Hell is Other People
Any child who believes that he is surrounded by a sea of hooks has problems. Real problems, though the image may be metaphoric for what is dangerous, unfathomable (especially for a child), or dysfunctional (in families), even occasionally literal. But a child who sees those hooks almost everywhere, well, then there are real complications, perhaps even inhibiting maturity. Lindsay Hill’s astonishing novel, Sea of Hooks, treads the main character’s pathway out of this morass with a highly original narrative form and voice: brief, paragraph entries mostly a few sentences in length but sometimes only one sentence and other times enough so that the paragraph runs more than a page. Still, with a heading for each paragraph, most pages have three or four such entries, with intentional repetition of images, concepts, as well as the main character’s neuroses.
That character, Christopher Westall, is about twelve years old in the sequences that reach farthest back in time and slightly more than double that at the end. In the first printed passage, titled “Glass,” when he is about twenty, Christopher discovers his mother lying on his bed, with a plastic bag fitted tightly over her head. “He held her hand awhile there in the cold. It felt reef-stiff. Her eyes were closed. She had somehow managed to tuck herself in quite tightly. Her face was soft, expressionless and tired. No hint of how it had been for her to die, there on the bed in his room, the bed under which he once thought knife-people slept.”
Her death makes Christopher recall something she once said about the Hall of Flowers, in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco: “This is a place where glass is safe.” The fragility of glass will reoccur throughout the story, as will the childhood fear of knife-people sleeping under his bed. The time of his mother’s death is in the 1960s, when he’s an adult, earlier having lost his alcoholic father and other relatives, which has led to isolation within the narrow confines of his family. It didn’t help that Christopher had no friends at school and that he made up whoppers in order to connect with other children. But they, too, led to increased isolation. After he told them that his father could make himself invisible, his mother kept him home from school for a year. Her position? “Christopher’s mother kept him home from school for the rest of the year because she thought that the other children were making him sick.”
It’s not a pretty environment, especially when Christopher is a child. His father virtually ignores him, lost in his failing brokerage business. His mother provides him with visions of grandeur perhaps because most of her own time is devoted to social-climbing (with little success). The family once had money but much of that is now gone. Christopher has enough trouble with school that when he is twelve his mother hires a university student to tutor him in reading. That situation results in Christopher’s rape and repeated sodomy by the tutor for most of a summer and a startling increase in images of physical defilement. At night, his nightmares have him swinging on a hook, shoved up his anus—disturbing images difficult to shake. He retreats further into himself with imaginary figures, fears and friends.
One good thing happens to him. After a fire in a near-by house, Christopher is befriended by the old man whose house nearly burned down, Dr. Thorn. A thorn is obviously similar to a hook, suggesting that the relationship begins with fear, just as it did with the university student who abused him. But Dr. Thorn, whose training was in cartology, has the wisdom of the ancients that he will expose to Christopher, becoming in time the father the boy never had at home. Christopher will help the older man restore the burned portions of his house and in return Dr. Thorn introduces Christopher to history, geography, theology, metaphysics—the seen and the unseen worlds—beginning when the boy is fourteen, two years after the rough sex with the university student.
Above all, Dr. Thorn teaches him about the past—a living past—that will help Christopher leave his troubled childhood and, in time, move into the present. What did the old man have to say about the past? “The past is a house build again and again in such a way that it seems like the same single house.” It is also Dr. Thorn who first tells Christopher about Bhutan, where many of the final sequences in Christopher’s story will conclude as he searches for unification with his own past and the future.
There are so many imaginative aspects of Lindsay Hill’s Sea of Hooks, beautifully rendered in the author’s exquisite prose. Hill has published six volumes of poetry, though this is his first novel. I was particularly in awe of the device that Hill perfected to give coherence to Christopher’s increasing maturity: “messengers,” objects that he picked up in the streets as a child (receipts, pieces of glass, bent nails, ticket stubs, etc). “Only slowly did Christopher come to see that together the messengers actually made a single thing—but not a single thing like a put-together puzzle, but a single thing like a symphony or a city, and he knew that each messenger had something to say by itself, but now he understood that together they had something else to say, and he wanted to know what it was.”
Fortunately, Christopher’s story finally comes full circle.
Lindsay Hill: Sea of Hooks
McPherson & Co., 352 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.