Death and Incest

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  • Pat Barker. Toby’s Room. Doubleday, October 2012.

Pat Barker is best known for her First World War Regeneration trilogy—Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—whose storyline extends from July 1917, when the poet Siegfried Sassoon published his antiwar “Soldier’s Declaration” and was sent to the military hospital Craiglockhart in Scotland, to November 1918, when Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Wilfred Owen was killed in France. Over the course of the trilogy (which features historical figures like Sassoon, Owen, and the army psychiatrist William Rivers alongside strong fictional characters) the Great War proceeds senselessly, destroying all in its wake. But a series that begins by being about the ways in which individual psyches experience and process the catastrophic consequences of War, with a capital W, also becomes a study of the more private and idiosyncratic internal wars that arise from the complexities of class, family, and sex. As the psychological, not to mention corporeal, undoing of the trilogy’s protagonists grows increasingly certain, they also become fuller, more robust characters, novelistically speaking: figures that seem typical in Regeneration have emerged as painfully complex by The Ghost Road. As this palimpsest-like series nears its final pages, its protagonists are both enlarged and shattered, or perhaps enlarged because they are shattered.

Barker’s new novel, Toby’s Room, is the second installment in what apparently will end up as another First World War trilogy. Two of its protagonists, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville, are introduced here as war casualties—one’s leg wounded, the other’s face shattered—but readers of Life Class (2007) will be familiar with these characters’ earlier incarnations as fellow students at the Slade School of Fine Art during the prewar period. In the earlier novel, Paul and Kit are friendly but competitive painters who both romance their elusive fellow classmate, Elinor Brooke, and seek the approval of their life drawing professor, Henry Tonks. (Here, as in Regeneration, Barker inserts historical figures such as Tonks, a surgeon, painter and formidable Slade instructor.)

Life Class was a solid enough novel, chiefly preoccupied with sketching the triangular relations of Neville, Paul, and Elinor and recounting the early days of the war from the perspective of Paul, who volunteers mid-book to serve in the Belgian Red Cross. The connection between private and public concerns, so central to the Regeneration trilogy, is present in Life Class as well, but in a much more limited and simplistically oppositional form. Elinor, in her determination to concentrate on her painting rather than interest herself in any way in the war, is one case in point. As she tells Paul towards the end of the novel, “I don’t think [the war] matters very much. I don’t think it’s important . . . I just don’t think that’s what art should be about . . . It’s not you, not in the same way people you love are. Or places you love. It’s not chosen.” And the book, with its almost perfectly symmetrical split between Part One (pre-war) and Part Two (war), seems to at least partly agree—if not with Elinor’s sense that art can’t or shouldn’t represent war, then with her understanding that a firm line must be drawn between civilian and soldierly life.

The difference between these two types of experience is a central interest of Barker’s—in Regeneration, the second lieutenant Sassoon is said to have “an absolutely corrosive hatred of civilians. And non-combatants in uniform,” a hatred shared by many of that series’ soldier characters—but this binary is increasingly challenged over the course of the trilogy, as the opposition between art and war (and, even more importantly, between love and war, and, also, sex and war), is reshuffled and collapsed. By The Ghost Road, the bisexual, working-class officer Billy Prior, one of Barker’s most stunning and complex characters, not only has sex with a French civilian farmhand who believes him a German, but enjoys rather than scorns the fact that the boy has got his “head stuck so deep in the fucking pig bucket that (he doesn’t) know which army’s up the other end.” As Billy penetrates the boy’s anus—that “prim, pursed hole glistening with spit”—he imagines “on the other side of that tight French sphincter, German spunk.” Even within the clear power structure of this encounter, the nonhierarchical collapse of German, French, and English in the moment of penetration, with no single identity vanquishing the others, reminds us of the trilogy’s escalating stress on the simultaneity of its initially oppositional concerns.

By complicating the earlier book’s relatively stable depictions, Toby’s Room accomplishes something similar for Life Class. Elinor, who in the first book was introduced as a somewhat stock upper-middle-class New Woman—flirtatious and independent, but ultimately impatient with men and the war, fearing that both, or either, might interfere with her art—emerges in Toby’s Room as a much more finely wrought character. Although Barker’s earliest books, before Regeneration, boasted strong, working-class women protagonists, as well as a feminist message, her turn to the First World War, with its emphasis on the trenches’ traumatic effects on the men who inhabited them, had the effect of relegating women to the sidelines. In Toby’s Room, however, Barker manages to brilliantly integrate Elinor’s private story into the public story of the war, not by clearly distinguishing between the two but rather by treating them as contiguous, and doubly affecting.

