“[Art] is one way of having a quarrel with the world,” opines the nameless narrator of Eating Air, Pauline Melville’s third literary offering since her prize-winning debut novel Shape-Shifter. “Art is what those of us do who are too frightened to be terrorists.” Various dramatic aphorisms of the like, with a theatricality that appears to emanate naturally from the former actress in Melville, pepper her work like incandescent raindrops, periodically illuminating her steady prose in a commanding tone that both intimates truth and begs deliberation. In this ambitious musing on the various magnetisms and perils of political extremism, Melville offers her own stab at social provocation, prompting readers to consider the facets of revolution in a number of humanistic contexts.
The novel charts a cluster of tenuously connected individuals and their encounters with activism, which range from mild flirtations to torrid obsessions, from the 1970s to the present day. Diaphanous, pensive ballerina Ella de Vries gleams as a Venus figure, while a loose reinterpretation of themes from The Bacchae sees Donny McLeod cast as Dionysus, a belligerent, feral anti-hero with a severe case of wanderlust. Other notable characters in the gallimaufry include jaded ex-radical Hector Rossi, gritty anti-capitalist Mark Scobie, fame-hungry playwright Victor Skynnard, and cryptic narrator Baron S, who recounts sotto voce the antics that see the story flit frenetically between London, Surinam, and Milan.
While her shrewdly designed medley of characters warrants applause in its own right—indeed, relationships are woven like threads on a finely crafted cobweb, gossamer connections that manage to remain steadfast despite a number of rocky circumstances—the real linchpin of the novel is Melville’s mastery of diction. In a world where “everything’s dead” and “nobody seems to be awake,” a sprinkling of striking nuances serves to soften the novel’s harsh ideologies. Luscious imagery—a “milky” sea that “gives sluggish sucks at the shore,” “diadems of raindrops” that “tremble” on surfaces—confers pathos to otherwise ordinary scenes, and a recurring reference to of the eponymous sentiment of “eating air,” which alludes to passages by both Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath, rouses enlightened and sometimes troubling revelations about self.
Through various characters’ failed attempts to evoke the halcyon days of 1970s radicalism, Melville posits modern attempts at activism—i.e. religious extremism and terrorism—as desperate stands against the waning zeitgeist of revolution in the twenty-first century. For characters living at a time when “everything we feared from communism is being brought about by capitalism: bland uniformity, cloned cities, secret prisoners, omnipresent surveillance,” the classic pen vs. sword adage becomes their last stab at recapturing the glory of rebellion. Indeed, the narrator’s concluding dictum says it all: “A work of fiction is a way of committing a crime, getting away with it and then boasting about it afterwards.” If Eating Air constitutes Melville’s transgressive offering, then viva la revolución I say.
Sara Veale is a sub-editor of The Literateur.