Review of ‘The Dressing-Up Box’ by David Constantine

David Constantine, The Dressing-Up Box, Comma Press, £14.99

In the third short story in this collection, Siding with the Weeds, Joe goes to visit his old friend Bert. Details of place are meticulously realised; Bert lives on a cul-de-sac on an estate of ‘Sunshine Houses, all with key-hole porches, around a green’. At the back however, the gardens have gone to ruin, broken fences, dying weeds; Bert has taken to living in his shed which contains books, maps, minerals, fossils, a microscope, a photograph of a president’s son who has shot an elephant and severed its tail, and a sign saying GLORY BE TO GOD FOR THINGS THAT ROT. The assortment of articles appears random, but Joe can see there is ‘an idea in it. Yes, bringing things together like that was the work of his old friend.’

The idea is that the world would be better off without humanity. ‘Don’t you find it a beautiful, clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?’

Bert has no doubt that the elephant in the photograph has more value than his killer. ‘If I could have saved the life of only one of them I would have saved the elephant – as being more beautiful, more intelligent, more intact, more useful to his kind, and to Mother Earth herself far – oh far! less harmful.’

Bert is attempting to construct a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence on his land, so that after his death he can be laid on top of it to be eaten by birds.He is having trouble, however, with the council, who will not give him planning permission.

In a recent reading, David Constantine referred to D H Lawrence as inspiration. Constantine, like Lawrence, is a poet, novelist and short-story writer. He could have been referring, therefore, to Lawrence’s prose, but reading this collection, I was reminded of two poems in particular; The Mountain Lion:

And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion.
And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a million or two humans
And never miss them.
Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of that slim yellow mountain lion!

And Snake:

The voice of my education said to me

He must be killed…

This sensibility is evident in Siding with the Weeds, and recurs, along with other themes such as mortality, regret, the insufficiency of human culture and its deleterious effects on nature,  throughout this collection.

In bREcCiA, for instance, a visiting lecturer speaks to a U3A group about a commonplace book he has discovered. The book is huge and heavy, and consists of 366 pages of assembled photographs and print from newspapers or magazines. These cuttings are mainly from the 20th century, although the last entry is about the London bombing of 2005. The lecturer, who, we discover, has been recently widowed, has become fascinated by the ordering of the contents, which appears to be random, or at least, achronological, ‘aiming at simultaneity … a century or so of homo sapiens on earth’. The word ‘breccia’, it is explained, refers to a composite rock.

The lecturer searches for meaning in the book, since it is apparent to him that it has been put together with some skill. And why do we go to books if not for a sense of meaning? But his search for meaning is subverted by his deteriorating mind. Poignantly, he addresses his dead wife, ‘I tell you love, I don’t like it here in our empty house, my head is full to bursting, full as a poppy head but with every sort of seed…’

In part, he is searching for himself in the book, in the words and images which, like the seedpod of the poppy, proliferate and decay: ‘the dead letter sprouting, the spirit of anarchy giving it life. And the doodles, the marginalia, a devil showing his bum to a nun playing on a dulcimer, and the yearning, the yearning, dear God release us from boredom, my fingers hurt, my cock wants a say…’

Such a book might be compared to a late medieval painting by Bosch, or Brueghel the Elder. In Brueghel the Elder’s work, everyday life carries on insistently, urgently, even while miracles are happening and in the face of infinitely multiplying atrocity. In one detail of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, the shutters bear the translucent sphere of a half made universe, heavy with giant husks and seed-pods at once fecund and already decaying. The doors of the world part to reveal the eye of an owl, which is an emblem of the devil, but all seeing like the eye of God. Everyday life is bound inextricably to the monstrous and uncanny, and the result, as in this story, is the depiction of a surreal world ranging from the banal to the beautiful, the horrifying and grotesque.

