The Lime Twig by John Hawkes (Shane's book 17, 2011)

Lost in the Funhouse marked the beginning of a small exploration of experimental and post-modern fiction. I followed it with The Lime Twig, the sixth novel by John Hawkes, which seems not to be very well known, from what I can tell. It's obscurity is undeserved. [amtap book:isbn=0811200655]

Hawkes' was clear about his approach to fiction: "I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained."There is a plot here - and character, setting and theme, for that matter - but Hawkes blurs and smears them with woozy, dreamlike writing. The result is a little like James M Cain or Jim Thompson seen through a broken mirror. There's a nightmarish, feverish quality to the book.

Hawkes' publishers, fearing the readers wouldn't have a clue what he was on about, insisted that the author make things clearer. He responded by inserting news reports from sports journalist Sidney Slyter at the beginning of each chapter. To anyone who has read, say, Gravity's Rainbow, this feels like unnecessary handholding and by comparison Hawkes' narrative feels like a masterpiece of clarity.

Gravity's Rainbow had not been written at this point, to be fair, but Ulysses had so you'd think Hawkes' publishers would have been a little more understanding. In any case, the Slyter sections, though they do feel a little like those 'previously on…' montages that preface TV shows, increase the postmodern quotient considerably.

Set in England shortly after the Second World War, The Lime Twig is the story of a horse-racing scam fronted by William Hencher, a small-time criminal who is involved with a more serious gang of crooks. Hencher rents a room from Michael and Margaret Banks and he draws them into the scheme. Needless to say, things go bad very quickly and soon get worse.

How bad things get is not always clear. Hawkes leaves out a lot of the key developments of the plot, leaving the reader to piece things together. That only adds to the nightmare quality of the piece. Reading it is a strange experience. Hawkes writes in an allusive, poetic fashion, which at times serves to distance the reader from the narrative. At other times events in the novel seem to come sharply - and brutally - into focus.

Something about this novel isn't entirely successful but I can't quite put my finger on what. I think that Sidney Slyter's interventions serve to make The Lime Twig, well, slighter. Even so, it's still an engaging and intriguing book.