The Idea of England | The Nation


The Idea of England

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It is midway through Phillips's career that one senses his considerable talent calcifying into a mannered style. This is a problem that first becomes apparent in his sixth novel, The Nature of Blood (1997), where in a story shifting between the fifteenth century and the twentieth, and moving across Amsterdam, Venice, British Palestine and Israel, Phillips attempts to depict a European tribalism that has often waged a brutal war against minorities. Although there are many narratives in the book, the primary one involves the parallel experiences of an African condottiere in Renaissance Italy, based on Othello, and that of a Jewish girl in Nazi Europe, based on Anne Frank. Phillips's anger about racism and his ability to delve into the historical past are undeniable, but despite all the harrowing details, the narrative feels imaginatively poor, and the critical praise the novel garnered seems to have been sparked more by the frisson of pairing Anne Frank and Othello than by how they were depicted in the novel.

In the Falling Snow
By Caryl Phillips
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About the Author

Siddhartha Deb
Siddhartha Deb, who teaches at the New School, is the author of The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New...

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Phillips has continued to insist on creating a sequence of narratives that are meant to resonate with one another, especially in the juxtaposition of black male and white female characters. The sentiment behind this is admirable, demonstrating that the black experience is not a marginal one, as it is often considered to be, but fundamental to the making of the modern world, as is the experience of women. However, the way Phillips has applied this pattern since The Nature of Blood can seem glibly multicultural, capable of being assimilated so rapidly into a liberal discourse of the "Save Darfur" variety that his readers are never forced to engage with the possibility of their complicity in the forces of oppression.

These weaknesses are particularly visible in A Distant Shore, the England novel that appeared six years before In the Falling Snow. Divided into the stories of Dorothy, a retired English schoolteacher, and Gabriel, an African refugee from a horrific civil war, the novel insists on the human connection being forged between these characters as well as the broad parallel between their experiences. The book's linguistic texture seems to emphasize this connection; although Phillips switches between the first and third person for both Dorothy and Gabriel, all the sections possess a marked sameness of tone, vocabulary and level of detail.

Yet this very uniformity in language creates a sense of incompatibility between the characters. Gabriel's story remains alive through the language chosen for him, in great part because his journey is an epic one, taking him through war and border crossings to the hostile cities of the West. But Dorothy's account, for the most part, sounds flat and stilted: "During the past hour the landlord had twice been outside to ask the youngsters to calm down, but things were clearly out of control.... This was his clientele and to bar them would be to effectively lose his business." If Dorothy's character is her language (with its preponderance of adverbs, which mutate like a virus in Phillips's later work), it is possible to see her, against the grain of what Phillips intends, as slightly clueless and somewhat patronizing toward Gabriel. This makes the novel's insistence that Gabriel's trauma could be healed by Dorothy's tepid warmth rather suspect, bringing it uncomfortably close to a complacent bureaucrat's idea of how an immigrant might be assimilated into a "host" society.


Phillips's latest novel is similarly compromised. There is much that Keith finds wrong with British society, but like Dorothy, whom he resembles in his overdependence on clichés, he cannot express his discontent in a meaningful way. Riding on the tube, Keith reflects:

Every day now he witnesses packs of these youngsters on the street, or on the tube, or on the buses, swearing and carrying on with a sense of entitlement that is palpably absurd. Each of them seems to believe that he or she is an "achiever," and that they deserve nothing less than what they call "maximum respect."

The novel is thick with such passages, and they are not limited to Keith's thoughts. Many of the characters behave like forensic technicians at a crime scene, plucking samples of clumsy language from the air and dropping them into a quotation bag ("What do you mean by 'the next stage'?" "'Not'? What kind of English is that?" "'In our sphere'? What kind of talk is that?" "Well, excuse me, didn't I just hear you say that you would 'come up in the morning'?").

The patter of the narration is no different from the clatter in the quotation bag, brimming everywhere with clichés and flat dialogue; the only time the novel manages to shake off this blight of language is when it focuses on two characters who are foreigners. The first is a Polish cleaning woman named Danuta, whom Keith meets at a library. There is much that Phillips does well when introducing Danuta into the story. To begin with, she does not appear, as is often the case in Phillips's work, to function as a counterpart to the male protagonist. She is her own character, and the charge she brings into the novel is that of the unknown. Although Phillips skillfully works in her background, showing us how Danuta's life is composed of low-wage work, immigrant striving and touch-and-go relationships, she retains a slightly opaque tint that makes her hard to comprehend. She does not speak very much, but when she does, her tightly structured sentences, prefaced by "Mr. Keith," evoke very well the immigrant's cautious negotiation of an alien world.

The other character who breathes some life into the novel is Keith's father, Earl; he appears toward the end, recuperating in a hospital bed from a heart attack. Throughout the novel, it has been suggested that Keith's difficulties with his son resemble those between Keith and his father. When Earl finally gets his say, he does so in a monologue broken into two parts, beginning with how he arrived in England as a 22-year-old in 1960, continuing through episodes of humiliation, friendship, betrayal and madness, and finishing with the statement "The idea of England is fine.... I can deal with the idea." Like Danuta, Earl handles language differently, but where she is reserved and hesitant, he speaks with a Caribbean fluency, using long, sinuous sentences that unpack an entire life: "So while you know everything about them, daffodil, king this and queen that, poet and lyrical feeling and so forth, Sherlock Holmes, Noël Coward, this statue and that statue, castle and tower, Robin Hood, Lord Nelson, whatever question they care to test you on you have England under control."

Neither Earl nor Danuta can rescue In the Falling Snow from its faults. Earl appears too late in the narrative, confined to a minor supporting role in the melodrama of Keith's crisis of masculinity, while Danuta is perfunctorily dispatched with a third of the book remaining, which leaves the novel inexplicably tied to its anodyne protagonist. Before Earl and Danuta are sidelined, however, they show that Phillips's strength lies in looking from the margins at the trauma of arrival rather than attempting to depict the anomie at its center. It is unfortunate that in his recent novels Phillips has chosen to focus so much on the mundane, scavenging social markers—the reversed baseball cap, the iPod, the action film, the bus on the M1—that are never quite transformed into the elements of a compelling vision. It might be possible to bring together, in fictional form, the estranged and the mundane, the bewilderment felt by immigrants trying to make their way in the West and the numbness of those who, having become its citizens, discover that there is no longer such a thing as society in the West, but Phillips has not yet been able to splice the two together. For the time being, they remain divided aspects of his work, existing on opposite sides of a border that cannot be breached.

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