In bREcCiA, however, there is no sense of the overarching scheme of religion; the lecturer searches for meaning in the book and in himself, in vain. The search will only end with death ‘I am a text proceeding, I am a sentence hurrying, or dawdling, through many subordinate clauses, to the period…’

Constantine once commented in an interview that ‘at the heart of life is horror,’ and here, and elsewhere in these stories, the horror seems to lie in a redundant search for meaning. In Seeking Refuge, for instance, the narrator, Mister Phil, takes a refugee, Fahrid, to a café. He is immediately concerned with getting the right seat, not out of concern for his guest, but for the view and the backdrop of culture. ‘At your back, either side of the lift, you have shelves and shelves of the world’s fiction and poetry.’ The books whisper to him forming ‘a benevolent susurration…in that very civilised room.’

The view of St Michael’s Church, in the grounds of which there is a chestnut tree and the council have provided a space for busking. A variety of acts appear in 15 minute slots and Mister Phil is particularly entranced by a young acrobat ‘that child slowly dancing on one flat hand on a board in her own arena while life passed in haste across the shopfronts or halted spellbound in an arc around her’.

In contrast, Fahrid wants to show him a video on his phone, of a twelve year old diabetic boy being beheaded in a marketplace. ‘I helped him find the words and put them in the right order. I helped him, my teacher in atrocity, I helped him as his teacher in the language for it.’ Fahrid is inconsolable, shaking with grief, but ‘Mister Phil’ can’t help him with this; he can only trot out his ‘usual homily’: Your wife has started to make friends, your children are doing very well at school…’. Through the window now there is a group of Gospel singers, and an imam handing out cards and a young man riding a wheel along a tightrope. ‘Mister Phil,’ Fahrid said, UK very good place.’

Mister Phil and Fahrid part, but the Mister Phil still feels the imprint of the encounter; his head is still full of it. The final image is of small children kayaking on the river and one little Afghani boy, who smiles up at Mr Phil, then disappears ‘with sudden speed.’

In this story as in others, the human capacity for art, and individual artistry is juxtaposed with humanity’s capacity for horror. As in bREcCiA, the images are made resonant by juxtaposition, a technique deployed to great effect throughout the collection. It makes up, to some extent, for the inadequacy of language to fully bridge the gaps between cultures or between one human being and another, as in The Phone Call. This isa finely-wrought story in which Constantine revisits the terrain that made him famous; the places where the fabric of a long marriage has worn thin. In the telling last sentence of this story, Jack says to his wife, ‘Chris, you’re not going funny on me again, are you?’ Chris is not given a voice with which to reply.

This voicelessness is true of other characters, such as Fahrid in Seeking Refuge and of the children in the title story, The Dressing-Up Box.

In The Dressing-Up Box, some nameless disaster has occurred, and 33 children have gathered together in a ‘big safe house.’ They regulate themselves with remarkable orderliness into three groups, foragers, sentries and the workers who take care of the smaller children and prepare food. Although the groups are called tribes, this is not the Lord of the Flies; the children work together, protect and care for one another, maintaining food and educational routines. All menace comes from the outside world, where the streets are deserted apart from patrolling vehicles, the weather, and the cellar where ‘slithering, and scratching’ can be heard.

The story begins with the arrival of a young boy who speaks only through his glove puppet, which is a monkey, and who is known only as Monkey. He is the one who finds the dressing-up box with its inexhaustible supply of costumes angels, dragons, snails, mermaids, the ‘opening of a source that would always replenish and never end’ – the potential for a never-ending metamorphosis.

The three tribes entertain one another by dressing up and putting on performances although there is little dialogue and no plot. In a sense the dressing up itself, the performance and metamorphosis, becomes a kind of language, or medium of self-expression not yet trammelled by society. Monkey speaks only through his glove puppet and other children use remnants of an older, adult language ‘Lux in tenebris, (Nadeen) said…The glove monkey chortled, Oh my word, oh my stars and garters, oh my giddy aunt, whatever next?’

