Pity the Beast review by Robin McLean – a work of a mad genius | fiction
Robin McLean’s first novel takes place in the ranch country of the American West and focuses on an episode of grotesque violence: the gang rape and near-murder of Ginny, who is thrown into a lime pit full of animal carcasses by her attackers and left to die. She survives and escapes, then steals a horse and flees into the mountains. A band forms to follow her, with the intention of finishing her off.
Around this plot, the book is extraordinarily voluminous, often going casually in a paragraph through the experiences of all the animals on the scene. It goes back in geological time until the formation of the ground on which the story takes place. He walks away to tell a popular tale about a bear husband, then later casually shows us a real bear painting stick figures on the walls of his cave as he waits for his human bride. He delivers us a planned rebellion among a string of mules from the mules’ point of view, then from another point of view, then lets echoes of the rebellion resonate in a few sci-fi sections set in the year 2179. The prose not only records the random thoughts but the piss and crap of its characters, and weaves them into a landscape where they coexist with “the ground slowly moving, hawks cutting through the air, groundhogs digging, snakes s’ rolling in their holes with a soft, slippery sound that the wind drowned. “It’s full of perfect writing, especially about animals and nature.” They unsealed [the horse] and he whirled around and circled a circus around the clearing, his eyes wide. “The hawks roamed the edge of the rock.” “The cliffs were hot in the last light. In the morning, the marmots would see their breath.
The crux of this review is that Pity the Beast is a work of mad genius. It is a worthy successor to William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and the rare book that creates more space for later writers. Everything McLean does is interesting. She writes dialogue in a truly ingenious way, using it like a Greek choir that often threatens to turn into music. The characters talk to each other, embroidering, digressing, quoting Shakespeare or the Bible, illustrating facts; and all speak together rhythmically as in a game of verse. The prevailing impression is that of many people singing in counterpoint. It is not a historical novel; if it happens at any time it is the 21st century, but a 21st century that has strayed out of history and is lost in the wilderness, where no one ever thinks of a TV show, a video game or song, let alone a social media platform. This makes him convincingly mythical, and the many biblical references seem to be a part of it – but so are the helicopters that occasionally fly over and the Milk Duds a character eats. McLean explodes the idea of human society in the first scene, explicitly equating people with beasts, then spends the rest of the novel exploring what it’s like to be a beast, what it’s like to be a beast. mind, what it is to be alive. In a literary environment dominated by safe, simple and realistic prose, it is fascinating to see a novel with so much intellectual weight and aesthetic fearlessness.
If I have reservations, it’s that Pity the Beast is high Gothic, and if he has the strengths of form to spare, he also has his excesses. The novel is made up of grotesque images, magnificent metaphors, landscapes, omens and bloody deeds. The plot is a bit inconsistent, and the character choices are driven by metaphorical necessity, not recognizable psychology. When Ginny’s husband sews his own eye and covers it with a taffeta eye patch, we’re supposed to understand what it symbolizes, not ask ourselves if it’s plausible. Everyone has more or less the same personality – including the animals – and there is a declamatory solemnity that persists even when the book is funny. Sometimes in the middle of an action scene it becomes impossible to tell what is going on as everything disappears behind a cloud of great writing. The most grandiose and hyper-significant passages have a foot in the absurd: “The universe was perfumed in its own sweat. Black-purple prune skin, pores open to disbelief and the cold night air. Life was over. It was just beginning. “
I tend, however, to find Gothic ridiculous – and to me this book was a reminder that when you make it work, it is absolutely glorious. Have mercy on the beast is hallucinatory and saucy and irresponsible, with serious things to say about society and the nature of the mind. It reminds you that the stream of consciousness is fascinating in the right hands, that lack of taste is a power, and that intrigue isn’t the only thing fiction can do. Everytime you try to resist his charms, he knocks you down with carefree beauty. Even when he stumbles, he stumbles more gracefully than most books dance.