John Fuller’s Flying to Nowhere, nominated for Great Britain’s Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction, is a disturbing, and in some ways, repulsive book. In a central scene much commented on by reviewers, the boy Geoffrey goes down to the seashore to look at the body of his master’s horse, killed horribly by its own disastrous attempts to struggle out of a boat and land on the rocky shore of the island on which the novel is set. Geoffrey hopes vaguely that the horse may still be alive; but as he gets closer, he realizes that it is not only dead but rotting, and that the rustling sound from it comes from an army of feeding maggots. He thrusts his arm into the mass of maggots and decomposing flesh—and for a few moments feels this as an enjoyable experience of warmth and vibration. Then he recoils, the maggots still clinging to his skin. Several points here are typical of Flying to Nowhere as a whole: the insistence on exploring primary sensation; the refusal to turn away from sights and thoughts normally stomach-turning; the faint suggestion that these are stomach-turning only out of habit or teaching or indeed from a not very deeply buried fear—as the horse is, so will the reader be.
Flying to Nowhere is furthermore very clearly a book about death. On the most obvious level, it is a sort of detective story (a very unsatisfactory one by conventional standards). The “detective” is Vane, an emissary of the Bishop on the mainland, who is concerned that too many pilgrims have set off for the holy well of Saint Lleuddad and never returned. What happened to them? Did they die? Were they murdered? Where are the bodies? These are the questions which Vane has to put to the Abbot, and for some of the time at least, the reader is drawn on by a familiar pattern of suspicion and solution. This does not, however, last very long. It is soon clear that the Abbot may not, indeed, have murdered the pilgrims (though he has certainly shown no interest in keeping them alive), but he is using their bodies as subjects for dissection. What is not clear is whether this is entirely of his own volition. One of the main “uncoverings” of the novel is Vane’s realization that pilgrims who fall in the holy well slide down a conduit to the deep reaches of the monastery, where they emerge in a “corpse-pit” by the Abbot’s library. Did the Abbot design this? It seems unlikely. The Abbot indeed behaves quite often like a sleepwalker, answering Vane’s sharp inquiries absentmindedly, seeming as much the victim as the agent of any conspiracy. So, in a sense, there has been no crime (except for unauthorized disposal of the bodies); investigation in any case ceases when Vane unexpectedly falls into the corpse-pit and drowns. Nevertheless, the novel remains fixed on death: The central question becomes not “whodunit?” but rather “what happened?” Or perhaps more accurately, “What happens, what happens when anyone dies, what is the secret of the difference between death and life?”
This is the question to which the Abbot’s researches (and dissections) are aimed. The way in which he formulates the question, however, is to ask himself in which organ of the body the spirit is situated, favoring on the whole the pineal gland. Most modern readers are likely to regard this as mere medievalism, a quest doomed to failure, though it is in a sense mere materialism, a tendency more likely to be thought modern than medieval. However one “dates” the Abbot, he does generate a powerful image: that of the investigator tracking the soul through a labyrinth of rooms, always finding traces of its presence, never catching up with it. Furthermore, this image is applied not only to the dissecting table, where the Abbot tries to “dissect out” the soul, but also to the monastery in which he lives, itself a labyrinth, a place with hidden depths, a place where no one, Vane included, can ever find the Abbot and where the Abbot on occasion gets lost himself.
The parallelism between body and monastery (or body and island) is so dominant as to force the reader to regard Flying to Nowhere as an allegory. One might pass over the name of the Abbot’s emissary, Vane, vain though his quest so obviously is. The name of his horse, though, is Saviour: There is something dreadfully appropriate, in the corpse-laden world of this book, in the image of a rotting Saviour on the shore, its only life a seethe of maggots, a Saviour who has destroyed himself in the very effort to land. Further promptings come almost at every turn of the page. Bible texts are quoted; there is a complete, if short, sermon from the Abbot (on the mystifying text from Ezekiel, “Behold, I am against your pillows”); when Mrs. Ffederbompau falls out of an apple tree, the Abbot tells her that she had no business climbing it, but she replies (with evident allusion to Adam and Eve): “We have had much to do with apples that has brought us to grief.” Even an apparently real-world accident triggers thoughts of original sin and the...
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