Tim Parks’s latest novel opens in the forests of the South Tyrol, where a group of white-water enthusiasts are taking a kayaking holiday. The river is overflowing with melt water from a thawing glacier, and the kayakers find themselves endangered by the force of the current, as the river runs ever faster and fuller. It’s a symbolic river, too: Parks explores the ripples of minor social dramas experienced by a group of semi-strangers; the undercurrent of their memories, their past unhappinesses; and the crashing waves of environmental apocalypse.
Parks is a writer of technical brilliance and ambition, whose fiction has been getting better and better. The narrator of Europa (1997) is a nondescript language teacher, on a bus ride from Milan to Strasbourg. The novel’s drama comes from the confusion of his thoughts: his fixation with his former mistress; his guilty feelings about his wife and daughter. Destiny (1999) is about madness and marital failure, and follows a gently rising course from a boy’s suicide to the rebuilding of his parents’ marriage. Judge Savage (2003) is a novel of subtlety and chilly poise, concerned with the gulf between public slickness and private mess. The protagonist pronounces judgment on the criminal classes, immaculate in his official robes, then declines in his personal life into whoring, lying and sleaze.
These scenes of emotional turmoil take place inside starkly simple plots. Europa and Judge Savage end with a sudden death; Destiny starts with one. Parks’s central situations are often unappealing: a novel about a man taking a coach trip from Milan to Strasbourg to present a petition to the European Parliament sounds tediously worthy. But Parks’s prose is so beguiling and his disdain for the comfort of his reader so magisterial that the formulaic plotting comes to seem necessary. If his plots were as opaque as his characters’ punctuation-free conversations then we really would be fumbling in the dark.
Parks has always maintained a strict distinction between his novels and his non-fiction books. In works such as Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education he is anecdotal and accessible, whether he is talking about the dreariness of Italian furnishings or the quality of maternity care. He is clear and precise, uses the full complement of speech marks, talks about football, houses, holidays, pleasing views and national stereotypes.His essays are different again, alluding constantly and exuberantly to all sorts of esoteric subjects. But with the novels you get the sense that Parks is very much in charge, unconcerned with having to tailor his works to a notional market.
At first glance Rapids looks like something of a hybrid. It might be one of Parks’s non-fiction jollies: a bunch of kayakers sitting around by a river, a bit of light anecdote and social observation, comedy, minor tragedy, mild debauchery. It is less savage, less darkly comic than the other novels, not as ambiguous or shifting; the characters are simply drawn. The narrative moves in and out of the heads of an assortment of kayakers, finally alighting mostly on Vince, a widowed banker who has come along with his teenage daughter. The characters are introduced in bite-sized phrases. In an opening piece of group bonding they are all asked to stand up and explain themselves: ‘I’m Tom. I’m 21 … I study at the LSE. Haven’t had a paddle in my hands for a few years now, but some other folks let me down for the holiday we were going to take, so at the last minute I signed up for this.’ ‘Name’s Phil … Love playing on the water, like, but I’ve only done weirs’n’all so I’m hoping I’ll get on something well fast and dangerous. Never been to Italy before. I’ve done some surf, thought. Like off Broadstairs. Wicked.’
A series of picaresque adventures follow, and the group dynamics shift. The characters, sketched though they are, are shown to make plausible fleeting alliances and enmities. They are people as we mostly perceive them, easy to caricature and only half-known. Their speech streams across the page, wrapped around with fragmented descriptions of places and objects, suggesting the way odd things stick in the memory. Parks enjoys the clash of personalities, and his conversations are lessons in the dramatic use of non sequitur.
You have to be tight in the cockpit. OK? This isn’t the Thames Estuary. Tight tight tight. The perfect fit.
Like sex? ventures a voice. Brian has a fuzz of red hair, a small snubbed nose, droll expression.
Actually no, not like sex at all, says Clive patiently. He is wearing a khaki cap. The girls are giggling. As somebody might know, if he had a minimum of experience.
With sex, Clive continues in his measured sensible voice, two entities move constantly in relation to each other, n’est-ce pas?
Two what? Phil demands.
The kayakers find that ‘there is some hidden place … between eddy and flow, between the soft grey water milling on shallow stones and the fast dark stream pouring into the wave, some place where the river can be unlocked. A secret entrance. You’re admitted directly to the heart of things.’ There is a symbolic contrast between paddling along the surface and capsizing, between trying not to think too deeply and confronting doubts and fears. Vince, troubled by thoughts of his dead wife, is particularly given to performing sudden tumble turns, dunking his head for a bracing wash in metaphor:
You are no longer in slow water with time to reflect. You are in the quick of it – this is life – eyes open but blind. An icy flood rears and tugs and swirls. The paddle is being dragged away from him. He can’t push it to the surface. It won’t move, it’s trapped against the boat. He tries the rolling motion anyway. The boat half turns. His head breaks the surface … Then he’s down again. Now the helmet scrapes, again he fights with the paddle, again fails to right the boat. This time his fingers find the release tab. The spraydeck pops. The freezing water floods the cockpit and he swims out. Hold on to your paddle!
