DECEMBER 19, 2017
I. A Swiss Cheese Moon
“ANNA KAVAN’S Ice is a book like the moon is the moon,” writes Jonathan Lethem in his foreword to the 50th-anniversary Penguin Classics edition of this underrated masterpiece. “There’s only one. It’s cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach.” He could have added that, like the moon, the book seems made of Swiss cheese — full of holes, gaps, fissures. The world Kavan builds is less a realistic 3-D model of a universe than what might be called “a field of strangeness,” walled off not merely by the ice of the title, but by the concealment (and revelation, always the dance between the two) of the author. It is a work of “world-blocking” rather than conventional “world-building.”
Ice tells the story — though “story” may not be the best word — of an unnamed narrator on an obsessive quest for a “glass girl” through a frozen landscape, amid a vague, imminent global catastrophe. In this world, where everything is “misty and indistinct,” there is a love triangle of sorts between these two nameless characters and a third character, also never given a proper name — a tyrannical warden who tortures the girl of the narrator’s obsessions. Over the course of the novel’s spiraling structure, the two men begin to merge, phasing in and out of one another.
Ice has been called an apocalyptic sci-fi story, an allegory of drug addiction, a prescient climate change warning, a feminist exploration of trauma, a misogynistic de Sadean dream, a Kafkaesque work of alienation, and a response to Alan Burns’s similarly plotted (and equally world-blocked) Europe After the Rain. But each of these readings is a reduction, simplifying a book that is anything but simple. As Lethem argues, “Though Ice is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror.”
II. Trees as Trees
If Ice gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror, the mirror is a clouded mirror — a glass in which we see, darkly, not ourselves, but shapes that may resemble us, outlines of a world that may be our world. Perhaps the best image for Ice is the funhouse mirror maze, where we are simultaneously lost and found, distorted and illuminated, blocked and blocked.
J. R. R. Tolkien, perhaps the preeminent fantasy world-builder, wrote in an essay “On Fairy-Stories”: “The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better the fantasy will it make.” In other words, the more meticulously crafted the universe, the keener and clearer the reason within that world, the more the reader will accept the reality of the make-believe. The world-builder creates a world beyond the narrative’s characters and their actions. Things like the trees in the fictional universe become important not because of their relationship to the story, but merely in and of themselves. As Tolkien complained, “Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play.” He wanted space in his work for “trees as trees,” objects as objects, the world as a world. World-builders might create maps of their cosmos, invent advanced technology and whole new branches of scientific inquiry, or develop vast mythologies for the various cultures within their created universe — but the most basic linguistic tool they utilize is the proper noun.
III. Improper Nouns and Inner Space
Proper nouns are everywhere in literature — nearly every character a Tom, Dick, or Harry. Fictions are filled with these Tom Sawyers, Moby Dicks, and Harry Potters because it is generally assumed that most readers like to be grounded in the particulars. We want to know exactly whom we’re with and exactly where we are when we’re with them. This fixity allows us easy entrance into the dream of fiction; it helps us believe.
Of course, not all writers lean on the crutch of proper nouns to make their worlds seem real. Japanese author Kōbō Abe once claimed, “In my fiction, proper nouns are insignificant. They don’t need to be there.” And for the most part, they aren’t there. Some writers, like Abe, run from the specificity of world-building, preferring instead the abstraction of myth, the universality of allegory.
This is not to argue that the works of Kavan or Abe don’t give us compelling constructed worlds, but that the worlds are built almost in negative by eschewing most proper nouns, avoiding over-explanation, and instead tending toward the creation of a more ambiguous, mysterious universe. Their worlds are ones of mood, menace, and myth.
While proper nouns “don’t need to be there,” what does need to be there is a suggestion of the universal, the allegorical. This is not to say that one should read Ice as a straight one-to-one allegory. “It’s been suggested that the ‘ice’ in Ice translates to a junkie’s relationship to her drug,” writes Lethem, “yet the book is hardly reducible to this or any other form of allegory.” The novel is mythic, but retains none of the didactic lessons in much of classic mythology. Ice has the texture of fable without the Aesopian moral as conclusion.
This move toward the universal and allegorical isn’t achieved from the outside, through faux-objective world-building, but from the opposite direction, as an exploration of what J. G. Ballard called “inner space”: “the meeting ground between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality.”
IV. Building Blocks, Blocking Builds
All writers build worlds. The world of Ice may seem to some readers less fully realized than the world of, say, The Lord of the Rings, but it’s merely a question of kind.
