The Blinding Walk by K.M. Ross (Waywiser Press, 2015), 520 pp., $30
K.M. Ross’s novel begins in King’s Cross, Sydney. Yehune and his friend Mel are travelling from New Zealand to Europe. In a weird incident in a weird place, Yehune accosts a strange clown, is hassled by some transvestites, and then accompanies two friends to a pub. His friend Mel has been working and doesn’t appear at this point in the book. Yehune is a musician and plays some popular local songs (which gains him attention and admiration), and then his own, strange composition ‘Œcophony for an Invaded Sphere, for Piano and Harsh Whisper’, which, we gather, is sub-Milhaud, or possibly even more outré than that French composer’s modernist experiments. But Yehune wants to take it further.
The question at the end of Ross’s book is whether he has indeed ‘taken things further’, the dream of every aspiring creative artist: his own composition is atonal or polytonal. In Sydney, when he plays his own music on the pub piano, his ‘Œcophony …’ is not as popular as the rhythmic toe-tapping stuff he had started with (which had drawn a crowd of pleased onlookers and some who even dance a bit to it). His own music alienates him from others. And when he plays that alienating music, indulging as well in an ‘invasion’ of the space of two attractive women (in an incident that is erotic and comic), he is seen as an interloper, and the Australian rednecks are soon out to get him.
This theme of popular versus more ‘difficult’ or esoteric music is continued later in Scotland, which might be thought of as the other (northern) half of this ‘invaded sphere’, the other ‘polarity’. We witness his efforts to create via an ‘Ensemble’ in Scotland, and a concert, which many pay money to go to, that collapses in a well-depicted and dramatic fashion. In the chapter ‘Yehune’s Thing’, the crowd (as in the Australian bar) and some of his fellow musicians turn against him. His concert is thus a kind of magnificent failure.
But his friend Mel, who is ‘not musical’, enjoys Yehune’s playing of some late Beethoven at the end of this concert, just as Ruth, one of the young women in the first chapter, enjoyed the late Romanticism of Rachmaninov, as well as the ‘pop’ stuff. Here, then, Yehune is seen wanting to create, to struggle for the ineffable, the beyond, so to speak, and to live, to love and be loved, to be a part of things. But paradoxically he wants to be, like his own name, unique. Apart, and yet with: the artist’s endless dilemma. In a way this is also Mel’s need. And the whole book revolves around the struggles of Mel and Yehune to create something, some meaning via art, music, writing, and their lives and loves, the interactions of two young men who almost seem to be the inner and outer aspects of each other. Mel seems to ‘come alive’ when Yehune is either away or involved in matters from which Mel is excluded.
As events unfold, it is not clear whether the entire book is not ‘narrated’ by Mel in recollection of events. This uncertainty arises as the reader is returned to earlier episodes via the musings of the protagonists. My tentative conclusion is that the narrative is all in some important way part of Mel’s psyche, which now becomes, or could become, that of the writer. Nor is it always clear (as discussed above) that these characters are ‘real’. In fact it sometimes as if, either symbolically or actually, Mel and Yehune had become, in some mysterious or Freudian Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde way, one being.
These things, to a large extent, seem to be reflected in Ross’s particular writing style or styles, as they shift from first person to third person to what appears to be Yehune’s point of view, but may later be revealed to be a creative recollection by Mel. The reader may find this distracting, disturbing or puzzling; but it seems to be a major theme or method in this novel which operates simultaneously on a number of levels. Six pages into the book, we find this passage, ‘spoken’ by Mel. He is on Longniddry Beach outside Edinburgh:
The fork was on a beach, fork was in my mind, hesitancy of sun-blazed electricity, crackle across of worlds, while I felt the […] And I kept thinking I could see him [Yehune] walking up there, above the bank with the harsh yellow grasses like flax …
Yehune’s ‘mysteriousness’ points to the significance of the way relationships are presented, and simultaneously to the way we perceive them. For much of the novel Mel misunderstands Yehune’s character. This is something we all do, even with those closest to us, and it is clearly a key point here. Subsequently, Mel revises his perception of Yehune, just as he himself seems to be duplicating his struggle toward ‘the point of everything’ or the much repeated ‘point’ or ‘vanishing point’ – identified with the end of the long ‘scythe’: the curving Scottish beach. Yehune is depicted here as ‘rising’ (recalling an earlier episode ‘Rising fly – the dark invading geist’, which takes place later in the book and is discussed below). This change reflects the change as they travel from one country to the next, or more specifically the split between hemispheres. Geography and psyche seem to be interacting.
