BEHIND THE PASTORAL: Cynan Jones’ ‘Cove’

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.


Cynan Jones, Cove (Granta, 2016)

By Peter Adkins

In Celtic mythology, a wren’s feather was thought to offer protection against lightning. In Cove, an unnamed man, drifting far out to sea in a kayak after an electrical storm, takes solace from a wren feather that he finds within the casing of dead and useless mobile phone. This coupling of the mythic and the modern, the sacred and the mundane will be familiar to readers of Cynan Jones, who, over the course of ten years, has carved a niche in laconic, often tragic, portrayals of life in rural Wales. Beginning with The Long Dry (2006), a narrative of a single, decisive day on a struggling dairy farm, and followed by Everything I Found On The Beach (2011) and The Dig (2014), which respectively take the topics of Eastern European labour and the illicit world of badger baiting, Jones’s work has earned a deserved reputation for its spare and unromantic portrayal of rural existence.

At less than a hundred pages, Cove is Jones’s most pared down novel yet and, in many respects, continues along the arc that his writing has taken thus far. The tale of a man, swept out to sea by the brute force of an ocean storm as he paddles out to scatter his father’s ashes, the novel offers a protagonist that will be recognisable to those who have read Jones’s other works. Hardy yet introspective, the kayaker set adrift at the centre of Cove is focalised through a vocabulary that is both poetic and technical; a stripped-back language in which adjectives are eschewed for the exact noun and the cadences of everyday speech are brought to the surface. Regaining consciousness from the injuries of the lightning strike he discovers his finger to have been chewed by fish, “frayed to the first knuckle, skinned through to the flesh”. Earlier, in the immediate wake of the storm, he finds himself “on his back, caught on a cleat by the elastic toggle of his wetsuit shoe.”

coveWhere Cove differs from Jones’s earlier work, however, is in its departure from his stylised social realism. The Long Dry, Everything I Found On The Beach and The Dig, all offered well-observed portrayals of the minutiae of life in Wales, of both the everyday and the not-so everyday. In contrast to the New Nature writing that has come to dominate literary portrayals of the British countryside and which has been criticised by some for its political naivety, Jones’s novels repeatedly insist on revealing the labour and human costs that lie behind the pastoral.[1] It is not so much that Cove renegades on Jones’s previous social realism, but that it internalises it. In the novel’s narrative of a castaway protagonist trying to recover his sense of self in the amnesiac aftershock of the storm, Cove trades realism for a narrative that is as much determined by the wandering imagination of a dehydrated, injured protagonist as it is by any grounding in exterior reality. Indeed, at times, it is hard to be certain of the distinction between the imagined and the real. “Am I in different water? Have I drifted somewhere?” the kayaker thinks at one point, unable to shake the suspicion that there are “towns and villages beneath him sunken”. Elsewhere, at his lowest ebb, he is joined by dolphin calves, singing as they play in phosphorescence around the kayak, spurring the protagonist to keep going and bringing the narrative to a point where reality blurs with the fantastic.

Jones has said that in writing Cove he intended to “dislocate” the narration from any fixed setting.[2] The result is a novel that is situated on the threshold between the active, observing mind and the brute thereness of the sea. It is an extreme example perhaps of the American poet Wallace Stevens’s idea that the imagination is what gives order and makes meaning in the face of a profoundly inhuman reality. The kayaker’s fraught attempts to retrieve his memories and a sense of meaning become a struggle to reconstruct his human identity in the face of an unforgiving and senseless environment. Perhaps most striking is the way in which this struggle against nothingness is reflected in the novel’s form itself. Small paragraphs are surrounded by huge white spaces, making for literal textual lacunae that reflect the ever-stretching blank horizon of the ocean itself.

Whilst Jones’s work cannot be considered environmentalist in any strict political sense of the word, it nonetheless is profoundly ecological. Cove portrays the manner in which we not only imagine and make sense of our environments, but the way in which our environments, in return, constitute us. In the stupor of amnesia immediately after the lightning strike, the disorientated kayaker looks at the “address label on [his] bag” to jog his memory, but instead of a sense of self he experiences the sensation of “looking into an empty cup”. The letters of his name present themselves as being as “delicate as an image sitting on the surface of the water”. This analogy between words and surfaces is drawn out over the course of the novel. Meaning and identity are revealed not to reside within words but, rather, materiality. Whether it is the ashes of his father or the talismanic feather pressed within the phone or the crust of salt that lines both the kayaker’s boat and body, his sense of identity is repeatedly shown to emerge from the things of environment itself. As Jones’s himself has said of the novel,: “It’s not important who the person on the kayak is. It’s important what he is.”[3]

On another level, the ocean tides and sudden changes in weather that the kayaker must navigate in order to survive offers not so much an ecological synecdoche as an age-old sea-faring narrative of man battling the elements (and I use the gendered pronoun advisedly here). If, in the past, comparisons have been offered between Jones’s writing and the stripped back prose of Cormac McCarthy, here Ernest Hemingway, or more specifically, The Old Man and the Sea offers a closer fit. In interviews Jones has been quite brazen about his preoccupation with tragic male protagonists, and as with Jones’s last two novels, women play only a peripheral role. Quite literally, in fact, as the kayaker imagines his pregnant wife stood waiting for him on the shoreline.[4] Whilst the novel is open to the accusation that it reiterates the tragic-heroic ideals upon which a certain notion of masculinity is upheld, there is also a humility to Cove which keeps such ideals in check. Unlike a classical idea of tragedy, in which one’s environment is mere theatrical backdrop to the human drama, in Cove it is the nonhuman who has as much agency, will and attention as the human agents. In Cove the ocean does not so much elevate the kayaker to the status of tragic hero as emasculate him.

As a work of the ecological imagination, Cove succeeds on multiple levels. The kayaker’s crisis of self and environment in the aftermath of the storm brings to mind the ecocritic Steve Mentz’s idea that “meanings get made on the skin”.[5] That is to say, the certainties we live by and the truths we assert of the world comes not from a set of lofty, abstract ideals, but the rough and tumble of life itself. Such ideas resonate deeply beneath the laconic and spare prose of this brief, hundred-page novel. A book that can be easily read in one sitting, it is nonetheless a work that is as complex and demanding, innovative and imaginative as to be expected from someone working at the boundaries of the novelistic form. In its careful treatment of its subject matter, which covers the art of kayaking to the nature of grief, and in its commitment to finding a form that fits that subject matter, Cove is a substantial new work from a writer who is emerging as one of Britain’s most interesting novelists.


Notes:

[1] For one such a criticism of the New Nature writing’s political failures see Mark Cocker’s essay ‘Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame?’, published in The New Statesman last summer.

[2] In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Jones explained that the novel’s setting was inspired by Cardigan Bay where he himself kayaks. Despite this, Jones explained that he set out to write a novel in which the reader could “choose their own patch of ocean” when imagining events.

[3] See the aforementioned The New Yorker interview.

[4] In an interview on with Electric Literature in 2015 Jones stated that “[g]enerally, I write about men getting through things, often physically”. It is worth noting that whilst Cove, The Dig and Everything I Found On The Beach relegate women to secondary considerations within male-orientated narratives, and are largely defined by their biological roles as mothers, Jones’s first novel offers a much more rounded portrayal of a female protagonist.

[5] Mentz, interestingly, develops this idea in relation to the nautical and the oceanic. See his article ‘After Sustainability’ on his blog for an explanation of the term. Also see his article for the Glasgow Review of Books.


 

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