‘They said, We can take a person and make them whole again.’
Perhaps the hardest idea to accept is that love can betray itself by its own depth of feeling. If love is given the means to try to recapture what it has lost it will most likely take the opportunity. After all, ‘Nobody dreams of a vacant shell for a husband.’ Therein lies the heart of The Machine. There are memories we don’t want anymore, memories we never wanted, memories which have changed us and not for the better. In a flat in an estate on the Isle of White in a warmed and partially flooded Britain Beth takes delivery of ‘the Machine’ and plans to reclaim the husband she lost, first to post-traumatic stress disorder, and then to the Machine itself which was supposed to bring him back by deleting the memories which had so changed him. Vic is not just comatose or suffering from dementia. He is gone. Only a body remains. In a grotesque inversion of therapy Vic spoke his life into the Machine and it removed every memory that might connect to his time as a soldier, from childhood to injury in Iran to mood swings and violence. Only this talking cure doesn’t resolve it purges. Beth’s great hope is that it can also ‘REPLENISH’, that it can put back what it took out.
Nobody knows why the brain doesn’t work like it should after the Machine’s had its way with it. This would be much easier for all involved if it was just a wipe. One doctor who worked on the project wondered if the brain hadn’t had its ability to record memories wiped. As in, it had forgotten how to remember.
From the moment the Machine’s ‘pitch-black casing’ enters Beth’s spare bedroom its power deforms its surroundings: ‘the room is suddenly darker,’ and once assembled ‘it’s like a solid lump of black metal from the front, no seams, like something carved from the world itself. It looks, she thinks, almost natural. Like rock.’ Fans whirr, vibrations fill the flat and enter Beth’s dreams along with the headaches that start soon after the Machine is delivered. The extent to which this Machine can be trusted to return Vic to Beth is a key question. Its double-nature threats Beth’s atonement. ‘She thinks about it in her flat, like some growth. Mould. Cancer. Waiting in the room, and somehow alluring, persuasive, even.’ The only certainties are the seemingly scorched and permanent bruises the ‘Crown’, a headpiece, makes on the head of its subjects. There is violence in the very process.
The Machine is occupied by three key themes: the promise, the treachery, and the inescapability of memory. Memory promises to tell us who we are, who we care about, where we have come from; and yet memories can be false, fleeting, reconstructed in hindsight, painful, and destructive; whilst, of course, being inescapable. The Machine promises and threatens: it promises to remove that memory which causes so much pain, to return you to yourself; and yet that memory is who you are, and so to remove it and the structures of which it is part is to undermine the self one sets out to save. Underlying all of this is the inescapability of memory. All experience relies on memory, be it short-term working memory – why did I come in here? What information am I manipulating in this particular task? – or longer term encoding: speech, movement, life events, those we love. Hence Ulysses’ strange formulation ‘I am a part of all that I have met’. This line is testament not only to Ulysses’ effect on the places and people he has met, but, crucially, also to the fact that his memories, his experiences of those places are themselves filtered. Self and memory are indistinguishable. At one point Smythe quotes Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory is the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ Elsewhere in the same work Auster echoes Tennyson’s thought, ‘Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits.’
Thus the lack of speech marks in The Machine – noted by some on Twitter with immediate if transitory alarm – makes perfect sense in the context of a novel about the loss of memory. Memory differentiates one moment from the next and allows us to create and recreate our personal narratives. The lack of formal differentiation between voices is one aspect of the loss of the structure that memory provides. Furthermore, whilst being careful not to say too much, this lack of formal differentiation between each voice is thrown into sharp relief by The Machine’s ending. Auster again, ‘It is also true that memory sometimes comes to him as a voice that speaks inside him, and it is not necessarily his own.’
Beneath its concern with memory The Machine is fundamentally a novel about trust: trust in one’s own intentions, in one’s memories, in one’s present experience, in those around us, in technology, in society, in the climate itself. Erosion both geological and psychological looms large. Smythe’s Britain is a fearful one. The population cannot trust the sea not to rise up and sweep them all away as it has in the novel’s recent past. Beth is afraid of those on her estate, especially the groups of youths – and one boy in particular – who shout and scream abuse on the streets and beaches of the island. The potential for tragedy is clear. It’s grim, violent, and full of tension. A world in which the government felt the need to make diazepam (Valium) available over the counter.
There’s something wrong with me, to have done what I have done.
In style The Machine is much closer to Smythe’s most recent novel The Explorer than to his second, The Testimony. There are noticeable continuities of theme and phrasing. He certainly isn’t becoming any more cheerful. The prose is direct and unadorned, relentless and personal, especially in the passages where Beth has to take care of Vic’s soiled and uncooperative body or where abuse and intimidation surround her. In my review of The Explorer I wrote that
what I like most about Smythe’s writing is its intimacy and deceptive ease. Complex narrative and emotional ideas are conveyed in a manner apparently free of all artifice as layers of repression are peeled back. This is harder than it looks. Smythe achieves a seemingly unmediated flow of thought and sensation as tender and raw as anything I have read this year. Neither diffident nor ostentatious, the writing is controlled to within an inch of its life…
This is all still the case, but I think that Smythe’s writing in The Machine is more controlled, refusing to rush through the heat, the pain of Vic’s treatments, Beth’s gradually dissolving life, the violence, fear, and the seemingly inevitable and very moving conclusion. This world is in many ways more plausible than the ship-bound space of The Explorer and yet the island setting restricts the characters and the reader in a recognisable way. (See Christopher Priest’s recent review for some thoughts about plausibility in The Explorer). Beth’s trips to London feel similar to Cormac’s space walks: an escape into vastness from which she has to return. If The Testimony explored human responses and interactions by placing a large number of characters in a disorientating and uncanny situation, Smythe’s later novels explore the human in a more concentrated way by restricting their characters either physically (in a spaceship) or psychologically: Beth’s love for her husband, her desperation for him to return, and her belief that this is possible.
The oppressive tropical heat creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere which immediately evokes the kind of sweaty tension of David Vann, Graham Greene, and Cormac McCarthy; not to mention the coldly uncomfortable writing of the young Ian McEwan, with a nod toward Ballard’s The Drowned World in both subject matter and psychology. Smythe has not reached those heights yet, but that is the direction in which his voice is heading. The heat also has the effect of simultaneously evoking both a hazy past and a threatened future, hot oppressive summers and a warmed dystopia. The collapse of that simple timeline parallels and intensifies the collapse of identity that the Machine’s manipulations can cause. As the fans whirr in the background, this heat also suggests an overclocked world, a world which has been made to do and be too much. A world in which coldness means death.
That’s what happens. That flash-rush of coldness envelops.
Smythe is improving with each book he writes, the voice becoming simultaneously more distilled and yet more complex. His preoccupation with time and memory and the interest in relationships that continue after loss continues. The weight of his prose is increasing. I felt The Machine had depths that were missing from The Explorer, more psychological plausibility throughout; because the subject of this novel is not the Machine. It is Beth and the way in which her love for her husband betrays them both, but not irredeemably. Not quite.
I love you, she hears him say, but then it’s gone, swallowed by the noise of the Machine and the noise of his thrashing as a new session is firmly underway, and she doesn’t know if that was the voice of him now, or from the recordings made long ago when she destroyed him.
The Machine is published today (11th April 2013) by Blue Door.
My thanks to Blue Door for this review copy.