Robin Robertson is best known as an editor – of novelists John Banville, Anne Enright, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, and poets Anne Carson and Alice Oswald among many others – and as a poet himself, whose first book, A Painted Field (1997), inaugurated a rare run of prizes and shortlistings. That run continues with The Long Take, written in that most dubious halfway house of genres, the verse novel, and just shortlisted for the Man Booker and Goldsmith Prizes.
The book tells the story of Walker, a Nova Scotian veteran of the second World War who travels from New York to California, working in dockyards and then in newspapers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The setting indulges Robertson’s fondness for film noir, with Walker offering a running commentary on films associated with Orson Welles, Anthony Mann, Robert Siodmak, Dalton Trumbo and John Alton (“Magyar master of the shadow game”, as August Kleinzahler calls him in his classic poem, Noir). Walker sees their films being shot and then watches them in LA cinemas: they offer a set of co-ordinates for the book’s tone (blades of light, alley scuffles that could be lovers or muggings), for the timeline of his novel, and for a view of an American era, whose Trumpish overtones are clear: “McCarthyism is fascism. Exactly the same. Propaganda and lies, / opening divisions, fueling fear, paranoia.”
However, Walker is continually dragged away from his LA present by jagged memories of war. The tension of the book is derived from watching its soldier-journalist protagonist ward off the demon memories of what he saw, and what he did, in a war zone. This is well-trodden ground, providing the dramatic plot for the BBC’s recent Bodyguard as well as books as unlike one another as Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, where post-traumatic stress results in abrupt shifts and disturbances.
Ropes of blood
Robertson outdoes them all with gory war scenes, featuring ropes of blood, “red mists”, “wet rags of flesh” and at least one living hand. His poems too have always aimed for Grand Guignol scenes, but now the flaying of Marsyas (a Robertson favourite) sheds its classical context and is re-enacted by this Canadian soldier. His poems also relish unsettling images of sexual violence (“I wake in her body / broken, like a gun”, from the early Dream of the Huntress), and the new book likewise develops a theory of violence and sexual power that bubbles up repeatedly. Walker witnesses several scenes that play out like this: “[He] hit him again: a savage one-two to the face. / The way the girl looked at him then. / Like she’d do anything.”
The verse novel is an unusual genre, emphasising intensity and tone with its line-breaks and stanzas. Robertson intersperses present-tense narration with italicised flashbacks and bold-type excerpts from postcards and diaries that gesture at a gently pastoral reminiscence of a teenage love affair in Nova Scotia, but the overall effect is uneven and bitty.
His veteran protagonist lacks a foil: drinking buddies interchangeably come and go; he laments the massive redevelopment of American cities, detouring into harangues about zoning laws and corruption in the planning process (shades of Chinatown), which are hardly saved by lines like “Cities are a kind of war, he thought.” The book’s disturbing, powerful depiction of traumatic violence and its reverberating aftermath might have been better served by a shorter take.