Blow Your House Down

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1780

In his definitive essay, “Naturalism on the Stage,” Émile Zola advocates the application of the clinical method of empirical science to all of life. According to his naturalistic philosophy, heredity and environment influence and determine human motivation and behavior. Thus, if a writer wishes to depict life as it really is, he must be rigorously deterministic in the representation of his characters’ thoughts and actions in order to show forth the causal factors that have made the characters inevitably what they are. Substituting the scientific idea of determinism for the classical notion of fate, Zola argues for a literature of observation rather than one of fabrication.

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Although not all of the early naturalistic works are harsh, a great many of them portray the experiences of impoverished and uneducated people, imprisoned perforce in a milieu of filth, squalor, and corruption. As a result, naturalism is often equated with the depressingly dreary slice-of-life documentation of unredeemable and brutal realities. Blow Your House Down, like Barker’s much-praised first novel, Union Street (1982), justifies such an equation; it is designed expressly to shock the bourgeois sensibility and achieves a level of obscenity that allows it to do so, the term obscenity being used descriptively rather than judgmentally.

The novel documents the lives and times of a group of prostitutes who are being terrorized by a psychopathic killer. Written from the third-person point of view, the first section focuses on the life of Brenda, a young woman abandoned by her abusive husband and left on her own to support three children. In the economically depressed British industrial town in which she lives, the only viable sources of employment for an uneducated working-class woman such as herself are in manual labor or prostitution. Brenda, as the narrative present of the novel describes, has opted for the latter. The causal factors that determined her decision are revealed retrospectively as the story progresses. The naturalistic substratum is kept in view.

An account of Brenda’s life reads like a case history compiled by a social worker. Having no family of her own, Brenda was shuttled from one foster family to another. Pregnant at age sixteen, she married Brian, who, like most of the men in this novel, is physically violent and financially irresponsible. Brian “thought nothing of belting her if she didn’t have his shirts ironed.” The forces of heredity and environment have taken their grim toll on both of them. as soon as he had a few pints inside him he was moaning on to anybody who’d listen: “My life ended when I was nineteen.” “You’re bloody lucky,” she used to say. “I was only sixteen when mine ended.” They both meant it too. So it was no surprise when he went. The only surprise was where he found the guts.

Brenda’s recourse at this point is to secure employment at the chicken factory, the foul smell of which is a ubiquitous presence in the novel, a persistent reminder of the physical and spiritual pollution that chokes the lives of the characters. For Brenda the job is akin to a life sentence.It wouldn’t’ve been so bad if she could’ve seen an end to it, but she couldn’t. It was going to be like this till the kids grew up and by that time she’d be old and useless and nobody’d want her anyway. She cried till her chest ached.

The babysitter whom she has hired to look after her children proves to be a child abuser, so, in the end, prostitution looks somewhat inviting—at least she can dictate her own hours and enjoy some measure of independence—but prostitution as well is a no-win situation. As Brenda reflects, “There was no winning at this game: if they were nasty you hated them; if they were nice you hated yourself. She’d rather hate them.”

The first nine chapters of the novel deftly shift back and forth between time present and time past so that the reader can get a clear picture of Brenda’s current situation and past history—the former being entirely a product of the latter. In the tenth chapter, the reader is vaulted back into time present, the narrative fixing its attention on the gruesome murder of Kath—a prostitute who was formerly Brenda’s mentor and who is now a wretched alcoholic. Her death is rendered in copious and nauseating detail.

It is closing time, and in a state of drunken nostalgia Kath has just left the pub where the prostitutes congregate. The cider has carried her back to her childhood, to the orphanage of the Holy Rood. She is singing a hymn.

The Church’s one foundationIs Jesus Christ her LordShe is his own creationBy water and the word

Unfortunately for her, the religious lyrics give the john who has just picked her up the sense that her murder was meant to be. Their encounter takes place in a deserted house, and Barker evokes this scene in all of its graphic horror.

