Peter Owen, 1967
ISBN 978-0-72061-268-4 (2006 reprint)
When I picked up this book, all I knew about it was that it was apocalyptic. I certainly didn’t realise that the apocalyptic scenario in fact plays out a sinister psychological dreamscape, where the boundaries between interior and exterior, real and imagined, hallucination and daydream, sadistic wish-fulfillment and physical injury, are utterly erased. That was a shock. But whilst Kavan’s Ice turned out to be far more disconcerting than I’d anticipated, it certainly wasn’t disappointing.
Ice is often described as a ‘slipstream’ novel, and as far as I can see that’s a pretty good classification, if indeed it helps to label it at all. The novel is a slippery specimen, that’s for sure. From the very first page, Kavan launches the reader into the mind of the (unnamed) first person narrator, as he is driving through hazardous snowy conditions in order to reach the house of a girl he used to know. We learn that he has been out of the country for some time – but not where, why, or for how long – and that he and the girl have some kind of romantic history. We also learn that he is, basically, obsessed with her. This sense increases as the story goes on: the plot details the narrator’s constant, unyielding search for this girl. He encounters and loses her multiple times, but cannot give her up… And all this time, we are made aware of some global disaster that is taking place all around. Its nature is unclear – nuclear weapons are mentioned, as is environmental catastrophe, along with a number of other possible crises – but the main constituent is the monumental, inexorable approach of the ice, creeping over the world, gradually covering it in a sheet of frozen death…
What complicates all this still further is that our narrator is completely unreliable. Suffering from neurotic hallucinations – and who knows what else – the prose lapses from reality to hallucination to dream and back again, with little-to-no differentiation. At first, I could keep track of which parts were ‘real’ and which not (or at least, I think I could), but as the book continues the boundaries become increasingly blurred, and by the end I wasn’t even trying to work it out. Not that this meant I was fed up – on the contrary, I’d given myself over to the hallucinatory experience of Ice, and felt that it would be counter-productive to try rationalizing its events too much. I was confused, yes, but not to the point of annoyance (though I can see why the novel might be too oblique for some people’s tastes).
A Note on Ice’s Confusing Nature: having just searched for the ISBN on Amazon (the copy I read being too old to have its ISBN printed in it, if it has one at all) I found an interesting customer review (see here – the review dated 14 April 2009) that has gone some way to clear the fog from my eyes. For a start, it warns the reader new to Kavan not to begin with Ice (oops) and goes on to outline her disturbed mental life, her heroin addiction, and her torturous emotional pain. The reviewer refers to Ice as ‘another piece in [Kavan’s] emotional jigsaw’. I can see how this must be true, and it’s made me keen to read her earlier works, and build a deeper understanding of where Ice fits into her oeuvre. However, I don’t think that Ice is unreadable to the first-time initiate of Kavan. You have to have some patience, and whilst I’ll freely admit that I found the novel extremely disorientating, I did get something out of it, and the metaphorical resonances do form their own kind of hallucinatory logic. Besides, it isn’t long (about 150 pages), so, you know, deal. (Heh.)
Ice, in my opinion, is really an exploration of the disturbed mind of the protagonist. His obsessive search for the frail, silver-haired girl is the book’s driving force. The apocalyptic happenings occurring all around seem to form an extension of his troubled psyche, the encroaching ice-walls a destructive force that he seems both to embody and to battle. This, in fact, is a major point: the narrator’s relationship with the girl is revealed to be more than the romantic attachment it first seems. Gradually, we realise that his attitude towards her is not one of tender affection, but of a more disturbing and sadistic masculine possessiveness. This emerges particularly through the narrator’s interactions with a character called The Warden. The Warden is ostensibly the narrator’s rival, snatching the girl out of his grasp, but Kavan gives many hints that the two are linked. Are they really opponents? As the girl is manhandled by first one then the other, we find they are disconcertingly similar… And as the icy gaze of The Warden’s eyes reflects the mercilessness of the approaching ice, so the narrator’s relentless pursuit of the girl seems to have a similar cold aggression…
I saw a mention of sexism on Amazon’s reader comments (something along the lines of ‘If this was written by a man, it would be really sexist’). Um. Surely authors are allowed to write about sexism? Yes, even in the first person. Clearly character and author are not the same, and they wouldn’t be even if the author were male. Ice does indeed investigate a misogynistic outlook, with disturbing hints at sadism, but that’s, you know, what it’s doing. You don’t have to prescribe to the narrator’s attitude to find the book interesting. So that’s my stance on that issue.
Ice is not a straightforward book, and not one you’d pick up for a spot of light reading. Its somewhat deadpan tone, intermingled with bursts of vivid, dreamlike sequences, leads to a discomforting rather than enjoyable reading experience. But the novel is certainly intriguing, if you dare to venture in. I’m trying to think of something to compare it to, but it’s difficult – the closest I can think of at the moment are J. G. Ballard’s short stories (the more trippy of them). Thinking about it, I definitely prefer Ballard, but might be a worthwhile sidetrack if you’re also a Ballard fan.
In a nutshell: Simultaneously hypnotic and perturbing, prepare to be put on edge by Anna Kavan’s Ice.