Friday, November 8, 2013
Review: M/F, by Anthony Burgess
One could say that Anthony Burgess was doubly cursed when it came to recognition. He always wanted to be known as a composer of music who happened to write novels on the side rather than a writer of novels who happened to compose music on the side. Worse, the novel he was best known for—A Clockwork Orange—was something he dismissed as a minor work, a hack job he pounded out in six weeks that just happened to be made into a popular film a decade after it was published.
So which novels did Burgess want to be recognized for? Earthly Powers, his magnum opus shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was certainly up there, but so too was this slimmer, more manic picaresque, M/F, published in 1971. In fact, one might argue that M/F is, from a strictly technical standpoint, Burgess’s most accomplished work of fiction. The layering of puns, the word games, the well-timed comic barbs, the allusions to the theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Freudian symbolism—all lend credence to Burgess’ voracious intellect and versatility on the page.
M/F’s “plot”, to be sure, must be ingested with the sort of increased suspension of disbelief reserved for highly experimental novels. When Frank Kermode himself wrote that the story is difficult to synthesize, you know you’re in for a challenge. But here goes: Twenty-year-old Miles Faber has been kicked out of his New York City university after getting caught fornicating on the school’s library steps. Despite the efforts of his dead father’s lawyer to stop him, Miles sets out to the Caribbean island of Castita, where he looks to unearth the unpublished poetry of a creative genius named Sib Legeru.
The reason for his father’s posthumous attempt to thwart Miles is because strange familial connections, rooted in an act of incest, await him in Castita. Miles discovers a sister he didn’t know he had, as well as a perfect (and perfectly vulgar) doppelganger. When Miles accidently kills his double to save his sister from rape, he is forced to masquerade as him in order to trick the double’s mother, and in doing so finds himself in a position to marry his own sister. What unleashes is deeply comic exploration of the Oedipal complex, the nature of superstition, and literary power of wordplay. Like the great Greek tragedy that lends this book so much of its inspiration, M/F hinges on the solving of a riddle.
I must confess: I have but an undergraduate knowledge in the theories of Lévi-Strauss, and my tolerance for Freudian analogy can only stretch so far. Yet it is undeniable that there is a deep tendon of genius under the surface of M/F. Burgess weaves his puns and his allusions expertly and with great deliberation. Thankfully, one can read M/F simply at the level of its convoluted plot, missing much of its subtext, and still get a lot out of it. You’ll laugh. You flip the pages. And you’ll probably increase your vocabulary by a wide margin.