In fiction, a good voice is everything. It’s more important than plot, it can paper over narrative infirmities, and all style and tone issues from it. A distinctive enough voice provides that rare thing that makes literature so edifying: access to an indelible character’s consciousness.
Richard Milward’s first novel in eight years has a humdinger of a voice: that of anarchist Raymond Novak. A novel within a novel, it’s presented with a foreword by the director of The Glass Eye Press (a fictional publishing house specialising in lurid erotica). Raymond’s memoirs are sent to the publishing house in instalments over 276 days in the 60s, culminating in a “fantabulosa crime” he vows to commit “that will revolt the mond”, predicting that his “nom will be on the oyster-levers of every daffy jittery civvy”.
Don’t worry, you haven’t lost it. Raymond’s memoir is written in Polari, a language favoured by fairground workers in the 60s. With this strange dialect, not to mention extensive footnotes from the bewildered publishers, you might think a very disordered reading experience awaits.
However, much like A Clockwork Orange (an obvious antecedent), you soon develop an aptitude for Polari, either out of familiarity or contextual clues. Milward’s mastery of voice means your patience is amply rewarded – the voice is so strong that even a scene of Novak merely folding sheets would’ve been entertaining.
‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
But this voice sees us through countless, inventive farragoes, with a jaunty tone throughout, despite the unspeakably grim circumstances befalling Novak: grotesque hazing rituals in the Merchant Navy, brushes with backstreet abortionists, ECT, masochism, castration, cannibalism and bestiality.
Less successful are the attempts of the footnotes (invoking Pale Fire) to explore the publishing house’s motley crew of characters, who merge together. The footnotes do amusingly take issue with some of Novak’s hyperbole, ultimately overwhelming the narrative, leading to a fun, teasing reveal about Novak’s identity that’s both satisfying and ambiguous.
The book is plainly too long. At 536 pages, some wackiness fatigue kicks in. The voice never wanes, but that’s a lot of pages to sustain such a gleefully absurdist register. Still, this wretch remains discomfitingly winning, whether making love to a stingray or holding a sordid man dressed as a goose captive (don’t ask). Milward writes with such joyous brio that he can get away with anything.