The writing continues to cycle back to incidents or ideas that reflect themes as the book proceeds. The ‘blinding walk’ – a powerful phrase that haunts this work – was at first hard to identify. But it seems to consist in the three chapters of the novel’s central passage which chronicles Mel’s walk on Longniddry Beach, when he has what is a kind of ‘Road to Damascus’ experience, a shattering insight into his life and Yehune’s and many other things.
Both friends are seen to develop relationships with women, to learn in and through life, and latterly to ‘move apart’ as friends often do. Yehune (whose name reminds me of Yahoo and the Houyhnhnms of Swift’s great book Gulliver’s Travels where he is in part the Yahoo) is often imaged as ape-like. At one stage both of them live in a very basic lodging that is compared to a cave. We see either Mel passive and Yehune active (working on his music or courting Mairi). But when Yehune ‘wanes’, so to speak, Mel seems to blossom creatively and in his personal life.
The reader has to assume, on reading the book, that we are following the adventures (psychological, mystical, philosophical,) of Mel Seuchar and Yehune Trent, who meet at school, and who share an interest in music, art, literature, women, motorbikes and ideas. As things turn out, it is Yehune who initiates most of the action in the southern hemisphere and after, as they travel to Australia, Hong Kong, China and then through the Soviet Union to Europe). In their travels, numerous strange events unfold.
Much of the text is not only innovative in its overall structure, but frequently beautifully written. Some lines jar, whether intentionally or not, but this is not too bad in such a long and complex work. The ‘problem’ or issue that this book drives toward – the essence of things – is something that is perhaps not fashionable. By this I mean there is an almost relentless intensity of consciousness, and a constant questioning that perhaps reflects other writers. And Ross seems to be trying courageously to take all this further. To make something new.
Before they depart from Australia, Mel, who is working in a bush reserve with trees and walkways, talks about a leaf:
You know, I came across this leaf, held it up to the light and you could see through it; go to skeletons … But it makes, I don’t know how to say it. A picture in your head. Something you can suddenly understand, like the spark in a plug. And there are so many, millions on millions. So I thought, you know, they’re like pages, you could do something with that – an angling of the light. You’d have to draw, I don’t know, cartoons … have to use something more than just text. But the sunlight, spilling across it all …
Yehune, also, has wrestled with these beginnings of vision, but as he listens he feels Mel’s speculations are too far removed from the real and his own way of thinking. He, at that moment, wants to get going on their journey. This difference is cleverly drawn by Ross:
There he was, standing in Sydney, staring at a wall.
Soon they are away to Hong Kong and China. In China, among a lot of events, again one is aware of what seems like many ‘leitmotifs’ and repeated phrases, descriptions, ideas and words that occur throughout the novel. There are also certain strange, almost inexplicable moments, or details, or events, which leave a reader puzzling, especially perhaps after only a single reading:
In China, just as they are about to head off on the Trans Siberian Railway, a fly ‘invades’ Yehune’s ear (‘the dark invading geist’). As the fly goes on an intense ‘technical-medical-language’ and literary real ‘journey’ into the house/head (or ‘invaded sphere’?) of Yehune (whose head is much mentioned in the book!) there is a near Finnegans Wake moment, a high voltage language burst:
Eeaaeeeiiiikkkaadii aaachd aaaaauuull into my house, for the house, into my house; on the antitragus pauses vibrating fast at the halteres stalked drumsticks, beating and beating at the mesothorax; the head (holoptic, mobile) poking in at the external meatus that opens from the concha, bears the whisks of scape and pedicel and flagellum, and Aaaaiiaaauunnntdd and it’s heading now for the fibrocartilaginous tunnel and looking as it mops with the great exaggerated sponge of its labella for the cerumen sweated out of bone walls and tripping with the five-segmented tarsus at the inner deep sock headfast with the head into the head, I FU- it’s going for the house with my tympanic membrane’s up in the attic and the stirrup’s in an oval window, secret, intent, advancing, -UU- seeking for the vestibule semicircular canals and cochlea of the inner ear but first descend -AAU- where the roof comes down ahead and is it Cyclorrhapha and of that the Calypterae and of that the Muscidae -UULLK- and there because no hypopleural bristles chitinous plate on the side of the thorax though bristly enough anyway with extensible proboscis and the crinkling wing with veins in sweeping abstract I oh Jeezuzz -KKKKK to the tympanic membrane door’s closed scratches and scratches at the drumskin could it conceivably be a little musca domestica AWAWEEEIIIIGH I’ll fucking no get out of me you bastard little creeping jeezling Nazi Satan garbage-sucker
Finally, as Chinese citizens watch the drama, ‘something did actually seem to leave him; ascending without haste above his head like a floating light’.
