By Sandra Newman
Robin McLean’s first novel is set in the ranch country of the American west and centres on an episode of grotesque violence: the gang rape and nearmurder of Ginny, who is thrown into a lime pit full of animal carcasses by her attackers and left to die. She survives and escapes, then steals a horse and flees into the mountains. A posse follows her, intent on finishing her off. Around this plot, the book is extraordinarily capacious. It travels back in geological time to the formation of the land on which the story takes place. It digresses to tell a folk tale about a bear husband, then later casually shows us a real bear painting stick figures of people on the walls of its cave as it awaits its human bride. It gives us a planned rebellion among a string of mules from the mules’ point of view, and lets the rebellion’s echoes resound in a few science fictional sections set in the year 2179. The prose records not only the random thoughts but the pissing and shitting of its characters, and weaves them into a landscape where they coexist with “soil moving slow-constant, hawks slicing air, marmots digging, snakes winding in their holes with a soft slither sound that the wind drowned out”. It’s full of casually perfect writing, especially about animals and nature: “They unsaddled [the horse] and he skittered off and cantered a circus ring around the clearing, wide-eyed still.” Pity the Beast is a work of crazy brilliance. It’s a worthy successor to William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Characters talk past each other, embroidering, digressing, quoting Shakespeare or the Bible, offering facts in illustration; and all speak rhythmically together as in a verse play. McLean explodes the idea of human society in the first scene, explicitly equating people with beasts, then explores what it is to be a beast, what it is to be a mind, what it is to be alive. In a literary environment dominated by safe, simple, realist prose, it’s thrilling to see a novel with this much intellectual heft and aesthetic fearlessness. If I have any reservations, it’s that Pity the Beast is high gothic, and while it has the strengths of the form in spades, it also has its excesses.