Part of a projected trilogy, Beast dramatizes the plight of a refugee caught within chaos.
Disenchanted by his efforts to save the planet, Paul Kingsnorth retreats. He co-founded the Dark Mountain Project, a “global network of writers, artists, and thinkers in search of new stories for a world on the brink,” which explores what ideas, images and narratives may sustain humanity during its doom. Instead of hope, Kingsnorth counsels engagement. His new essay collection’s title sums up his stance: Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Released in tandem, his novel Beast sustains disorienting responses of awe and woe from a recluse trapped on an Earth whose men and women poison and poke. Part of a projected trilogy, it dramatizes the plight of a refugee caught within chaos.
In 2014’s The Wake, Kingsnorth reduced his English word-hoard to its Anglo-Saxon origins, conveying the consciousness of Buccmaster of Holland in the fenlands of Lincolnshire. He and a small guerrilla band fight back in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as its troops and bureaucrats wipe out the native language and laws. Limiting his vocabulary in a manner reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker, Kingsnorth conveys in Beast the mindset of a desperate fugitive.
The forest offers no idyll. Neither does the shack near the moor where Buccmaster of Holland’s presumed descendant, a thousand years on, has sought uneasy refuge. Instead of warriors or judges, the titular foe Edward Buckmaster fends off remains occluded. Literally, for whatever bestial threat it assumes, this beast lurks less in sight than in sense. Buckmaster finds its tracks crossing his path in a nearby village. “I brushed my hand across its dust and it was as real as the thing that made it.” He tracks it in turn. His methods resemble the schemes—half-mad, half-rational—of the characters assigned exacting tasks in the skewed satires of Magnus Mills, in experimental fables such as The Restraint of Beasts.
Edward recently left the “screen-dumb” multitudes of our “dying West.” An “animal shift” towards the elemental attracts him to what is “calling us home.” At a dwelling little more than a tumbledown shed, a storm shatters its tarpaulin—and the print on the page itself. Mid-sentence, it will halt. His story resumes after a gap of two blank sheets. This conceit repeats twice, as the plot pulls Buckmaster into his hobbled pursuit of not only the mysterious beast, but his own odd impetus.
He is drawn away from shelter. Nearly starving, wearing a single outfit, he heals himself from the damage wrought by the tempest. “Broken in the broken place I had to walk into the whiteness.” Heat and glare dominate whatever this English landscape has become. No living thing is seen in the novel except a trace of the beast. The reasons for this depopulation lurk as unstated, similar to the catalyst that destroys our civilization in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Kingsnorth echoes the decaying prose of Samuel Beckett’s later prose poems, and punctuation drifts off, followed by the loss of a capital “I” as the subject linked to Buckmaster himself dissolves into an eerie oneness. This interdependence on the chaotic “nothingness” increasingly evoked as the story totters along displays to him the “essence of everything.” This revelation may terrify or it may comfort as Buckmaster undergoes his vision quest.
A reader’s patience will be tested by the logic of this pursuit, a miasma that requires an observer determined to stare down fear. The aims Kingsnorth articulates in his project, repeated in his fiction, demand a refusal of terms or actions that can be pinned down. No facile explanation will suffice, and much is left unsaid. Perhaps the conclusion of what his publisher labels as “The Buckmaster Trilogy” will explain the perplexing and unresolved encounters, which here, as in The Wake, are vividly conjured.