While most of Toby’s Room follows on the historical and narrative heels of Life Class, and tells the story of the Neville, Paul, and Elinor triad from 1917 onward, its first, relatively short section is dedicated to the book’s prehistory. In it, Barker turns to events that took place between Elinor and her older brother Toby—a minor character in the earlier book—during the summer of 1912. These are immensely strong pages, and there is nothing stock about them. Elinor, whose refusal to acknowledge the war is portrayed as verging on narcissistically obdurate in Life Class, is presented here much more fully, in light of a newly recounted family secret.

While studying at the Slade, Elinor visits her parents’ comfortable country home for the weekend, and the relationship between her and Toby—the two are the closest of confidantes, often mistaken for identical twins—briefly turns sexual. When Toby suddenly kisses her on a solitary walk, “his tongue thrust between her lips, a strong, muscular presence,” Elinor is “crushed against his chest, hardly able to breathe.” She starts to struggle, “but his hand came up and cupped her breast and she felt herself softening, flowing towards him, as if something hard and impacted at the pit of her stomach had begun to melt.” It’s Toby who breaks the embrace, apologizing for his transgression; and on their way back home, Elinor attempts

to tame the incident. Incident. But it wasn’t an incident, it was a catastrophe that had ripped a hole in the middle of her life. But then the flash of honesty passed, and she began again to contain, to minimize, to smooth over, to explain. A brotherly hug, nothing to make a fuss about, a kiss that had somehow gone a tiny bit wrong. That was all. Best forgotten. And as for her reaction: shock, fear, and something else, something she hadn’t got a name for; that was best forgotten too . . . Her thoughts scrabbled for a footing. All the time, underneath, she was becoming more and more angry.

Later, at night, deeply shaken and unable to sleep, Elinor steals into Toby’s room, planning to pour a jug of water on his head, to shock him out of what she imagines to be “that infuriatingly peaceful sleep.” Instead, the late-night visit turns consensually amorous (though Barker doesn’t describe the specifics of this encounter, implicitly conceding that certain traumatic events—in this case, incestuous penetration—cannot be verbally depicted).

How does one get beyond trauma? Is a ripped hole better smoothed over and forgotten as “incident” or rather acknowledged as “catastrophe”? And if it is recognized as catastrophe, how can it be lived with? It’s no coincidence that Elinor’s muddled back-and-forth—the “scrabbling for footing” that accompanies her attempt to analyze her recollections and somehow emerge from a “chasm so deep there was no getting out of it”—is figured in terms that correspond to the chaos of trench warfare. But the fractured topography of Elinor’s psyche, her simultaneous attempts to repress and excavate, with each impulse not canceling but rather weaving into and reinforcing the other, reflects not only the Regeneration trilogy’s descriptions of life at the front but also its depiction of the shell-shocked soldiers’ emotional response to this life. Elinor’s ambiguous reaction recalls the quandary plaguing Regeneration’s Dr. Rivers, who relies in his therapy on the belief that “horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed,” while grappling with the institutional need for patients to work past that horror as swiftly as possible, so that they could “do their duty and return to France.”

When the novel’s narrative resumes in 1917, Toby, who’d gone to fight in France, where he served as Neville’s superior, has just been declared “missing, believed killed.” Once Toby’s spare uniform is sent back to his boyhood home, devastated Elinor finds a note he addressed to her tucked in one of its pockets, telling her he “won’t be coming back this time,” suggesting she “ask (her) friend Kit Neville” why, and demanding, cryptically, that she “Remember.” Elinor until now has been faithful to their decision to “get back to the way things were,” returning to a semblance of sibling closeness at the price of a forced forgetting, but Toby’s note displaces her need to analyze and understand the “incident” onto an investigation of her brother’s death. For this task, she must “break the taboo she imposed on herself: that the war was not to be acknowledged.” The two taboos—incest and the war—become interchangeable for Elinor, embodied in Toby’s uniform, which she bundles up and stashes away in the house’s attic, though its smell—whether real or imagined—she cannot seem to ignore. It’s the scent of the repressed that disturbs Elinor’s attempts to erase Toby’s body, first in its living and now in its dead form. At least initially, it’s clear that the two secrets are one and the same in Elinor’s mind. Revealing one, it seems, would mean finally doing away with the other.

From this point on, the book is a sort of mystery. What happened to Toby on the battlefield? Was his death premeditated? How is it tied to that earlier, sibling transgression? Neville knows what took place in France, but he’s reluctant to tell. And while Elinor is initially spurred on in her investigation by smell, “the most primitive of the senses, the one most closely linked to memory and desire,” the loss of Neville’s nose to a shrapnel wound makes him completely insusceptible to the inducements of that specific sense. In his horrible disfigurement, however, Neville extends the book’s central metaphor in another way: everybody has something to hide and repress; in Neville’s case, it’s not only the story of Toby’s death, but also his own face, which he must cover every time he goes out into the world.

