It would have been possible to live for an entire year at the villa without ever hearing a single human voice.
The first thing any potential reader of this book ought to be aware of is that there is a lot of fucking. And when I say fucking, I say it advisedly: this isn’t romance. About 50% of the sex scenes are descriptions of porn videos. Nor is Ian Parkinson a euphemistic soul: I’ll keep the quotations to a minimum, but there’s no “throbbing engine of love” here—it is “penis” and “vagina” all the way. (Sometimes “glans”, which is so far in the opposite direction from euphemistic that it takes on its own sort of comedic value.)
Although The Beginning of the End is, then, sexually explicit, I would argue that it is so for a good reason. The narrator and protagonist, Raymond, engages in and describes industrial quantities of sex as a mere byproduct of his more serious problem: chronic loneliness. Raymond is a product designer working for Siemens in Belgium, and he is already quite an odd duck from the first paragraph:
I always wondered whether I was going to find the body of a young woman while I was out walking the dog. That’s how they’re found every other week on the evening news—by men walking their dogs. I liked the idea of visiting the corpse every other week to see how things were progressing. I didn’t see why you had to go and immediately call the police. Besides, it would have given me something to do.
Raymond isn’t precisely a psychopath, despite this unpromising start; he’s awkward, apathetic and fearful of talking to people, making him friendless and more or less incapable of non-transactional relationships with women. The whole novel is a working-out of the implications of this handicap on a person’s life. Although never diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder or specific mental illness over the course of the novel, Raymond’s behaviour and personality are clear indicators of an untreated condition. That Ian Parkinson, as a debut novelist, has been interested enough in the consequences of going untreated to write this book says a great deal for him already.
Raymond’s only contact at work, an IT assistant called Bernard, suggests that he visit Thailand as an alternative to Belgian porn websites and an unrequited crush on a younger female colleague. The holiday yields an arranged marriage; Raymond’s new wife, Joy, is an aspiring porn star whose marriage visa will allow her to live and work in the EU. But Raymond’s father dies just before the wedding, leaving his villa by the sea in his will. It’s not as nice as it sounds: subsidence and erosion are causing seaside homes to slide into the ocean year on year. The property will require renovation and maintenance. To renovate and maintain property demands initiative, perseverance, and a sense of responsibility. None of these are qualities which Raymond possesses.
Living separately from Joy, who is now breaking into the Dutch and German porn industries, Raymond makes a start on the cottage, but quickly descends into daytime drinking, daytime television, reliance on unspecified prescription medication, and microwave dinners. One of the strengths of Parkinson’s writing is how absolutely it captures a sense of bleak inertia, that sucking encroachment of indifference to everything, which characterizes extreme depression:
It was three o’clock in the morning. Joy was probably in bed. I went into the kitchen and put a meal-for-one into the microwave, one from the Italian range, tagliatelle with wild boar sausage and parmesan. The kitchen looked disgusting. The sink was piled with plates and dishes and the bin was overflowing with half-eaten microwave meals. The remnants of a chicken curry were rotting on the floor. A few nights before, I’d seen a rat disappear behind the fridge as I turned on the light.
That deliberate flatness in the writing, factual and unflinching, reflects what we know of Raymond’s character: his slight oddness, his lack of self-awareness or self-analytical skills, and his propensity for passivity. It’s a clever move, creating a tight relationship between plot and character through the narrative voice. For a character who is defined by his isolation, especially, it works well.
One of the more interesting elements of this book, too, is its glancing—albeit obliquely—at modern sex work, how it intersects with the amateur swinger/BDSM scene, and the more general societal connection of sex and violence. Because Raymond is such an unreflective character, none of this is given to the reader directly; instead, we make inferences about the normalization of sexual violence through Raymond’s descriptions of the pornography he watches, of the sexual encounters that he and Joy engineer with other Belgian couples, and of a significant plot point which I won’t give away except to say that it involves violence against women. There is also the question of Joy’s authenticity: she is a very good porn actress, a skilled professional who gains a cult following, and pornography is certainly portrayed as a professional industry like any other, at least in Europe. Yet her premarital life in Thailand is also hinted at, and it doesn’t give the impression of an atmosphere where sex workers are necessarily autonomous. Raymond finds a picture of Joy’s baby son, left behind with her grandparents in a rural village; if working as a bar girl or becoming a mail-order bride was the most likely way to secure her son’s quality of life, how independent can Joy possibly have been to make that choice? These are hugely important considerations for contemporary society if it is to both respect the rights of sex workers and work to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable. None of this is straightforward, and Parkinson’s obtuse narrator succeeds in making us aware of the scale of the issue precisely by skirting around it.
In a way, The Beginning of the End is sort of a dark comedy. I particularly liked Raymond’s early complaints about the dog which he agrees to look after for his neighbour, a gay man who then kills himself and lumbers Raymond with a pet. There is also some rather poignant comedy in his discussions near the end of the book with a man called Eric:
I asked Eric if he ever went to the Carrefour Hypermarché but he said that he didn’t like Carrefour. I told him that I like Carrefour Hypermarché, but that I like going to Match sometimes because they have really interesting special offers. Eric shook his head and said that it’s good that we can disagree about things and still remain friends. I said that I knew what he meant, that going to a new supermarket can be a really strange experience.
It’s the sort of awful sad absurdity that the League of Gentlemen, for instance, might have gotten some cruel mileage out of. Instead of cruelty, though, Parkinson’s touch on the absurdity is gentle; we are allowed to feel pity, instead of disgust.
The Beginning of the End is not a cosy read, certainly, but it’s brave in subject matter and assured in style. If you are truly put off by graphic sex scenes, it’s probably not for you, but if you don’t mind that, lurking underneath the shock-and-awe tactics is a novel with something unique to say. The book has been gathering blurbs comparing it to the work of Michel Houllebecq and J.G. Ballard. I’ve never read either of those authors, but if their work is anything like Parkinson’s novel, perhaps I’ll give them a chance.
Thanks to Salt Publishing for the review copy!