Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Company

K. J. Parker
Orbit (

The inside of K. J. Parker’s head must be a lovely place, filled with sweetness, warmth and fuzzy bunnies. I assume as such, because it seems that any bad thought which might arise there is swiftly plucked out and pinned to the page, where it lays down dark and wizened roots which suck all the goodness out of its surroundings. So it is we’ve been presented with such bleak horrors as a man who constructs a bow from the bones and tendons of his nephew, a wanderer who brings plague following in his wake, and an engineer who designs a war to depopulate entire continents for the sole purpose of being reunited with his wife and child.

So when I say that The Company is Parker’s bleakest and most horrific work yet, you know I’m not messing about. It may also be her greatest, but there’s no doubt at all that it’s her most inaccessible. Part of what sets it apart is that for the first time Parker’s focus is not solely on a single character, but on the five surviving men of A company, living legends who survived not only because of their lethal competence but because, it sometimes seems, they simply don’t know how to die.

But they don’t know how to live, either; the back-cover subtitle of The Company reads ‘the war is never over’, and for these men there is no greater truth. Their attitude pervades the entire book, as every encounter, every scene is couched in military terminology and the metaphors of the battlefield - no matter how ill-fitting, or inappropriate, or banal.
‘After the visitor had left, she asked him, “Who was that?”
Inevitably. He marshalled his face and mustered his words. “Old army friend of mine,” he said, picking up an empty cup and taking it over to the washstand. It was a valiant effort but tactically unsound; he never washed up dirty crockery.’
Parker’s great strength as a writer has always been the way in which she layers metaphor over her plots, blending form and function with a singularity of purpose which makes her novels almost transcendental, and again she shows herself a master of the unorthodox point of view. Yet in The Company the multiplicity of protagonists blur and blend into one in a way which reduces them to components of the greater whole, curiously interchangeable. Is it Aidi or Alces who ran a fencing school after the war, Muri or Kudei who ended up working in the tannery among the filth and stench? Is that the point – that these men whose only achievement is destruction are somehow one? That all they are is weapons, stamped out on the production line? Only Kunessin, who first proposes that the group abandon their hollow post-war existences and colonise an uninhabited island somewhere off the coast, truly stands out to any extent – and that only because we are invited early on to share his secrets, to become complicit in the systematic betrayal of his fellow veterans.

Normally such blurred characterisation would make it difficult to identify with and sympathise with a novel’s characters, but that isn’t a problem here – I suspect because it’s not intended we should sympathise with them at all. Parker has always taken her reader deep inside the heads of her characters, but it’s a one-sided sort of focalisation in which only the grubbier kind of insights float to the surface. There is no happiness, no empathy, none of the pleasure that comes of a job well done. Only misunderstanding and incomprehension, stripping the leaves from the trees and the colour from the sky and earth. Parker’s world is a cold, grey, dead one, where trust and human kindness are alien concepts. The lyrical abstractions with which she paints her scene prevent the reader from forming a firm image of the world, just as it keeps the reader from forming a firm image of the characters which inhabit it. This deeply stylised form holds the reader at a distance from the world inside the novel, but that sometimes seems to be the very point. By painting in abstract Parker forces the reader’s imagination into active engagement with the novel out of sheer desperation, and the world we build in our heads is as much ours as it is hers – making us, again, wholly complicit in its brutality. Barthes would have been thrilled to see the wall between reader and author so eroded.

Yet there’s a grim humour to Parker’s writing, and the way even the most competent of characters seem to never set foot inside their comfort zone but instead go through life in a state of mild confusion might even have been endearing if it weren’t for the novel’s uncompromising nihilism. They aren’t bad people, as such, but the damage they inflict on one another through sheer lack of empathy is horrific. Again, the critical point is that those point-of-view characters who do show themselves competent are never shared with us while they do so – they are only looked upon by others, and by association by the reader, as if looking at alien and unknowable gods. Yet when the point of view switches to that character and he looks upon the previous focal point with the same unease at their effortless competence, the logic is inescapable: nobody knows anything. Skill, intelligence, wit: all are meaningless in the face of a hostile universe.

The flawed assumption that someone, somewhere must know what’s going on is a theme The Company shares with that other great novel of wartime anarchy, Catch-22. But where Joseph Heller approaches his subject in prose dancing lightly through a hail of absurdities, Parker is hauling her wounded theme through the cloying mud of no-man’s land. Shit happens, and traditional concepts of narrative would tell us it has to happen for a reason – we need to complete the circle, feel a sense of closure. But sometimes shit just… happens. There’s no hope, no sense of justice or closure. Postmodern it may be, but the utter pointlessness of The Company’s violence seems as close as art’s ever likely to get to holding a mirror up to life. That war is hell is the oldest cliché of military fiction, but that doesn’t rob it of its truth – and in The Company it’s a hell which will last for ever and ever, world without end, amen. Don’t expect to come up smiling; be thankful if you come up at all.

This review was originally written for