Conrad Williams‘ The Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — but it’s an interesting read with some very fine moments nevertheless.
The novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, Richard Jane is a saturation diver working on an oil platform off the coast of Aberdeen, when the apocalypse occurs. Eventually making his way back to land, Jane’s only thought is to travel to London in the hopes of finding his young son, Stanley. He sets off, gaining along the way a number of fellow-survivors as companions, notably a hospital radiologist named Becky, and a five-year-old boy named Aidan. After the requisite trials and tribulations, the party reaches London, and the first part ends. The novel’s second part, ‘Lazarus Taxon’, takes place ten years later. Jane still hasn’t found Stanley, but he is now part of a group of survivors in the capital who call themselves the Shaded (because some form of shade, or depth, is what apparently saved them from the disaster). They have to contend with not only the pitfalls one might imagine would be found in a collapsed society, but also with something unimaginable — the Skinners. These are creatures grown from the spores that came with the apocalyptic ‘Event’, spores that invaded the bodies of the dead, distorted and animated them. Even a minor wound could turn you into one of them. There are rumours of a raft floating off the Kent coast, built by scientists and waiting to rescue people. Is it true? And what rescue could there be in this world anyway?
One is the kind of work which makes plain that genre distinctions (in this case, science fiction and horror) are ultimately limiting and artificial. There is a scientific underpinning to the ‘Event’, but it’s never explained in the story itself; Williams’ acknowledgements page refers to gamma ray bursts, so one assumes that’s what did for us here. But Williams is noted as an author of ‘dark fiction’, and his novel is tilted firmly towards that end of the spectrum; which, I think, is just as it should be — after all, if the average person got caught up in the aftermath of an apocalypse, they probably wouldn’t understand what had happened; and what wouldn’t matter nearly as much as what next? There are also scenes of great horror and carnage, that one is wary of visualising, in case they turn out to be even more horrifying in the mind’s eye than they are on the page. But this too is appropriate: One is horror because its subject is horrific, because there could be no response to what happens other than horror. Williams is not a writer of gore for gore’s sake; he understands the gravity of horror, and makes one feel its pull.
What I particularly like about One is that it’s intensely personal, despite the vastness of its backdrop; the novel is very much about relationships and character, and especially those of Richard Jane. There’s a pleasing complexity to his depiction; he’s not a straightforward heroic figure, but can decry selfishness in others whilst at the same time being willing to put his search for Stanley ahead of anything else (and if he’s doing this for his son, is it selfish or not?). Making Jane a diver was an interesting choice on the author’s part, as it automatically generates a certain amount of difference. It’s not just that the image of Jane wandering through the devastated landscape in his protective gear makes him seem like an astronaut exploring an alien world. It’s that being a diver (according to the novel) changes you, subjects you to pressures (figurative and literal) that others don’t experience, involves being away from home and in isolation for long periods, could lead to sights that others would never see (like the bends: ‘All the limbs withdrawn into an impossible core of pain. The welter of blood at every orifice, fizzing bright red. Bubbles opening in the jelly of the eyes’). The demands of his profession have driven a wedge between Richard and his (now ex-)wife Cherry; and Williams skilfully shows the thoughts and feelings of both parties, even as he writes only from Richard’s viewpoint — and the author is just as adept at writing about the personal as he is at depicting epic disaster.
Of the novel’s two parts, I think the first is the better: what could have been just a repetitive trudge through lists of examples of destruction and scavenged foodstuffs (I did wonder how long it would really be possible to survive in such an environment without proper medical facilities, having to travel mostly on foot and live off whatever tinned food you could find — but the strength of the telling soon put such concerns to one side), instead gains genuine power, most especially from Williams’ ability to evoke the reality of the situation, the sense that, whether or not Jane succeeds in attaining his goal, there can be no lasting escape.
The second part of One is still good but, as it’s necessarily more fantastical, it doesn’t have quite the same resonance — it doesn’t allow one to feel that this is how the world could become, not in the way that the first part does. Still, Williams once again creates that profound sense of unease which is the true affect of horror — an affect born not from blood and guts, but from the utter and irrevocable destruction of what we know. And the ending (which I’ll admit I didn’t fully comprehend) returns to the personal — which seems entirely appropriate for this very human view of world’s end.