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While reading The Guardian's book page recently, I came across a piece by Carmen Maria Machado that was actually the preface to a newly issued book - THEY: A Sequence of Unease, by an author unfamiliar to me, Kay Dick. Dick, it appears was a well-known figure on the London literary scene in the latter half of the last century, though she suffered from bouts of writers' block. Most of her fiction appears to be little more than competent, but a brief novella, THEY: A Sequence of Unease was a different matter. Originally it did attract a minor literary prize, but it sold dismally and vanished without a trace.
Now after an accidental re-discovery and at a time when dystopias are curiously attractive, it has been re-issued in a slender paperback edition with blurbs by Margaret Atwood ("A creepily prescient tale in which anonymous mobs target artists for the crime of individual vision. Insidiously horrifying!") and Edna O'Brien ("In quick crystalline prose, with its overarching dread, THEY is the signature of an enchantress."). A lost dystopian gem by a queer bohemian monocle-wearing writer who, judging by the tenor of some of the original reviews, had been the object of sexist contempt! What could be bad?
Sadly, quite a bit. The book takes the form of a first-person narrative describing a series of visits that the unnamed narrator pays to the homes of various artists living in Sussex. The narrator is not identified in any way, though presumably is female. Since those who are persecuting artists are easier on those who live in a family, the suggestion is made that she and a male fellow artist should marry for mutual protection. If Dick were alive today, she might well have preferred the pronoun "they," and I would use it if it did not in this context refer to the forces of repression that attempt to root out all artistic expression where they find it.
As she travels from house to house, sometimes accompanied by her dog, she is observed from a distance by "they," presented as a squad of overseers on the watch for what they deem excessive individualism or devotion to artistic expression. The people she visits engage in various forms of creation - there are painters, musicians, sculptors, poets. The narrator is evidently a writer. They are all united by a single-minded dedication to the sanctity of their inspiration and pretty much indifferent to whether or not they can reach an audience of any sort.
They are in an excellent position to maintain this indifference as all of them are evidently very well off - they have nice houses, lovely gardens, and servants. They literally have honey for their tea. Were it not for "they," they would be leading a blissful existence.
But they are all under a kind of siege by "they" - and it is here that the book runs into some difficulty. Who "they" are, what empowers them, whom do they represent, all are unanswered questions. Sometimes they appear to be free-lancers who are able to impose terrible punishments on their artist victims, but who do not appear to derive their power from any definite source. At other times, they seem to be an official agency of government (they can clean out all the pictures from the National Gallery, for example). They can enforce incarceration in the "towers," where their victims are re-educated to forget their art and their desire to make it.
But Dick does not seem ready to commit on the question of what is the source of the power that "they" yield. "They" are frightening enough, but even more disturbing in some ways is the behaviour of what can really only be called ordinary people, non-artist proles who sightsee at "gleanings" when "they" are disciplining a hapless artist, going into ravaged studios, cheering as a wounded artist is removed to jail, hospital, or morgue. Dick's description of their behaviour reveals a profound and unexamined snobbishness that condemns anyone who does not devote an entire existence to making art, who does not have the income to support that way of life, who does not own a lovely home and employ multiple servants to contemptuous dismissal:
"Physically they presented a uniformity of ugliness, their movements suggested the grotesque....If nothing happened, they became a shade more fractious and let out their suppressed cruelty in mischievous violenceľanything from destroying a garden to brutalizing a stray cat. If a gleaning took place, they would swarm to the scene of destruction, titillated by every detail of the event, their faces puffy with relish. It was the only time one saw them smile."
They raise their children to be just like them, especially encouraging an indifference to the well-being of animals, domestic or wild. The children torture cats and small rodents; at one point the narrator and her friend even have to rescue a bottle of butterflies from their murderous intent. Unsurprisingly, all of the narrator's friends and she herself cherish their pet dogs.
So is this where "they" derive their power? Dick does not say. Has she concluded that the existing British lower classes are a reservoir of brutishness and insensitivity that threatens artistic creation? Are the two groups permanently at odds with one another? Hard to say - the single causative factor that she mentions, aside from the inherent inferiority of the sightseers, is that they watch too much television, though it's hard to know how much TV they could have been seeing in 1977, given that daytime programming did not begin on BBC until the 1980s and there was also no late night broadcasting on any channel until the same decade.
All the same, THEY ends on a faint note of optimism. Another artist, a writer, not the narrator, whose right arm has been amputated to prevent her from writing, is back home and valiantly practising writing with her left. Tellingly, however, she is not learning to type.
The book has been re-issued presumably because it was thought to resonate with the mood of the present moment, a mood which has darkened considerably even in the few short weeks since it reappeared. One reason why dystopias seem popular right now may be that some at least offer a bit of hope, an affirmation that all is not lost. THEY does not carry that sort of message. Indeed it seems altogether so dated in its view, so rooted in an aesthetic of pure art that one is surprised it was written in the late 70s. It belongs to a time shortly before Dick's birth in 1915, a time that the Great War demolished. What gives us hope now is the bravery and kindness of ordinary people who do what they can to stave off despair.
ž Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2022
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Contact: Yvonne Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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