The meticulously crafted worlds of classic world-building can keep fanboys and fangirls tethered to their landscapes, but they can also feel suspiciously perfect, artificial. The world of Ice, had it been classically world-built, would have looked perhaps too much like a snow globe: a toy world, perfectly cast, in the midst of a flurry. Real worlds are messy and occulted. Fog creeps into them. And night falls. Some answers are always out of reach.
There needs to be a term for an alternative way of building worlds, the world-building-in-negative that is practiced by Kavan and Abe (and forebears and contemporaries like Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, John Hawkes, and J. G. Ballard). Some have called this process “inferred world-building” or “world-conjuring,” but “world-blocking” may be more apt. The term works in opposing directions to get at the paradox of these types of texts. A “block” is something that obstructs, but is also a unit, like a brick, for building (i.e., “building block”). The verb “to block” means to hinder or hamper, but it also means to plot out the movements of an actor on a stage or movie set. World-blockers, then, build worlds through obstruction; they block out the moves of their world by blocking our full access to them.
V. Pruning Shears
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners,” George R. R. Martin said:
The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed, and water it.
But in truth, gardeners do more than just dig a hole, drop in a seed, and water it. A garden has its own architecture, and that architecture is not created through mere happenstance, the seeming chaos of nature. What makes a garden a garden (as opposed to a field or forest) is precisely the fact that it has been controlled.
The gardener-novelist has pruning shears. They cut back as much as they cultivate and grow. A well-tended garden has as much order and arrangement as a house built by an architect, but the design is perhaps more obscure, the control more invisible, the system more integrated into the environment. The order is also not fixed, but ever-changing.
VI. Signposts in the Snow
Anna Kavan’s Ice begins: “I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage.”
World-blocking is not merely the mode of Ice, but, on some level, its subject. The world of Ice is strange and strangely familiar, to us as to the characters. “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” the narrator confesses. Yet for all the unreality of the world he is a part of: “The place seemed vaguely familiar, a distortion of something I half remembered.”
Elsewhere, he admits:
I got only intermittent glimpses of my surroundings, which seemed vaguely familiar, and yet distorted, unreal. […] In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.
Thus, the novel can be seen as an exploration of the relationship between inner and outer worlds, a look at how mental landscapes interact with and affect physical landscapes. As Lethem puts it, “as in Kafka, Poe and Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, the essential disturbance resides in an inextricable interplay between inner and outer worlds.”
The key difference between “world-building” and “world-blocking” is the degree to which the reader is privy to some supposedly objective reality. The reality of most conventionally world-built novels is entirely in focus — too much so, perhaps. There is no mystery. Everything is named, described, understood. The reader walks on a paved path.
World-blocking keeps the reader in ambiguity, mystery, doubt, along with the characters. The inner space of character determines their perception of the world’s outer space. This is, indeed, how we really experience the world — not through omniscient knowledge, but through confounding fissures. The over-explanation of a world is an oversimplification of the world, for much of what we experience in life is unexplained, if not inexplicable.
To us, as to the narrator of Ice, reality has always been something of an unknown quality. We feel lost, as the narrator does in the novel’s first sentence — but then he finds a signpost, just enough to situate him somewhere, and the same goes for us. The novel conceals, then reveals, illuminates, then obscures. We are given just enough protruding rocks to cross the stream of text.
VII. Fields of Strangeness
Ice’s unnamed narrator describes the landscape as giving “the impression of having stepped out of everyday life, into a field of strangeness where no known laws operated.” These fields of strangeness, strange as they are, are the realm of human experience.
At one point, the unnamed narrator is visited by a being seemingly of another world. The being tells him of “the hallucination of space-time.” We learn that this being has “access to superior knowledge, to some ultimate truth.” The being invites the narrator to “his privileged world […] of boundless potential.” What keeps the narrator from following this being’s siren call to another world is that he is “irrevocably involved with events and persons upon this planet.” In Ice, superior knowledge separates one from the world.
There is a description in Ice that reminds us of the problems of classic world-building: “The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour.” Some of the more famous built worlds do indeed feel as though their characters are trapped, but the world of Ice, for all its coldness, ironically feels full of life and psychological complexity.
Kavan and her fellow world-blockers aren’t interested in “trees as trees,” but in the shapes of trees, what we as subjects see in them, and what we project onto them:
Quickly looking up at the window, she saw only white weaving meshes of snow, shutting out the world. The known world excluded, reality blotted out, she was alone with threatening nightmare shapes of trees or phantoms, tall as firs growing in snow.
Tyler Malone is a writer and professor of English. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Scofield. He is also a contributing editor at Literary Hub. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.