The second book in Paul Kingsnorth’s proposed trilogy – the first book, The Wake, concerned a free farmer called Buccmaster of Holland – concerns a man called Edward Buckmaster and could be set now (in that it mentions cars, for example) or could be set in a version of now that follows a track set by The Wake (which was a post apocalyptic novel set a 1,000 years ago). We say ‘could be set now’ because Beast is largely rural, there is really only a single character in it and Buckmaster is not always to be trusted in what he tells us.
The novel begins with Buckmaster standing in a river up to his knees:
“The river sang and kept singing. I wanted to clamber out, but I stood still. Pain rose and tried to encircle me, but I stood in the winter torrent and watched the pain and after a while it fell back again, back down into the singing water.”
We learn that he has left his wife and child a year previously, that he hasn’t been sleeping well, that he lives largely on bread and water, that he left to pursue a dream, “to be broken, to be torn apart, beaten, cut into pieces”, “to touch the void, to leap naked into it” and, at the end, to be transformed into a kind of mystical figure, a hermit-saint, a St Anthony, a St Cuthbert, a person for whom “Things [have] become clear.”
And then there is a storm, and the old farmhouse, which stood empty when he approached it thirteen months earlier, co –
Beast is divided into four sections, three of which end in mid-flow, as above. The second section begins with our narrator battered and broken. We get the storm damaged the house and hurt Buckmaster. He has broken ribs and his leg is pointed the wrong way and he cannot remember much of anything beyond bodily imperatives. We’ve lost certain commas which gives the pacing a breathless quality, as if we can see Buckmaster’s mind pivoting mid-flow too. He uses a broom to splint his leg. He crawls on all fours, he gradually starts to mend. Eventually it strikes him that there was a town nearby and he sets off to walk there – only after passing the same church four times he begins to despair and we try to see by him and glimpse the world and work out what the hell has gone wrong. And then he spies a beast, a dark creature walking low to the ground, almost as long as Buckmaster himself, definitely not a dog or a deer or a badger or a fox. He becomes obsessed with tracking it down, hatches a system (and if that reminds you of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a part of me wants to yell, “Yes”” because that feels like a good connection to make), attempts to track it day by day.
“I was shifting inside my own body it was like some giant itch I wanted to throw it all off and run. I wanted to scream I wanted to burst out of my small self into the world ablaze I closed my eyes and saw my mind straining at the bars lashing out at the world all of the smallness and stupidity. I saw it all finally crushed all the people flattened the glory of the end of it all.”
Not for nothing has Kingsnorth been called the Bard of Brexit. Not for nothing does Kingsnorth run a network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for a world on the brink known as Dark Mountain. In Beast, as the obsession proceeds, so Buckmaster’s mind appears to come loose from its mooring guy rope. We lose capitals: I becomes i. He spends his days in search of the creature:
“i open my mouth i lie down in the stream and let it flow over me and let it flow through me until i am ice. i keep walking until the track turns left i know where i am the track here heads down to the valley but i’m not going that way i am sure the noise came from ahead of me from up on the tops i strike out on a slight thin path through the heather if the cloud weren’t down i could follow this path easily…”
Amid possibly imagined scenarios (he falls off a cliff, he meets others, he wanders through populated spaces), there is eventually a confrontation that at least returns him to a semblance of former normality (in that Kingsnorth concludes the book in a more conventional style), admitting, “Nothing is really clear, but this no longer seems to matter.” The shift in the book, from the white lightness of the opening to the strange cloud of the latter half – which in itself recalled to this reader the strange mist from Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant – carried with it a disquieting alienation, such that the book grips less as it becomes more feverish and intent, and yet for all that it is a remarkable read and one that I can imagine re-reading, subsequent to a first read of The Wake and also prior to whatever Kingsnorth does next.
Any Cop?: We’ve arrived late to the Paul Kingsnorth party but the good thing about writers and books is that, for the most part, no-one really cares about things like that. We’d heartily recommend Beast even as we suggest that you don’t do what we did and start with The Wake instead.