Appropriately for a musician and for someone with an insect invading his ear up to the tympanum (via the stirrup, the ‘balancing’ fluid-filled canals, and other parts of the human ear), the passage is laden with ‘UU’ sounds and emphasised by being written in italics or capitals, so that the reader needs to slow down here and even read the passage aloud.
This episode of the fly in the ear took me by surprise (as of course it did Yehune). But throughout the book there are leadups and connections to the ear and to sounds. As re-reading uncovers. The Blinding Walk is as much auditory as visual. The fly is portrayed as trying to enter the ear, but in most cases if this happens the insect has blundered in and is sometimes trapped. Hence ordinary ‘reality’. But it is also a dramatically symbolic and frightening event, which Ross uses to good effect.
From the very beginning, then, this is – as well as a novel of language and of ‘the road’ – a search for meaning, for some point to things, and for some way to be more than ‘ordinary’ on this strange and extraordinary earth. Mel on Longniddry Beach muses on the ‘first consciousness’ of being, or the primal place of childhood, with almost Wordsworthian intensity:
Rocks, here, in a long line. Just before. What’s it …? There’s something on the edge, in the vanishing point like a creep of pixels, rain. If you can only burn to where you lose your memory blank back to that time and be what always underneath you were, so there’s no distance, are of the am and open-eyed. What is it? Stirring in the contact point, fold out of which all, looks like, cattle? some … or buffaloes, a jostle-range of humps. Or plunging horses. No they’re …
bulls, they’re bulls, with the high backs black-and-brown, great heads tossing and heaving toro and a rumble under hearing for the plunge of them … Where I stand … hooves chumping into the wet sand surface … great expanded nostrils and the eyes hell-gleaming … and every one those spikes at the corners of the head …
The bulls have spikes (horns) on their heads. If we reduce Yehune’s name to a single ‘Y’ we could see, like a Chinese ideogram so ‘coded’, a symbol of a bull. Yehune has previously reduced or changed his name to ‘re-create himself’ in a rebellion against the excessive ambitions of his parents (who sought to make him a kind of superman or at least a ‘success’ in life). Yehune’s mother is Austrian, so Yehune fantasises he is Jewish in opposition to her ‘German-ness’, and the book begins with his fantasy of being someone else when he implies his name is Hebraic. Originally Johann, the alien-sounding Yehune itself seems to alienate people.
The reader is challenged to treat Ross’s work as a ‘realist’ novel that ‘really’ describes experiences, but also impossibilities that are simultaneously meta-mystical and real. Reality, human nature, the existence of the material, as well as the reliability of narrative in life and literature, and the nature of ‘character’, are all called into question in this book.
Perhaps Yehune represents, in part, the more basic, energetic aspect of what the reader might see as almost a single character. He often has visions or images of, or is compared to, an ape, or a monkey. He is associated with lightning and somehow with the ever-present twin towers of the power station at the end of the scythe (the beach of ‘the blinding walk’ is described as being shaped like a scythe). And with ‘Death with the scythe and horns’ of his ‘Y’, and with the bulls themselves. Is he in fact ‘the baser part’? Partly, but I think that the Yehune–Mel dialectic or duality is more complex. Are these bulls, then, the terrible energy that Yehune did tap into? Now Yehune, perhaps a Lear figure running amok, is roaming … He has become some awesome primal force that in turn energises Mel himself to write (for it is surely he who is the novelist); and in fact soon after this dream reality of the bulls charging him he is depicted as poised between nothing and being:
… Saw nothing. Nothing, not a bull’s hind quarters dunged and ragged, no reversed stampede; not anything; I looked straight down into the eye of the light behind and felt the wind’s cold slap and what was what was
… that I almost had it then. Really, I nearly. What was behind me? Nothing. Or rather something, through the meshes of the blue-green-golden shock of a small sun horizontal almost seen …
I did struggle with this book. Just occasionally it seemed almost too grey and too dark. But then so is our human existence at times. The narrative frequently ruptures and cycles round on itself, which can be annoying, but that seems a necessary process in what The Blinding Walk is about.
And I must emphasise the extraordinarily unusual and often ingenious use of language by Ross. It seems to me a unique book, a big philosophical-spiritual novel, using techniques and themes not often attempted by New Zealand writers. The protagonists are searching for artistic or transcendent meaning. Their drive is to create, to write, to compose music (and ‘fail’, as Yehune does, magnificently).
RICHARD TAYLOR is an Auckland poet and writer. His books include The Red (Dead Poets) and Conversation with a Stone (Titus Books). He also has an online text and art project blog called EYELIGHT.