Repetition Compulsion: Reading Glen Duncan

by Tracy Ryan

When it comes to reading fiction, I’m not averse to the single isolated encounter. It may be because the author only wrote one novel (Emily Brontë), or because there’s only one that appeals. It’s not the writer that’s in question, it’s the individual work. And after all, you can read that one book again and again – and again, with different outcomes at various stages in your life.

But what I really love is finding a whole oeuvre to binge on, especially by a contemporary author where there’s likely more to come. “Prolific” is sometimes said with disapproval, as if it meant “prolix” – but most of my favourite writers are prolific.

There’s nothing like the sustained, ongoing commitment to reading everything someone can come up with. Where you wander about in all the nooks and crannies of their fictional worlds. Where, for better or for worse, you know you will pick up a new title just because it has issued from the same creative source.

Not because you will get the same thing, but because chances are you won’t. What stirs me is the unpredictability of this predictable relationship with a certain set of concerns. You’re in familiar territory but each book lurches off somewhere new and expands the imaginative world. There may be a cluster of themes, but they aren’t ever exhausted.

When I first discovered British writer Glen Duncan’s novels some years ago, I read three in a row, compulsively, within a matter of weeks, and with a growing sense of impatience to get my hands on the rest. This compulsion has endured with each subsequent book, and looks forward to many more, as there’s no sign of his energy dwindling.

Duncan has published eight novels, the latest of which has just been released this month in Australia as well as in the northern hemisphere, and is provoking ecstatic reviews throughout the major papers and on many blogs. It’s called The Last Werewolf, and I think it’s his best book yet.

The Last Werewolf is the “journals” of Jacob Marlowe, or Jake, two centuries a werewolf and weary of it:

One by one I’ve exhausted the modes: hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig. My mechanism’s worn out. I don’t have what it takes. I still have feelings but I’m sick of having them.

Jake is smart, witty, sensitive, poetic, well-read – and eats people, because he has to. Pursued by WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), who have him in their sights as the “last one left”, at the book’s outset, this ennui-ridden werewolf has decided to let himself be taken. He’s had enough.

What follows is an exhilarating account of how Jake finds motivation to hang on after all. To say much more would be to spoil suspense – the book is a thriller as well as a horror tale, and many things in between.

Some commentators have expressed surprise at this swing toward “genre” in a writer like Duncan, whose work has always been highly literary as well as a lively good read. But there is no water-tight (blood-fast?) boundary between the gothic and the literary, and Duncan’s novels have often drawn on the mythic and supernatural to explore his themes of human relations, particularly between the sexes, the nature of evil and cruelty, and the making of meaning and value in a world that resists both.

What’s surprising to me is not that he should turn to the horror genre, but how flexible and superior it proves as a vehicle for heightening all the questions Duncan has raised till now, especially what I might paraphrase (from Jake) as the “compulsion to tell the truth of what [we] are”, the mixed, hybrid and contradictory nature of being. It’s as if in this genre Duncan has found a true home, a place he was always tending to.

Glen Duncan - photo by Antonio Olmos

I can’t easily pick out earlier favourites among his books, because I’m fond of the lot – but for anyone who hadn’t read Duncan before The Last Werewolf, I’d recommend one of two starting points, depending how much “dark” disturbance you like in your reading.

For those who tend to the less supernatural end of the spectrum, there’s 2006’s The Bloodstone Papers, a vivid fictional portrait of Anglo-Indians in the last days before India’s independence, intercut with chapters set in the present-day British life of Owen, born to Anglo-Indian parents and writing that narrative of their earlier lives. It’s intense, funny, compassionate and knowing.

For those who don’t mind lending an ear to the supposed “dark” side, I, Lucifer, published in 2002, is narrated in the voice of the devil, who has been given a chance of redemption through incarnation in a human body (the body of a writer who has just attempted suicide!), if he can make a decent job of it.

Lucifer, of course, has no intention of keeping the bargain, and what ensues are the various delights, conflicts and shocks that attend his discovery of the flesh, often hilarious and cutting at the same time. Lucifer’s experience of severe diarrhoea after overindulgence is not easily forgotten. But neither are his first moments of sense-perception, in the bathroom where the writer has cut his wrists. After the onslaught of a finely catalogued “lawless horde of smells”, Lucifer tells us:

Opening my newly acquired eyes, I found myself assaulted by a depthless wall of colours… a little panic attack until I worked it out, that distance operated, that the entire world was not in fact plastered to the front of my eyeballs. The white flames on the silver taps, the blinding sky of the mirror… the turbid water’s mercurial meniscus – bright fires and brilliant serpents all around me… Mine, mine, mine all mine…

Lucifer can’t even get outdoors that first day, so preoccupied is he with the bathroom (and, inevitably, his own body in it). His paean to the senses, even in the mundane, makes them new again in a way that only the best writing can.

Some reviewers home in on the “darkness” of Duncan’s oeuvre, but of course that’s a central part of human life, not something anomalous and separate: how can a writer not try to deal with it?

Duncan seems able to look it squarely in the face and, without disowning it, see it in its proper place – neither the sum total of what we are, nor something to be excused and swept under the carpet. The work has a morally acute post-religious outlook, that is, with all the questions but without any of the wishful consolations of religion.

All that, and entertaining as well – it’s a rare gift. And not a one-off.

So who are your favourite repeat authors? And why?

Observer review of The Last Werewolf

Australia’s Radio National Book Show recording of interview with Duncan, 11 April:

A critical article (contains spoilers) I wrote a few years ago on Duncan’s earlier novel, Love Remains:

6 thoughts on “Repetition Compulsion: Reading Glen Duncan

  1. Almost all of the authors that I return to are poets, and I always want to read as much of their poetry as I can, rather than just one poem, or just a handful of poems. That said, there are genre authors in my sights as well: Ross Macdonald is one, Ramsey Campbell is another (the latter well worth your while if you like your horror influenced by Nabokov and Beckett) as well as H. P. Lovecraft.

  2. Hi, Phillip

    Me, too, with poets.

    I’ve only read one Ramsey Campbell, but it was recommended by a friend who has read many.

    It’s interesting sometimes how our reading intersects with other people’s repeat-reading. I wouldn’t have come across Campbell except for that friend’s deeper knowledge of the genre.

    (We do have one repeat-reader of Lovecraft in this house — but it’s not me!)

  3. Thanks for the post — I’m interested enough to hunt up Glen Duncan from the post alone, and it would be good to see if it can be passed along to S. T. Joshi, who is writing a history of the horror genre. I’ve already passed along word of the Sookie Stackhouse novels to him.

    Thanks, and please pass along my regards to your captive Lovecraft rereader. 🙂

  4. Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read The Road, All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and Suttree. I was reading something like this at the beginning of Suttree, ‘There is a moonshaped rictus in the streetlamp’s globe where a stone has gone and from this aperture there drifts down through the constant helix of aspiring insects a faint and steady rain of the same forms burnt and lifeless’ and I kept thinking he can’t possibly sustain this, it’s just too good. But he does for over 500 pages. He is sublime

  5. Hi Phillip – I usually recommend The Road because it’s a page turner but the truly beautiful writing is in Blood Meridian and Suttree. If you read one, I’d love to know what you think

Comments are closed.