Brian Dillon's beautiful, minimalist prose brings a collapsing building back to life in this ambitious and unconventional novel about a woman lamenting the sudden disappearance of the man of her dreams.
Sanctuary: love among the (new) ruins
Ruins have inspired many contemporary artists. They are a well-trodden territory, a fertile soil, a common trope in western art and literature. Indeed, the last couple of decades have been marked by an enthusiastically sentimental attitude towards what is called the modern ruin or the relic of the not-so-distant past.
"The ruin reclaimed from destruction is the ruin lost," Robert Ginsberg writes in his book The Aesthetics of Ruins, capturing in one short sentence the contradictory, contemporary desire of many to preserve derelict spaces - from dilapidated power stations to condemned apartment blocks - in some vaguely romantic haze. For Brian Dillon, a Dublin-born author living in England, ruins are, however, simply a challenging topic to write about, as Sanctuary, his fiction debut, convincingly underscores.
The sanctuary of his title is a collapsing building on the outskirts of an unnamed city, built in the 1960s as a Catholic seminary and abandoned some 20 years later. The setting may suggest that the book was conceived as an exercise in retro-futurism, a depiction of nostalgia for the "future that never came to be". Indeed, the recent rush towards ruin-inspired writing, particularly in Britain, stems from this very phenomenon.
If WG Sebald, wandering around the eastern coast of England in the early 1990s, was once perceived as an eccentric figure drawn to disused windmills and boarded-up shops, by now, such pursuits have become fairly mainstream. This year saw the publication of Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which eulogises decaying grey areas between city and countryside. Patrick Wright's A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, was first published in 1991, before being reissued in 2009. Even two decades ago, Wright was already aware of "an interest in debris and human fallout [that] is part of the New Baroque sensibility, shared by young Apocalyptics and played-out Marxists alike". These books are almost always politically engaged, most notably Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, which offers a passionate critique of various architectural projects hatched during the New Labour years.
Not so Sanctuary; there is no room here for blue-eyed enthusiasm, prophetic gloom or militant leftism - just beautiful, minimalist prose. The object the author's optics are trained on is so grandiose it almost gets in the way of perception, which, for an ambitious writer, is reason enough to tackle it. The site is modelled on St Peter's Seminary, built in a Glasgow suburb in 1966 and abandoned by the end of the 1980s. Dillon tries to get as close as possible to the fabric of the place in order to do justice to the building's modernism. To achieve this, he draws on modernist literature, echoing Beckett and Robbe-Grillet. The novelist Tom McCarthy calls Dillon a "writer who takes up the challenge thrown down by the nouveau roman", but the author's main strength is his own take on ruins. If they have, indeed, been exhausted as a subject, this book gives them one more chance to impress.
A nameless heroine comes to the seminary looking for her lover who, having become obsessed with the site, had made it the subject of his art project, tirelessly explored the ruin and, on his last visit, vanished. After six months of fruitless search, she still hopes to find him. We learn, however, that she has a rare condition, a scintillating scotoma, a blind spot in the human eye, whose symptoms include excruciating headaches followed by nausea and a slow recovery. Crippled with pain, the sufferer is attacked by flashing images - "jagged lines and geometric splinters [...] at the edges of the formless vague" - as a hole develops in the field of vision. Dillon sets up her character with these sensations, but supplies almost no other background details, save for this physical disturbance. It allows her, of course, to see things in a different light: "All this apprehension regarding her own body leaves her feeling removed from the world [...]. At the same time she is extremely alert to certain details and textures."
She had, it transpires, fallen in love with the hero before they first met, when editing his texts for the art magazine she works for, only to find that "there was not a word to be touched. His sentences were long, his vocabulary sometimes wilfully arcane, but the clauses were crystalline and inextricable." It is not known how much work went into the preparation of Dillon's manuscript, or whether his editor felt the same way, but reading the finished version you certainly share this sentiment; any changes would only disturb the delicate balance. The quality of his writing is best described in his own words: "rigorous but free, pared to its necessary surprises."
The missing hero is that familiar solitary figure of an "artist in landscape", eager to grasp the space around him. At first he intends to record the history of the seminary, but eventually finds himself "interested instead in the substance of the place, in the way that concrete and stone, and even earth and air, might embody or imply the ghosts of individuals and their ambitions".
He follows in the footsteps of many explorers whose devotion to their subject verges on insanity; this is highlighted in Dillon's brief nod to Tarkovski's Stalker ("approaching the Zone...", his last text message reads). The heroine has mixed feelings about his passion for the project: true, to understand a place like this requires obsession, but his total immersion in his subject is such that it makes her "wonder if she too seemed to him to be immaterial or evanescent." Of the two, she is certainly the more tangible, the more integral to the surroundings, while the hero, instead of merging with the romantic image he cultivates, disappears, as if into the black hole of her vision.
The artist's image is conjured not only in his lover's memories but also in his notes. Interspersed with the main text, they are mostly factual, in contrast with the heroine's more intuitive, visceral account. Her first impression of the building is described in a traditional manner, with no special effects:
"Above her, the interior structure of the ziggurat mirrors the outside: three floors of wooden balconies stretching laterally more than halfway towards the sanctuary extend upwards into shadows, and a crosshatched chaos of burnt wood sits at the summit. Below, the concrete remains of a diagonal staircase, from which almost every trace of steps and banisters has been burnt away, rise to an intermediate floor that covers the refectory at the southern end but stops abruptly in midair before reaching the chapel."
But as the pain sets in, she experiences the place in the way made possible only by her condition: "Everything spins above her, the tower falling away again under her feet and drilling into the earth, the whole complex suddenly thrust upwards into view, concrete and branches and glass bristling at the edges of her vision so that she sees the site whole for the first time."
By the end of the scene you cannot help but share her feelings of physical exhaustion and elation, realising that the moment will stay in your memory as vividly as if you were there in the flesh.
Throughout, Sanctuary strikes one with its unique style achieved without sacrificing the rigour of traditional prose, and a question arises, is this conventional or experimental writing?
Dillon seems to be aware of the dangers both hold - to him, neither suffices. His prose is clear, precise, laconic, measured: no space-fillers used, no liberties taken. He never wanders on the page, always knowing exactly what he wants to say. Being avant-garde is not simply a matter of being different: you need to know your conventions inside out before you can get rid of them and do something original, much in the same way as you have to know your ruins before you can step into and out of them. These are the two rules Dillon follows in his book to ensure that the image of the space he creates remains on your retina as a series of flashes, scintillating long after the artist is gone.
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.