In the end, there is capitulation to the untrustworthy adult world and this is shaded in sadness and fear. One of the key juxtapositions of this collection, insistently repeated, in e.g. Neighbourhood Watch, Autumn Tresses or the more disturbing When I Was A Child, is the contrast between childhood goodness, vitality, innocence and adult depravity, corruption or banality. It is one of the rare notes that I found untrue, or trite. It perhaps stems from a preoccupation with theme or image, and the use of the image to generate contrast.

The other slightly grating note is that in stories such as Rivers of Blood or Siding with the Weeds, I had the sense, perhaps because of the insistency of certain themes, that certain characters are being used as mouthpieces, or that the character’s voice is somehow conflated with the author’s own, rather than being rooted in an observed portrayal.

Otherwise observation is a real strength of this collection. It is regularly applied to the interior lives of characters. In bREcCiA, for instance, the lecturer’s talk has gone down well, yet he feels a profound relief at being alone again followed by a ‘familiar vague regret and deepening sadness.’ And in What We Are Now, Sylvia accompanies her husband to a lecture at her old university and feels a ’fear and confusion through which pulsed a quick curiosity, the desire to learn and seize what her life needed,’ a complex of feeling in an ‘unstable mix’, beautifully rendered. And in terms of the physical world, the description of the cold buffet of several decades ago in Midwinter Reading can hardly be bettered; Constantine excels at the use of the tangible detail.

The juxtapositions in Midwinter Reading are those of character and place. The unnamed narrator, for instance, appears to be dead, but addressing a living audience. She begins her story by saying ‘Towards the end of my life I came to give a reading at a house on a Barratt estate somewhere in Birmingham.’ The host of the reading is Robert, who resembles a Hell’s Angel, but has a picture of Christ at Gethsemane on his wall, and another of the young queen Elizabeth II. Robert attends to the small event as if it were a sacrament. ‘I stared at his big hands, she said. That in them should be such delicacy, patience and attention brought tears to my eyes. Hours of work. And before those hours the forethought, the shopping…’

At his reading Constantine talked about what the sacred might mean to an atheist. This includes the kind of persistent efforts that are made for no reward but for a greater good, or for the sake of truth. Most art that is unrewarded or unrecognised could be included in this definition. The unnamed narrator of Midwinter Reading says of herself that she is ‘not famous…I never had much of a following. Quite often I’ve journeyed many miles and read to two or three people. Once nobody at all turned up…’

Yet in these unnoticed efforts, and unsung people, Constantine finds the sacred. At the end of her narration the writer sees Robert again, as through a mist, ‘but could make out only that he was bending over the tables, away from her. He’s taking the cling-film off the little sandwiches, she said to herself. He’s seeing to the coffee and the tea. How sad that I can’t eat or drink. How sad that I cannot partake.’

And with this apposite use of the intransitive verb, with its connotations of sacrament and participation, Constantine picks the perfect final note to a short but complex narrative of devotion and loss. The narrator and Robert, almost equally displaced, have to create their own contexts by means of a dedication which although not religious in itself, bears all the marks of a religious calling.

Constantine’s characters are frequently displaced, his contexts defamiliarize, his use of the image emphasises the lack of cohesion, or coherence, in man-made culture. The worlds he creates are heterotopic, yet within each one he generates skilfully, often with minimal brushstrokes, the sense of a whole life, as in the short stories of Raymond Carver. In Siding with the Weeds, for instance, Bert speaks briefly of his neighbour Freddie: ‘he’s been a recluse for years. He’d come out at night sometimes, and if it was a night when I couldn’t sleep I might see him in his ruined garden. He wore his trilby and his greatcoat, for all the world as if he were going travelling, which he never was…I never saw a man so good at standing still…

So Freddie, peripheral, rebarbative, absorbed in his own, unknowable preoccupations, springs to life on the page, created with an abrasive tenderness that finds grace in the ordinary, the marginal and forgotten.