An almost existentalist book about the difficulties experienced by the character in establishing satisfactory relationships - with his parents, with a girlfriend he doesn't sleep with, with a girl he does sleep with but doesn't much like, with acquaintances and work colleagues.
The 1975 setting makes the 'Cambridge rapist' another character in the book, and one who feels an even more detached experience of others. It also sets up a series of 'walking arguments' about rape, which understandably rather pass the main character by.
The Locust Room is extremely well written, as is all Burnside''s work. Those who want a happy read should stay away, but those prepared to encounter some of the less cuddly sides of human nature will find this a rich and sometimes startling read.
I had imagined that this book would be more focussed around the story of the rapist, from whose vantage point you are delivered a scene of just one of the attacks. However, it is rather more catalytic, more instrumental in mapping out the other characters and their interrelationships. It is an interesting device, providing a central place from which to explore those that populate this novel and creates an extraordinary backdrop. The rapist story is one that is not quite obviously resolved, but does not leave you feeling unsatisfied. It works. Our chief protagonist, the photographer, is beautifully detailed, we inhabit his head for much of the novel and he becomes a fascinating friend that we are concerned about. John Burnside presents a solitary character that is capable of deep introspection resulting in the discovery of painful and ultimately liberating truths. He is a man who searches out the beauty and filth of life and his camera is instrumental in the viewing and capture of these scenes. His quest for the perfect picture reveals much about him, about his depths, but also his shallows. There is throughout, an extensive inquisition into the nature of solitude, of feeling outside of things, of the difference between aloneness and loneliness. We are led to explore what it means to be human and the many facets and difficulties of being a self sufficient individual. His thoughts and feelings are exquisitely captured and the details of his relationship with his parents, in particular, with his father are profoundly moving. The characters move, change and swiftly develop throughout to become full and rounded; each with some fascinating aspect to their personality, but not in the least contrived. They exhibit the kind of fluidity that people do in real life. There are so many finely observed details, so much the reader can relate to, so much interweaving of character and story, so much beauty and sadness in this book. It is compelling and at times painful to read. John Burnside is also by profession, a poet and it shows in his writing. He is especially gifted in observation, and in presenting those fine nuances that bowl the reader over. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author - I can’t wait to read more.
There is something very sorry and sad about this book. The protagonist imagines that only an estrangement from the world, the virtual disappearance of the self, can bring fulfilment. Yet how can one reconcile this contradiction which involves a denial of one's own humanity and all that makes one human and fallible - capable of good as well as evil?
The book covers the time of the Cambridge Rapist (was this the 70s or early 80s?), and examines the feminist argument that all men are potential rapists. Of course all men are potential rapists. We all have the potential for anything, it's called free will. Duh!
The book looks at some of these existential problems and attendant ones such as the way religion pervades our thinking. A salient point raised by Burnside relates by an imaginative leap to the central principle of free will. "Why," he asked as a child, "When God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, did he also banish the innocent animals?" The animals hadn't tasted the tree of knowledge after all. Answer - came there none, of course. Try explaining that to your average five year-old.
The plot to this novel seesaws from the protagonist's dissolute love affair, to the mysterious personality of his best friend, to the notion that one or other of his acquaintances might be the Cambridge Rapist.
None of this seemed to matter much and I would agree with another reviewer's carp about Burnside's lack of humour. The book's potential fizzled out somehow; a pity, because Burnside writes with an unusual amount of depth and density.
I've just finished John Burnside's The Locust Room, which has a superb opening scene, from the point of view of an intruder ("He was sitting in a chair, opposite the bed. The girl he had chosen was still asleep, totally unaware of his presence in the room."), which tells so much in so few words and absolutely compels you to read on. Unfortunately the book doesn't stand up to closer examination, and remarkably - for a book which centres on the reign of terror of a rapist in the dingy bedsits of 70s Cambridge - its greatest sin is banality. Like his last novel, and the first in his "Definite Article Noun Noun" series, The Mercy Boys, it professes to be an examination of male relationships, but all my bells remained resolutely unrung. And it was far too conscious in its renderings: pages and pages of the central character's thoughts and responses laid plainly on the page - whatever happened to show, don't tell? - and made all the worse for their sheer dullness. The dad who liked a bit of space from the wife; arguments on "all men are rapists"/"Oh no they aren't"; autistic blokey chat: nothing new here resides.
I only kept reading because of the pedigree of Burnside's The Dumb House (the excellent book about a man who keeps his children in isolation to see if language is innate, where the quality is maintained after the cracking start: "No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more than it was my decision to bring them into the world. ... I chose to perform the laryngotomies, if only to halt their constant singing - if singing is what you would call it - that ululation that permeated my waking hours, and entered my sleep through every crevice of my dreams") and The Mercy Boys (less stunning but admirably bleak and despairing, about four blokes whose lives on any sentient analysis just aren't worth living). Eventually The Locust Room did yield up some delights - the shocking scene where Paul "clears out" Steven's room, the scene with Richard in Cordoba - but their brevity just teases and irritates more because of the mass of puff and guff that surrounds them. The main problem is the intensely dull main character of Paul, who smothers the life out of every page he appears in - compare and contrast, please, with Bob Slocum in Heller's Something Happened, who also suffocates the life out of everyone and everything around him, but leaves the prose as clear and hard as a diamond.
If men are looking for shudders or yuks of recognition - or yuks of any kind (despite his talents, Burnside really, really can't do humour) - then in The Locust Room the cupboard's bare. And if women want to read an authentic male perspective - well, try Katie Carr in How to be Good. Because this one's for the birds. From firstname.lastname@example.org