All the kayakers are adrift in some sense, trying not to capsize. Mandy, one of the instructors, is half in love with Vince. The teenagers are lost in their teenage worlds, disguising their uncertainty in banter and bravado. Clive, another instructor, is lost in apocalyptic nightmares about global warming. His girlfriend, Michela, is lost in love for him, a love that is rejected as the book goes on. Keith, the man in charge, is the only one who seems remotely self-assured, but he ends up breaking his arm after trying to show off. The group put on a brave face, singing round campfires, competing for small prizes, kissing under the trees and squabbling about politics. As night settles over the forest, we eavesdrop on them in their tents: Michela and Clive discuss the end of their relationship; Vince and his daughter struggle to understand each other.
Clive is ‘a powerful man with a thick beard and broad forehead … His thinning blond hair is shoulder-length.’ Branded an eco-type by his habit of sitting cross-legged, he talks the language of nature-love and despises the city stiffs in their suits. He and Michela (‘a beautiful creature … Her black hair … cropped tight around a white, perfect oval face where the eyes are steady and dark’) are out of sorts, having come to the river from an anti-globalisation demonstration in Milan in which two people were killed. Clive, the reader gradually realises, is an environmentalist Mrs Jellyby, fixed on the wider picture, unaware of the effects of his passions on those immediately around him. He explains to Michela that they can’t have sex until he has saved the world. She spends most of the rest of the book musing wretchedly on his decision. He appears at every campfire singalong, talking about impending doom.
Clive said how hard it was to predict riverlevels with this global warming. The glaciers retreated every year. The hot weather came too soon. This summer more than ever. The full melt was on you before you expected it. By now they were paddling on the snows of centuries back, the blizzards of the Middle Ages. There were more thunderstorms, perhaps, but less of the same steady release of the winter’s snow. The river could be bony or even dry before you knew it. It’s amazing they do nothing about the greenhouse effect, he went on.
Adam, a ‘lean, chinless man in his late thirties’, disagrees: ‘The climate changes anyhow … This whole thing is being exploited by people who have an axe to grind and time on their hands.’ The two spar throughout the book. Clive hits Adam, and shoves Michela away when she tries to stop him. Michela supplies the ragged explanation: ‘Since those people were killed … in Milan, he’s been so tense.’
Clive and Adam are frustrating characters. As Adam points out, Clive is a hypocrite: he works for a profit-making company and debauches the silence of the valleys in order to keep himself away from the death-in-life of an office. And Adam is complacent and unaccommodating. They are not implausible – the world is full of Clives and Adams. Parks might be showing how pallid we often are, how one-dimensional in self-characterisation. Or, it could be that he sees Clive and Adam merely as vehicles for a debate. This is a convention, of course, but not the sort of convention Parks normally uses. It also risks over-simplifying the climate change debate by turning it into a row between unreformed hippies and laissez-faire capitalists.
The effect is that Clive and Adam cancel each other out, and we are left with Vince, the sort of dispossessed self-tormenting male of a certain age Parks describes so well. Vince is apathetic and nervous; fearful that he won’t be able to control his kayak; uncertain in his dealings with his daughter; given to long languid soliloquies, making confessions to the trees; touchingly buoyed by his small successes on the water. At first he is bewildered by being so far from his usual life (his job in the bank, the stress of his routine); eventually he is revitalised by it. He phones his office and tells them he won’t be back. Then he hits the river:
He steered through the rush, saw the terminal stopper racing to meet him and began to paddle hard. But the river seemed to be higher today, the stopper more powerful. As he ploughed through the soft foam, the tail of the boat began to sink. The canoe was pulled down. Vince stayed absolutely calm. The icy water gripped his face. The noise was furious and muffled. Wait, wait till it flushes you out. Five seconds later he rolled up in calm water. Everything is in order … He is laughing.
It is mostly through Vince’s eyes that Parks portrays the natural world: ‘a broad brown swirl of summer storm water rushing and bouncing between banks thick with brushwood, overhung with low, grey boughs, snagged in the shallows with broken branches that vibrate, gnarled and dead, trapped by the constant pressure of the passing flood.’ Vince makes a solid Wordsworthian point about the power of nature to restore. The portrait of Vince is also a defence of the city-dweller so reviled by Clive and his eco-brethren. Parks is telling us that city-drones have souls too. Vince’s fate is left indeterminate. He has not exactly left his job, but he has postponed his return. He is still in the forest, but has understood that he can choose to leave or stay.
Parks is prolific, and his books are written with a compelling urgency and energy. In Rapids this urgency – and the varied cast – sometimes lead to narratorial splashiness: big ideas and themes are introduced only for some of them to be left underdeveloped. Yet the book has great strengths. It is thrillingly paced. Vince is a monumental character, difficult and rewarding. And Parks is constantly alert to the nuances of everyday patter, a clever and magnanimous describer of ordinary people.