One of the pleasures—and privileges—of my work is watching a manuscript evolve through rewrites, as the author develops new ways to settle the prose around the story. It’s also fascinating to watch published authors evolve from novel to novel, and thanks to Simon and Schuster, I’ve recently been doing that with Neil Cross. I started with Always the Sun, his fourth novel (published in 2004), and then moved on to his new book Burial.
Always the SunI actually had a copy of Always the Sun when it was first published, but managed to both obtain and dispose of it without ever reading it. But I had a good feeling about it then, and I’m happy to say that this was borne out when I finally did read it. Always the Sun is an interesting piece of writing.
It tells the story of Sam, a widower with one son, and his attempts to deal with the situation when his boy gets bullied at school. Already unbalanced by the loss of his wife, Sam lacks the perspective needed to handle things properly, and they begin to slip horribly out of control. One thing that stuck out in Always the Sun was the constant use Neil Cross makes of cultural reference points. Brand names crop up everywhere—sometimes four or five on a page. Normally this is very, very inadvisable (it can be distracting, can date the novel unnecessarily, etc.), but here the repeated references to brand names and popular culture really work to create the sense of humdrum normality:
Shivering in his shirtsleeves, he sat on a much-vandalized municipal park bench. He watched the traffic and the buses and the people. He chainsmoked half the pack of Marlboro, then walked home.
He found Jamie on the sofa, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The GameBoy was discarded on the cushion alongside him.
And on the following page:
Jamie was wearing his Walkman. Sam could hear the rapid, tinny sibilance of sequenced hi-hats. Jamie stomped through to the kitchen and began opening and closing cupboards. He returned with a plate of chocolate HobNobs and a can of Dr Pepper.
Before that second page is out, they’ve also watched The Simpsons and Die Hard 2. These details work because we know something awful is going to happen: it’s the Alfred Hitchcock analogy of the ticking time bomb lending suspense to even the most mundane of scenes.
The combination of pop culture references, British setting, and father-son relationships in a book that has some fairly nasty moments might make one think, “Ah—Nick Hornby gone wrong, then?” but it occurred to me that Always the Sun is actually shaped like a horror novel, closer to something by Ramsey Campbell or Stephen King. It follows the formula of a certain type of ghost story almost exactly: Following tragic event, man returns to his ancestral home, where his early failures at fitting in resolve themselves into a conflict with an evil force beyond his comprehension. Will his struggles with this long-dormant relic of his past be successful, or will they pitch him into madness? Sam, then, belongs not with the Rob Flemings and Will Freemans of literature, but rather he takes his place in hell with the Eleanor Vances and the Jack Torrances.
Structurally, it’s beautifully simple and linear, with things getting gradually worse for Sam and his boy.
Skip forward a few years to 2009 (over the publication of Natural History and the memoir Heartland), and now we have Burial. The story in Burial is about Nathan, who is involved in the death of a girl he meets at a party. Along with a second man, Bob, he panics and buries her in a forest, and much of the story follows his state of mind and the things he does in order to deal with the after effects of the traumatic event.
Here again, Neil Cross is dabbling with indirect elements of the supernatural. Bob is an expert in the paranormal, which constantly hovers at the edge of things: a minor character relates the story of a possible ghost sighting; Nathan and Bob do a Ouija board; and Nathan’s guilt and fear over the death of the girl become crystallised in the fear of meeting her ghost. There’s also a nice passage describing Nathan’s elaborate defences against the dark, even some years after the death. It’s a wonderful evocation of fear, again shown through the detail, and takes to extremes a particular sensation—fear of the dark—that many of us are familiar with to some degree. His preparations also sound rather like the deterioration of an H. P. Lovecraft character following exposure to some nameless horror. (And if you like the idea of that, you’ll love the reference a few pages later to what can only be described as “blasphemous geometry”.)
The brand names are also back in force for Burial: by page four, somebody is putting “a Bic flame to the end of a John Player Special.” However, where the minutiae of everyday life helped to add to the sense of growing tension in Always the Sun, at times in early chapters Burial feels unfocused and vague. Although it does hit its stride again, there are a few chapters that feel like they’re going round in circles.
For example, about a third of the way into the book, we have a long sequence in which Nathan, trying to recover from the death of the girl, embarks on a brief journey abroad, and then returns to England and job hunts. We see his jobhunting, his interview, and then we hear about his work. The chapter ends with his new, settled life suddenly becoming threatened when a fresh appeal is launched for the return of the missing girl… and the next chapter returns to more about his job, and the bureaucratic complications over a seating plan. It’s only a couple of pages before it returns to the furthering of the plot, but the wobble is distracting. In this case, the bomb in Hitchcock’s analogy has already gone off, and once you’ve revealed that the bomb is definitely going to go off—once, in fact, you’ve shown it going off—you can’t cut back to the now suspense-free countdown. There are a few wobbly chapters in this part of the book, and I suspect they’re a result of Neil Cross’s apparent approach to outlining before writing (he doesn’t do it—see the BBC interview). You don’t have to outline before you write, of course, but if you don’t, it’s often necessary to do a little more revision that usual, to seal up the cracks and retrofit a sense of purpose. Here, you can almost feel Cross continuing to type before he’s quite decided what to do next.
Still, those passages are soon forgotten once Burial hits its stride again, the twists kick in, and the story draws to a satisfying conclusion.
The lack of consistent momentum means that Burial isn’t quite as successful a work as Always The Sun, but to be fair, Burial is trying to do a great deal more than the earlier book. For Burial‘s faults, it’s still indicative of an author moving forwards, and it’s left me wanting to read some more of Neil Cross, in the hopes of fitting these two fixed points into the broader picture of that progression.
Below, you’ll find an interview taken from the Simon & Schuster Website for Neil Cross.