non-violent man is a woman?” “Aw, come on. All violence in the home, all violent street crime, every war – it’s all men”…”You think men choose that shit?” “Yeah,” you said, putting the gun back in the holster, “I do.”
The novel is aggressively pacifist and attacks the heroic ideals that govern society; this is most noticeable in the passages drawn from Rutherford’s diary in which, having raised Lyons to a patriotic plinth, questions his actions and his part in revealing the ‘horror’ to a paying public.
Before war broke out, no one discussed what a soldier actually did other than in flighty heroic passages with rhyming line-endings; or else castrato, with schoolboy magniloquence. He smote a legion of the enemy. His plucky comrades fell. It was considered bad form to talk about it all – and never in front of the fairer sex. Well, now the horror is out, and we’re drowning in poetry. One is faced with the evidence of war every day, in bath chairs in the park, in convalescents, their stumps dressed in white and blankets over their laps, their useless laps.
It’s a stark comparison to our own world and one which is well realised and translated through Knox, who himself laments the cult of celebrity of which he was a part.
The Death of the Poet makes for a challenging and conflicted read; it’s brash and loud, forceful with its morals – but in others the themes are drawn out tenderly and with great sympathy. Though, fair warning, N. Quentin Woolf (rightly) expects much of his readers; the two strands are drawn together overtly, dangerously close to the story’s eventual completion and, for some readers, this denouement may smack of the arbitrary. On the whole, Woolf demonstrates great authorial range and has produced a novel that is by turns darkly comic and lightly disturbing, conjuring a romance with enough psychological trauma to leave his readers wondering what might have happened had Love Actually been written by Emile Durkheim during the suicide years.
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The Death of the Poet (Serpents Tail, 2014), by N. Quentin Woolf, is available now.