In a memorable scene, Neville takes leave from the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, where he’s undergoing a series of reconstructive facial surgeries, and goes along with Paul to the Café Royal for a drink, wearing a metal mask modeled after Rupert Brooke’s handsome features. When a cab driver quotes Brooke’s well-known patriotic line from his poem “The Soldier” (“If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England”) Neville snaps, “That would be the bit with my nose under it.” Later, at the restaurant, with “the bellow of a wounded bull,” Neville pulls off his mask to reveal the horror beneath it. Crying “a baby’s square-mouthed wail of abandonment and loss,” Neville is led outside by Paul, away from the restaurant’s stunned and gaping patrons.

The implication here appears clear: authenticity’s final frontier resides in the broken flesh that lies beneath all falsity, whether metaphorical (Brooke’s pat words) or literal (his impassive likeness). Indeed, at times, Barker comes dangerously close to objectifying the facially wounded as a kind of mute, primitive repository of true meaning. After Elinor first visits Neville in hospital, to try to “shake the truth” about Toby out of him, she steps out into the hall, frustrated by her friend’s refusal to divulge any specifics about her brother. With her “thoughts skittering about like bugs on the surface of a pond while her real feelings lurked in the depths somewhere, out of reach,” Elinor finds herself suddenly in a scene “worse than Breughel”:

Men with no eyes were being led along by men with no mouths; there was even one man with no jaw, his whole face shelving steeply away into his neck. Men, like Kit, with no noses and horribly twisted faces. And others—the ones she couldn’t understand at all—with pink tubes sprouting out of their wounds and terrible cringing eyes looking out over the top of it all.

Rushing down the hallway, she collides head on with Tonks, who’s now sketching the wounded at Sidcup. When Elinor tells her former teacher that she stepped out of Neville’s room because she “fancied a breath of fresh air,” she concedes to herself that “even that little lie made her feel uncomfortable. This was a place for truth.”

Elinor initially associates the mangled visages of the war’s wounded with a (literally) close-to-the-bone honesty, with “real feelings” beyond the “surface of a pond.” But is this really—or at least, just—so? In Neville’s case, for one, the answer would be negative. Once outside the Café Royal, after pulling off his mask, Neville begins to laugh, to Paul’s amazement: “He knew . . . that every part of Neville’s anger had been genuine . . . It had all been real. Surely it had? And yet, Neville’s laughter, now, seemed to deny that.”  Elinor, too—after Tonks recruits her to work at the hospital alongside him, sketching realist portraits of the war’s new gothic subjects—finds that the wounded are not merely singular objects meant for her horrified gaze. As she writes Paul, “there’s no doubt it makes a huge difference when you get to know the men as individuals, rather than just wounds and case histories.”

Elinor is no sentimentalist, though, and neither is Barker. In the context of the novel, the call for individuality over typicality is linked not to an idealized vision of humanity’s essential lovability, but to a clear-eyed understanding of the complexity of character. Barker suggests, in other words, that grabbing hold of that one key to all mythologies of a person’s psyche isn’t as straightforward an endeavor as it might at first seem. Toby’s Room is full of buried secrets—Toby’s note, which Elinor finds deep in his lower left pocket and must bring “out into the light”; Kit Neville’s “revolver lying at the bottom of his kitbag,” an embodiment of his constant suicidal thoughts; and, most centrally to the novel, Toby’s and Elinor’s incestuous coupling, that “shadow under the water that none of [the Brooke family] admitted seeing.” For Barker, however, the promise of potential emancipation held out by these secrets’ unburdening is ultimately deferred, and closure is hard, if not impossible to come by.

This deferral becomes clearest at the novel’s end, when Paul, acting at Elinor’s behest, finally persuades Neville to relate the story of Toby’s death. The reader has been led to expect this story to shed light upon Toby and Elinor’s transgression, but this expectation too is dashed. Instead of resolving Elinor’s secret, Neville suddenly reveals a new secret, involving yet another forbidden “tangle of limbs and laboured breathing,” that apparently led to Toby’s demise. And even in the recounting of this, supposedly ultimate, revelation, Paul isn’t sure

how much of Neville’s story he believed. Oh, Neville had set out to tell the truth—he didn’t doubt that for a moment—but was it possible that, in the end, he’d ducked out of revealing something too dreadful to be told?

And so, the cards are reshuffled again, denying Elinor and the narrative the resolution both purportedly had been working toward. As Barker suggests, the war and its losses, just like the family and its pathologies, can never be completely gotten past. There is no way to resolve such holes, ripped in the middle of one’s life, whether one recognizes them as catastrophic or glosses over them as incident. On the novel’s final page, Elinor prepares to leave Toby’s old room for the final time, but not before uncovering “a small stain on the mattress, a crescent shape, like a foetus curled up in the womb, or a dolphin leaping” only to “(pull) the blanket up to hide it.” Even as it reaches narrative completion, the novel’s hidden layers still lie in wait, curling and leaping, disturbing its peace.

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