Geoff Nicholson’s thirteenth novel, Female Ruins, follows the relationship between Kelly Howell, an English taxi driver in her late twenties, and Jack Dexter, an American slightly older than she and an admirer of her father’s writings about architecture.
When Kelly was thirteen, the cast of a giant hand of a statue of the Roman emperor Constantine fell on her father as he was installing an exhibit of architectural fragments. Christopher Howell’s death and his views on architecture move Kelly to regard life as a string of failures. Having wasted her teens on “shoplifting, sex with older boys, [and] Class B drugs,” she now depends on freedom and kitsch to give her life a patina she thinks would have earned her father’s approval. Besides making her living as the owner of Kelly’s Cabs in Suffolk, England (there is only one cab, and she drives it), she lives in a former chapel she has filled with junk furniture (most of which she paints “silver and gold”), plaster statues of the Virgin “decked . . . with fairy lights,” and “fun fur and nylon animal prints.”
Because Kelly feels deserted by her father, she scorns men, though she cannot help sleeping with them. When Jack Dexter hires her to show him the sights of East Anglia, she is cold to him, though she pities him for having to use a cane. The head of the cane depicts a crocodile eating a woman, and this points to how Dexter swallows Kelly’s time and, eventually, her distrust.
Dexter does not confess his real reason for hiring Kelly until they are well into their tour of local attractions. Many of these places, chosen by Kelly because her father liked them, are in bad shape or bad taste. For example, Kelly shows Dexter the Church of St. Margaret at Dunstan; this antique was defaced in the mid-seventeenth century by William Dowsing, after whom Kelly’s father named his essay “My Favorite Puritan,” writing that Dowsing thought he could defeat decay by ridding churches of their decorations.
The bad taste of developers can affect architecture, and Kelly takes Dexter to the resort village of Thorpeness as an example. In the early twentieth century, a developer, G. Stewart Ogilvie, built this village, which includes imitation medieval and Tudor buildings, a “strangely hideous church,” and a tower called the “House in the Clouds,” a kind of apartment building that actually stores water. Dexter buys a model of this tower and gives it to Kelly, then tells her that his grandfather was rich, his father is a realtor, and he himself is divorced and, having done too well too early in his father’s business, has gone back to college. Falling in with a party at a bungalow on the beach in Thorpeness, Dexter sneaks vodka into Kelly’s orange juice. This angers her, and she leaves Dexter and the party and consigns his gift to her garden.
The next time Kelly sees Dexter is at her mother’s house. Kelly and her mother barely get along because while Kelly adores the eccentric her father was, her mother esteems the bore her second husband, George, was. Her house is a tribute to dullness, and it makes Kelly remember the bedsit her father, after his divorce from her mother, moved into: He doodled a city on the walls featuring “a cinema shaped like a movie camera . . . prisons for sex offenders that overlooked girls’ schools,” and colored the ceiling to look like a volcano about to blow up on the city. When Kelly tried to make her own city on her own bedroom walls, her mother stopped her.
Time has tamed their hostility, but Kelly is still miffed when Dexter charms her mother, though she is pleased when he says the black eye he has comes from the fight he had with Peter (one of Kelly’s former lovers) in defense of her honor after she left the beach party. Dexter draws even closer to Kelly when he says that, as a child, he liked to collect “weird bits of stuff, bones, hub caps, cactus skeletons.”
At this point, as he does now and then between chapters, Nicholson inserts one of Christopher Howell’s essays, “A Form of Words.” Here he invents the word “ergotopoeic” for buildings that look like their function, like the Capitol Records building in Hollywood imitating a stack of records, or roadside doughnut shops imitating doughnuts. Howell even writes that nuclear power plants “should . . . be in the shape of giant mushroom clouds.” In short, architecture is sometimes honest about its function.
Another type of honesty buildings display is their tendency to fall apart. The medieval monastery in Monkwich that Kelly next shows Dexter is an example of this; the sea even exposes the bones in the monastery graveyard by eroding the cliff it stands on. Indeed, Howell says that the ruins of architecture have a “moral purpose” in that they embody the truth that “nothing lasts.”
This truth controls the rest of the novel. Howell writes, in his essay “Buckminster Fuller’s Bedspread,” that purists and visionaries may make remarkable buildings, such as Fuller’s geodesic dome, but people live mostly in the world of the body, which needs its comforts, not in the world of the mind, which needs abstractions. What people do to their living space is their way of putting familiarity between themselves and dissolution, and sometimes this familiarity takes the form of art, as in the case of William, an eccentric drunk whose garden Kelly tours with Dexter. William has arranged all sorts of garbage in the garden. He has made towers out of flat stones, and on top of each placed an unexpected item such as “a toy robot, a doll’s head, a car headlamp, a model of the Eiffel Tower, a Coke bottle with a plastic rose in it.” He turns...
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