There is something essentially self-defeating about this naturalistic game of épater le bourgeois. It seems based on the dubious idea that masochistic groveling in the dross of human experience is purgative and redemptive for the liberal reader simply because such acts of perversion and butchery really happen; to undergo them vicariously is presumably to heighten one’s awareness of how terrible some people’s lives are and thus to encourage corrective measures. The problem with naturalism, however, resides in its rigorous determinism; ultimately, everyone is a victim of heredity and environment, and the present is an inevitable consequence of the past. Such a view encourages fatalistic resignation and reinforces the status quo. As Bertolt Brecht pointed out, historical conditions must not be seen as mysterious powers but as human action. Reformist literature should defamiliarize the present in order to divest it of any aura of permanence, thereby making readers aware that objects and institutions, which seem natural because of their familiarity, are in reality historical. Since they are products of change, they become in their turn changeable. The apparently static is in fact dynamic; society is alterable. The obvious irony is that naturalism, as its name suggests, is counter-reformist because it regards social horrors as natural rather than historical; it unintentionally promotes acceptance rather than rejection, for nothing is more desensitizing than obscenity, its shock value being pathetically ephemeral. Not only does Barker offer the reader no effective rhetoric for social action, but she presents as well a vision of inferno that is strangely puritanical, for the wages of sex is death. Counterpointed to this despair are the sentimental hymns of a feckless Christianity.

The second section of the novel continues the litany of woe by focusing on Elaine, a pregnant prostitute tyrannized by a violent boyfriend who makes her turn tricks even though her pregnancy is approaching its termination. He even makes her work on the night of Kath’s funeral. Elaine’s fatalistic view of life is summarized by her observation that “if you’re living with a bloke he’s gunna hit you about something. If it’s not that it’ll be something else.”

The third section switches to first-person narration. Jean, also a prostitute, whose lover, Carol, is the psychopath’s latest victim, tells the story of her attempt to wreak vengeance on the murderer. Jean, too, has had a hard life; in her youth she was knifed by a john and left with an ugly scar as a permanent reminder. The novel’s closest approximation to an existential heroine, she is entirely devoid of self-deception and fatalistic resignation. As she puts it:I like this life. I’m not in it because I’m a poor, deprived, inadequate, half-witted woman, whatever some people might like to think, I’m in it because it suits me. I like the company. I like the excitement. I like the freedom. I like being able to decide when I’m going to work. I certainly don’t want to clock on and clock off, if I did I could go and work in the bloody chicken factory.

Even though her alternatives are limited, she accepts full responsibility for her choices.

A high degree of narrative uncertainty surrounds Jean’s vengeful execution of a john. She assumes that Carol’s murderer was one of her lover’s regular customers and knows that one of Carol’s regulars had violet breath. Consequently, she murders him because his breath smells of violets. The evidence is utterly circumstantial, and although the reader knows that the man who killed Kath also had violet breath, it is not certain that Jean has killed the same man; the violet breath argues in favor of her accuracy, while the fact that there is a subsequent nonfatal attack on a chicken-factory worker suggests that she may have been mistaken. Perhaps Barker’s thematic intent is mirrored in the epigraph to the novel, taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1885): “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss the abyss also looks into you.”

The fourth section documents the sufferings of Maggie, a worker in the chicken factory who is attacked from behind by a man and saved from death by Brenda’s fortuitous intervention. After this traumatic experience, Maggie becomes paranoiacally afraid of all men, including Bill, her husband. The naturalistic implication is that even the choice to become a menial laborer rather than a prostitute does not exempt a woman from the brutality of male violence. In this economically depressed society, there is no safety.

Blow Your House Down deals with serious issues and realistically documents the case histories of working-class women condemned to lives of quiet desperation unless their routines be violently interrupted by murderous psychopaths or abusive spouses. The novel, however, undermines its own rhetorical efficacy by indulging in gratuitous description of sex and violence, its naturalistic strategy rendering it symptomatic rather than corrective of the problem. Moreover, the treatment tends to be one-sided—the women are victims, whether they be benevolent hookers or bored factory workers, and the men are victimizers, whether they be violent brutalizers or pathetic johns. Naturalism per se dictates that everyone is a victim. Nevertheless, the novel is compelling in its own way. Barker’s capacity for rendering dialogue and her ear for dialect are unerring. Her control of narrative pace is masterful. Most important, she evokes convincingly the human solidarity of this community of prostitutes. Whatever philosophical reservations the reader may have, this is an impressive novel.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

Book World. XIV, September 9, 1984, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, July 1, 1984, p. 582.

Library Journal. CIX, September 1, 1984, p. 1684.

Listener. CXII, July 12, 1984, p. 28.

Los Angeles Times. September 6, 1984, V, p. 18.

New Statesman. CVII, June 8, 1984, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, October 21, 1984, p. 7.

Observer. June 24, 1984, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, July 6, 1984, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, September 21, 1984, p. 98.

Times Literary Supplement. July 13, 1984, p. 790.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. September, 1984, p. 15.

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