Richard Beard: Damascus

Richard Beard

Blame Martin Amis. In the inventive spirit of Amis's 1991 novel Time's Arrow, which told its story in reverse, another young Briton, Richard Beard, has attempted to tell the stories of complete lives within the tight time frame of a single day. Beard's novel, Damascus, features a cast of characters who concurrently exist at several different ages, all within the course of a strange day. Spencer Kelly and Hazel Burns, for instance, meet at age 12, flirt over the phone at age 19, and wake up in the same bed at 25--all on November 1, 1993.

Although this young British writer is attempting a story of simultaneity, the narrative he threads through his frozen moment is clear and linear: Spencer and Hazel, born on the same day (guess which one), first cross paths at the age of 12 and fall into a momentary, childish love. For the next 13 years, the two talk constantly on the phone but almost never interact in person, until they wake up next to each other one morning. They prepare to spend the next day determining whether their relationship is simply a lonely fling or their "Damascus," by which Beard means a drastic, percussive, life-changing event. It turns out that chance has its own plans for them. Spencer's niece Grace needs to be entertained, and William Welsby, an elderly man too terrified of the world to step outside, needs some counseling and companionship. And Henry Mitsui, a sociopath who has become obsessed with Hazel after taking a correspondence class from her, is tracking her down, an envelope of poison in his pocket.

By compressing these events into a single day, Beard seems to be groping toward a theory about viewing one's actions in relation to personal history and whether lives change gradually or suddenly. Unfortunately, the device never reaches its full potential. Since the stuttering biographies of Spencer and Hazel never interact significantly with another, their stories feel simply like flashbacks with the years shifted forward. And other than some token mentions of the day's news--the beginning of European unification, the deaths of River Phoenix and Federico Fellini--the characters never engage with the history they're stuck in. Clever devices aside, this kind of timelessness or ahistoricism is the norm, not the exception, of modern narratives. (How many sitcoms that take place today could have been set 20 years ago simply by digitally recoloring the clothing and the refrigerators?)

If Beard were to have scrapped his pomo pretensions and given his histories some proper dates, his work would have remained strong: He writes with a wry, perceptive voice, and he has an affinity for the ambiguities of conversation and the rhythms of personal thoughts. As is, the insecurities and aimlessness of Spencer and Hazel still make Damascus a witty, engaging story. It's just a shame he felt it necessary to conceal his modest, charming novel in such glitzy wrapping.

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