School for Scoundrels: A book review of The Well Deceived, a novel by Isaac Kuhnberg
The haunted and haunting image on the cover of The Well Deceived, Isaac Kuhnberg’s blistering novel of conformity and rebellion, represents, we must take it, William Riddle, the antihero whose journey through a ‘privileged’ education sees him at once internalizing its class-ridden values and resisting instinctively its brutalities, hypocrisies and evasions. Kuhnberg has created a strange parallel world to our own, sordid, sinister and bleak beyond words, yet full of laughs and stuffed with allusion, complete in every way except for one thing: the female gender does not exist.
English culture – literature, film and television – is a fount of public school mythology. From at least the nineteenth century onwards, it was celebratory and unabashed in the service of Empire and Class. Later on, as certainties crumbled amid social upheaval and popular resistance, it was subverted to parody and ridicule – it is quite a way from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to If…. and Tomkinson’s Schooldays, despite the commonality of ubiquitous bullying. Yet Harry Potter is the product of such a system and is a hero. Downton Abbey is his world as much as ours. Public schoolboys still hold the reigns of power.
And some experiences are so awful, so threatening, so full of fearful consequence, that we feel compelled to keep them at a psychic distance to protect ourselves. So, for example, we might employ a Brechtian strategy that erects a barrier of formality around our feelings, as happens in Hitchcock’s late masterpiece, Frenzy (1972). Or we can take refuge in myth and imagination as fuel for rebellion, as in Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968). Something similar seems to be at work in The Well Deceived, which apparently is inspired by the author’s own experiences of public school. Rather than attempting to describe those experiences directly, The Well Deceived evokes another world, another British Isles, that is sufficiently different to be strange, but sufficiently similar to be familiar. By doing so, it reveals the power dynamics that manipulate normality for the benefit of the few: ‘democracy’, class, morality and wealth are each used and abused to maintain the status quo.
The world of The Well Deceived is cheerless, cold and uncomfortable, rather like the squalid descriptions of Hell provided by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (1942). Except in the homes of the wealthy, everything is tasteless, and there is nothing beautiful upon which to rest the eye. It is a world of ‘pink tablecloth[s], over which [is] stretched a weathered covering of yellowing transparent plastic, secured to the table-edges with red plastic clips.’ The food is equally bland and nauseating, but somewhere at the back of all this lies nostalgia for a cosy domesticity: manual lawnmowers and carpet sweepers, the ‘sagging brown net of the luggage rack’ in a train.
Welcome to Anglia, whose five centuries of recorded history may or may not be a continuation of our own times – whether something happened to make history start over, whether Anglia and the contiguous northern appendage of Alba are an irreal island in time and space, remains obscure. However, the topography of the twin towns of Ensor and Bune, separated by the River Flux, sounds like Windsor and Eton, and the students at Bune wear Etonian ‘gleaming toppers’.
In addition, there are stories about an obese boy named Barnaby Bumble (Billy Bunter?), a description of a painting that could have been by Thomas Gainsborough, and the inebriate painter Higgins produces nudes like those of Lucian Freud and lives life as a cross between Francis Bacon and Walter Sickert. Above all, there is the revered Bard, Andrew Wagstaffe, whose Tarquin, Prince of Antibia is half-brother to Hamlet, and whose statue sports stockings that are ‘cross-gartered’ in the manner of Malvolio from Twelfth Night.
Early on, William takes a holiday with his father, an irascible scientist understandably annoyed by officialdom’s disdain for science:
And for the next three days it seemed that happiness was something that could be created magically, out of thin air, and that a limitless supply of it was waiting for me in the future.
This is the last he shall see of happiness. William is sent to Bune, where he knows right from the start he does not fit in:
Their voices were all so self-assured, so confidently Anglian, so effortlessly posh – like the voices of boys heard on the wireless. I did not speak like that. I could not speak like that.
And yet, almost immediately, he begins to adopt ‘his new friends’ comportment and turns of speech and opinions as if to the manor born’ (cf. ‘Two Brothers’ in Malcolm Devlin’s You Will Grow Into Them). Eventually, he makes a special friend of Paul Purkis, who really is to the manor born, and together they construct a literary alternative to Bune, their short stories becoming increasingly scatological. But there are limits, as Purkis explains:
Some areas are off limits, don’t you see? You don’t tread there, and you don’t ask why you can’t. Learn that and you’ll be fine. Disregard it, and you’ll be out on your ear.
One of the things that cannot be spoken of is Union, a mysterious semi-medical process in which something happens to perpetuate the race. William undergoes Union, but the experience is clouded in drug-induced amnesia and clinical impersonality. There is no female gender, no one with whom to procreate. Sex is sterile because it is entirely male–male; what’s more, sexual relations are predominantly power relations that alternate between abuse and expediency.
The absence of females is never explained. There are many possible reasons for the author’s decision in this regard, but it might have been interesting to see how women dealt with the world made by men. Certainly, little of what takes place in single-sex Anglia is any worse than in multi-gender England.
William later becomes the target of the state’s wrath, personified by secret policemen, a network of spies and the faceless National Advisory Council, which is more like a national security agency. Party politics are a sham and interim coalition governments of national unity are anything but. William witnesses a political rally at which state operatives inflict violence completely at odds with media reports of the incident:
‘The truth?’ Haverhill smiled. ‘What is the truth, William?’
‘The truth is what really happened.’
‘And who’s to say what “really happened”? Certainly not you. No, William: the truth is whatever people believe it is. The truth is what people read in their newspaper.’
The Well Deceived interrogates truth, both personal and political.
The last forty pages or so are less assured than they might have been. One suspects the author was in two minds about how to end his story: it appears to be heading for a particularly satisfying conclusion, only to veer off at the last moment. Readers may also find the appendixes unnecessary. Despite this, The Well Deceived is a magnificently realized novel full of wonderful invention and wicked characterizations. From its steam-powered motor vehicles to its urban squalor, it seldom ceases to enthrall and amuse and bewilder. It is angry and sad, refusing to accept defeat although defeat is assured. Thus are we returned to the front cover, which conjures Mick Travis in the final scene of If…., machine-gunning teachers and patrons from his precarious rooftop hideaway, his face forever frozen in defiance and despair.
Clink Street Publishing | ISBN 9781912262922 (pbk) | ISBN 9781912262939 (ebook)