Review by New York Times Review
ANNA KAVAN'S "ICE" is a book like the moon is the moon. There's only one. It's cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach. It may even seem to be following you. It is a book that hides, and glints, like "the girl" who is at the center of its stark, fable-like tableau of catastrophe, pursuit and repetition-compulsion. The tale might seem simple: a desperate love triangle played out in a world jarred into ecocatastrophe by political and scientific crimes. The narrator, whose resolute search for the girl might appear at first benign or even heroic, nonetheless slowly converges with the personality and motives of the sadistic, controlling "warden," who is the book's antagonist and the narrator's double. Though "Ice" is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror. I first located "Ice" in a usedbook store, in its first American edition, published by Doubleday in 1970 after Kavan's death, and introduced by Brian Aldiss, who called it science fiction. This was during the time in my reading life when I was trying so hard to find something more like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. But "Ice" wasn't more of anything. I doubt it helps for it to be categorized as science fiction, or to be categorized at all. Even given Anna Kavan's remarkable life story, and amid her shelf of coolly anguished fiction, "Ice" stands alone. Kavan wasn't her real name - or perhaps I should say it wasn't her first name. Born Helen Woods to an upper-class British family, then twice miserably married to older alcoholics, she published several novels under her firstmarried name, Helen Lerguson. Erom these books, which were precise and despairing, if conventional by the standard of her later writing, she seized for her selfinvention the name of her own autobiographical character: Anna Kavan. The details of her long traipse through wartime exile, multiple suicide attempts, psychiatric incarcerations and decades of heroin addiction could fill books; Kavan filled 16 novels with them, though her preference was to sublimate autobiography into pensive, dislocated and somewhat numbed tableaus. The frozen disaster overtaking the planet in "Ice" evokes that Cold-War, bomb-dreading, postwar 20th century we still, in many ways, live inside; it echoes images as popular as episodes of Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" or Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle." The presentation is scattered with scenes of war, civil unrest and collective societal dysfunction, both vivid and persuasive. During World War II Kavan journeyed by steamer slowly to New Zealand and various ports, including New York, and at last returned to England. A realistic novelist might have made some epic like Olivia Manning's Balkan and Levant trilogies from this, but Kavan wasn't a maker of epics, and was accompanied not by a colorful husband but by her own violent solitude. A crushed-down and imagistic epic of flight may lurk in the interstices of "Ice," in fact. Yet as in Kafka, Poe and Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled," the essential disturbance resides in an inextricable interplay between inner and outer worlds. Kavan's commitment to subjectivity was absolute, but in this, her greatest novel, she manages it by disassociation. If "the girl" is in some way a figure of Kavan's own vulnerability, she's also a cipher, barely glimpsed, and as exasperating as she is pitiable. It's been suggested that the "ice" in "Ice" translates to a junkie's relationship to her drug, yet the book is hardly reducible to this or any other form of allegory. Heroin may be integral to the book, hiding everywhere in plain sight and yet somehow also beside the point. The drama of damage and endurance in "Ice" plays out in an arena of dire necessity and, somehow simultaneously, anomic, dispassionate curiosity. What makes this not only possible, but also riveting and unforgettable, is Kavan's meticulous, compacted style. The book has the velocity of a thriller yet the causal slippages associated with high modernist writing like Beckett's or Kafka's. The whole presentation is dreamlike, yet even that surface is riven by dream sequences, and by anomalous ruptures in point-of-view and narrative momentum. At times this gives the reader the sensation that "Ice" works like a collage or mash-up; perhaps William Burroughs has been given a go at it with his scissors and paste pot. By the end, however, one feels at the mercy of an absolutely precise and merciless prose machine, one simply uninterested in producing the illusion of cause and effect. In the place of what's called "plot," Kavan offers up a recursive system, an index of reaction points as unsettling and neatly tailored as a sheaf of Rorschach blots. The book's nearest cousins, it seems to me, are "Crash," Ballard's most narratively discontinuous and imagistic book, or cinematic contemporaries like Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad." It'll stick around, as those have, and it may even cut deeper. Like the moon, but with sharp edges. Even given Anna Kavans remarkable life story, 'Ice' stands alone. JONATHAN LETHEM is the author of 10 novels, including "A Gambler's Anatomy." This Critic's Take is adapted from his introduction to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of "Ice," by Anna Kavan, which will be published in November.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 29, 2017]