Spirit of the Times: A book review of Scorn, a novel by Paul Hoffman
The cover (designed by MECOB) to Paul Hoffman’s Scorn is an adaptation of Velázquez’ magnificent portrait of Pope Innocent X. The pope’s gilded throne and the rich fabrics draping his body speak frankly of wealth and ease, while the man himself is unsettlingly shrewd, calculating and worldly, his watchful eyes already hinting at the existential anguish and capacity for horror depicted in Francis Bacon’s wonderful series of studies of a caged and screaming pope.
We should never judge a book by its cover, of course, but in this case we might wish to bend the rule: a figure of immense authority and power is seated within a blood-red void, seemingly unaware of the angel of death perched confidingly against the crown of his head, as if eating into his brain. The image is arresting and hyperbolic, and it prepares us for what is to come.
To call Scorn a work of righteous anger would barely do justice to its earth-shattering rage, its apocalyptic howl of protest, its caustic humour, irony and indignation. The power of these emotions literally cannot be contained; the novel overspills its own boundaries, spreads outwards into the world by means of its copious epigraphs and epilogues, illustrations, quotations and allusions – even mixing genres and providing external links. ‘Real people,’ such as Tony Blair and the Queen, converse with outlandish fictional characters; reality intrudes at every moment. Conventional storytelling alone, it seems, is not enough to carry the burden of the novel’s scorn.
‘Come here, Your Grace. I want to chastise you,’ says one of Scorn’s principal characters, quoting Lt. Harry Kello’s chillingly playful request of doomed Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a film whose theme – the slow death of the soul – is shared by Scorn. The souls in Scorn, however, are murdered rather than eroded. They are the souls of children starved of just about everything that makes life worthwhile, among them decent food and shelter, freedom from fear, love and fellow-feeling.
In Scorn, to begin with, those who scorn are the nuns and priests in Catholic churches, schools and institutions, aided and abetted by the silence and concealment mandated by the Vatican itself. To be clear: Paul Hoffman is not primarily addressing the worldwide scandal of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Rather, his ostensible focus is on the mundane cruelties and deprivations that were inflicted by nuns and priests on a daily basis, and what that does to individuals who then have to make their way in the world.
Or so it seems, for Scorn is full of unexpected juxtapositions and misdirections. Soon after an episode of exceptional cruelty endured by little Aaron Gall (the nearest to a hero the novel has to offer), Scorn wrongfoots the reader by enlarging the scope of wickedness:
While he was being branded on his little soul … Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward was creating the conditions for thirty million people to starve to death. While a few dozens of children were living in fear of Mother Mary Frances, some parents in Xingyang were eating theirs.
This exhilarating and audacious manoeuvre is typical of Scorn’s exploration of power and injustice, which are so imbricated at times as to be mutually indistinguishable. All injustice, every abuse of power, every concealed crime, are interlinked and intimately connected. ‘The spirit of the times,’ we are told, ‘moves through everyone,’ so that a love affair, for example, can perish on the rocks of a historical injustice, the profits from which are still enjoyed by the privileged few.
Appropriately, Scorn’s many adversions to historical iniquities are paralleled with references and allusions to historical fictions, among them Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The personification of Evil, it appears, is a film buff who can quote with ease from works ranging from Double Indemnity (1944) to Pink Flamingos (1972).
In Scorn the story of Aaron Gall’s experiences is coupled with a police investigation into a series of grotesquely bizarre murders. We listen in as victims engage in a verbal battle of wits with their murderer for the higher ground of self-exculpation, offering reasons and excuses, even defiance, each successive victim increasing in sophistication and sophistry. The investigation itself is inflected with issues of class and privilege, antagonism and deceit.
The story becomes increasingly fantastic as the novel progresses, which will enthrall many readers and perhaps puzzle or disappoint others. Much depends on expectations. The novel takes a big risk right from the start by promising (quite literally) that it has an astonishing twist in the tail. Said twist is entirely predictable, however, very early on, so it might have been better left unsaid – not that this a serious flaw, but readers who count on such things are bound to feel cheated.
Otherwise, Scorn is a wildly anarchic, countercultural phantasmagoria of a novel, reminiscent at times of Jonathan Coe’s Number 11. Its unquenchable outrage and its marked preference for form over character can be exhausting as well as compelling. Its nuances of argument about power and morality are hardly matched by nuances of characterization: persons are more-or-less representative types moved around like billiard balls. This is not a novel of rounded individuals confronting one another in a fully realized world. That isn’t a weakness, but it is a particularity of a book immersed in its own moral purpose. Scorn is often funny even as its purpose is intensely serious: we are called upon to grasp the perfidy of power, the depth of the world’s structural violence, our limitless capacity for self-delusion and hypocrisy.
In other words, Scorn is a witty and acerbic novel that tells the truth, that seeks to animate rather than console. That in itself provides reasons to rejoice, particularly in an era when humanity’s gargantuan appetite for cruelty and stupidity is draped in dazzling robes of blood-red splendour.
ISBN 9781911195436 (pbk) | ISBN 9781911195351 (hbk) | ASIN B0752P8TZM (ebook)