In his introduction to Anna Kavan’s novel Ice, first published in 1967, a year before her death, Christopher Priest describes it as a work of ‘literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type’. This genre arose in the US in the late 80s; Priest defines it as fiction that ‘induces a sense of ‘otherness’ in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror, perhaps, or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective…it imparts a sense that reality might not be quite as certain as we think.’
He names JG Ballard, Angela Carter, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Borges and others as exponents of this kind of writing. Slipstream portrays ‘images of the ordinary world through shifting mirrors and distorting lenses, without attempting to explain.’
Ice’s strangeness is apparent from the very first paragraph. An unnamed car driver learns that the unidentified country through which he is travelling is experiencing severely unseasonal cold weather. He reveals little about himself except that he has spent much of his life abroad ‘soldiering, or exploring remote areas.’ Later he appears to be involved in covert operations for the military, or in espionage.
The world is dying: it’s ‘doomed’. Ice is taking over, perhaps because of some obscure scientific mishap, or else through the use of doomsday weapons:
An insane impatience for death was driving mankind to a second suicide, even before the full effect of the first had been felt.
Our first person narrator, the man in the car, is obsessively searching for a girl with moon-white hair and alabaster skin. ‘I needed to see her; it was vital’, he reveals, but never says why.
She is fragile and thin, and appears cowed, crushed. We’re told she had been treated cruelly as a child by her mother; she is a ‘victim’, with ‘no will’ of her own. When she disappears the narrator abandons all his own affairs to search for her: ‘Nothing else mattered.’ His urgency is increased by ‘the approaching emergency’.
But the almost plotless narrative constantly implodes. What appears to be a narrative line suddenly disappears. In mid-scene we are taken somewhere else, possibly in flashback – or possibly leaping forwards in time: the transition is never explained. With the surreal logic of a dream these shifts render what’s just happened irrelevant or inexplicable.
The man feels compelled to find the girl, but she is inaccessible or hidden away. For much of the novel she is in the power of a brutal warlord known as the warden. He treats her like a prisoner. He abuses her psychologically and sexually. The narrator eventually manages to spirit her away, but he too treats her badly. She fears and detests them both.
At times the identities of the searching man and the cruel warden appear to merge; at times he doesn’t seem to know which one he is. She finds it impossible to distinguish between them and their dastardly treatment of her: ‘there’s no difference’ between them, she says. The narrator’s grasp of reality is tenuous:
My ideas were confused. In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.
Soon after this moment he becomes aware of ‘an odd sort of fragmentation of my ideas.’ Then again, ‘this was the reality, and those other things the dream.’ Later:
Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been imagined or dreamed. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.
I found the novel weirdly compelling. It has a crazed logic of its own: the novel’s world is, as the narrator says, ‘a field of strangeness where no known laws operated.’ The searching man’s obsessive quest has the manic grandeur of Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale.
I’ve written about two other Anna Kavan books: Julia and the Bazooka is a collection of short stories which frequently deal with her addiction to heroin. The Parson has some of the strangeness of Ice.
Priest insists that this novel is not just an extended metaphorical account of Kavan’s heroin addiction, that the ice is not the drug, the girl (victim and holy grail) is not the drug. But I couldn’t help finding this a satisfactory way of interpreting the narrator’s hallucinatory compulsion to find the elusive girl; his obsession causes him more suffering than pleasure, and he abandons her when he does achieve his goal:
When I considered that imperative need if felt for her, as for a missing part of myself, it appeared less like love than an inexplicable aberration, the sign of some character-flaw I ought to eradicate, instead of letting it dominate me.
She’s described like those models a few years ago who earned the unpleasant label ‘heroin chic’: skinny, haunted, bruised.
On the other hand I agree that such a reading fails to account for all of the novel’s bizarre layers and surreal motifs (such as the narrator’s fascination with singing lemurs: the Indris). It can also be seen as an effective protofeminist allegory: just as the world’s men bring about global disaster with their suicidal weapons and Cold War ‘collective death-wish’, so they reify women; the girl-victim is a cipher for the warden and the narrator: she’s their prey, and their aim is to dominate and control her, to possess her, stifle her individuality and identity. They are sadistic bullies, as threatening as the ice-fields that are advancing across the earth’s surface.
There is an excellent review of Ice at Max’s blog Pechorin’s Journal; he gives a much fuller account of the apocalyptic plot than I have here, and an interesting view of ‘slipstream’. He also includes a link to John Self’s review at Asylum blog.
My thanks to Peter Owen publishers, who sent me a copy of this novel as a prize in their online competition: follow them on Facebook.