by Paul Kingsnorth
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977795
By Noah Sanders
The story of Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is a simple one: a man, mythically alone on the moors of England, descends into madness. Beast, the second novel in Kingsnorth’s thematically connected trilogy (The Wake, set 1,000 years in past, the first book in the series) places us into the mind and shoes of recent hermit, Edward Buckmaster. We know almost nothing about Buckmaster. He has departed a life where he was, “an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others,” and with it, his wife and children. He has come to the moors to build a new home, a place where he can “wait for the presence,” a place where he hopes an ascetic lifestyle will lead to new revelations. An event happens early in the book—Kingsnorth leaves the specificity of events to reader—and Buckmaster, up to this point a stereotypical, sort of raving hermit, finds himself wounded, unaware of his past (near or far), entirely alone and obsessed with finding the “beast” of the title, which he believes stalks him. As his obsession grows, so does his madness, and we the reader, locked up in his frame of mind, are dragged along with him. There is the sinister paranoia of a madman at work in Beast, a wary paranoia that infuses every moment, every tiny detail, leaving the reader on edge, waiting for Buckmaster to find the Beast, or the Beast to find him. A clear cut conclusion is not Kingsnorth’s aim though, instead, the true enjoyment in the book the author’s beat-by-beat recollection of Buckmaster’s slow, steady, extremely intense decline into another state of being.
To say that Beast is told through the first-person narrative is truthful, but underwhelming in capturing what Kingsnorth does here. Edward Buckmaster is, aside from a few memories, a few more hallucinations and the Beast itself, the only character in the book. The reader spends the entirety of the novel locked in the mind of a man who has chosen extreme solitude and is now paying for that choice. Buckmaster’s obsession with finding the Beast becomes a compulsion-driven search through abandoned towns and the eerie, cloud-covered natural world he’s found himself in. Time and time again, Kingsnorth alludes to the true beast at hand, Buckmaster himself, his old life and family abandoned for a hermit’s existence. “I crawled into the house like a dog,” he says, or “I shuffled like a broken creature,” the primal descriptions casting the narrator as the real darkness at the heart of the book. Though short in page count, Buckmaster’s downward spiral is dense and taxing, rife with wild leaps of emotion Kingsnorth is laudably able to pass directly on to the reader.
Kingsnorth, who’s The Wake was lauded for its use of an invented pseudo-language, clearly enjoys playing with the standard form of the written word. The writing is sparse and impressionistic, the emotional swings of Buckmaster broadcast through his sudden lack of punctuation, his occasional stutter-step in thinking. Words are repeated, topics are leapt between, the thin line between Buckmaster’s reality and a series of visions that grow more frequent and more strange as the book progresses more and more blurred. Kingsnorth’s writing captures all of it, brands it into the reader’s brain, and then leaves them wallowing in it. “there is nothing to eat here” Buckmaster thinks “and i cannot eat anyway until i have looked into its eyes it would bring me terrible bad luck to eat before i have looked into its eyes it would be an indulgence it would take me away.”
As Buckmaster waits—for the Beast, for a “presence,” for the meaning of his life to appear—the reader waits as well. We live in the moment with Buckmaster even as his brain roils in dreams and hallucinatory episodes, even as he rants about man’s damage to the Earth, the mundane taxation of modern society. We wait, fists clenched, teeth gritted, for the secret of the Beast and the world in which the Beast lives to come to light, for Buckmaster to meet his demise, for the squinting horror looming just on the periphery to finally make itself known. But we wait in vain. Kingsnorth isn’t interested in drawing conclusions. Like Buckmaster we can wait forever for a meaning to arrive, but it’s in the journey, the waiting itself, microscopic and tinged with mania, where the true meaning lies.