Ben Rice was born in Devon in 1972. He studied English at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford before undertaking a Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. His novella Pobby and Dingan (2000) was shortlisted for the 2001 Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and won the Somerset Maugham Award 2000. It is about a boy's search for his sister's missing imaginary friends, and is set in an opal mining community in the Australian outback. It has been described as ' ... an enormously touching, imaginative and unexpected novel that ... glows in your hands.' (Jeff Giles, The New York Times Book Review) Ben Rice lives in London and in 2003 was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists'.
People who like reading – let’s call them ‘readers’, shall we? – tend, somewhere on the road to adulthood, in or around the filling station we call ‘adolescence’, to realise that they are going to die.
Of course, such realisation is not exclusive to readers, but non-readers must deal with the implications of their knowledge in other ways: by listening to overwrought music or banishing from the realm of affection, a once-loved artist who has apparently given in to the commercial imperative.
What do teenaged readers do when they feel the ground moving beneath their feet? They change their reading habits. Teenaged readers seeking solace from the reality of their own morality, tend to go to two genres: fantasy, primarily, where a kind of certainty is re-established, or, secondly, to a form of fiction which might be termed ‘existentialist whimsy’, where voice is given to querulousness, discontent and confusion. If it’s not stories about mythological otherworlds of wizards and vampires and hobbits we read, then we go to stories about people who wish the world were different, the Adrian Moles and Holden Caulfields of literature, the great misunderstood of fiction.
There is no way back to Winnie the Pooh, in whose universe a blustery day is as much as anyone has to contend with. During adolescence, when everything we held to be true is being questioned, and our individuality experiences continual attack from the apparent wisdom of the crowd, we crave meaning, some kind of solidity, a new universe peopled with characters we understand, events whose causes we can trace, narratives whose conclusions we can accept.
For when we begin the slow transformation from child to adult, we find that we are no longer permitted the self-indulgence of our early years. To the terrors of the primary stage in our life, is added a new kind of alarm: that of not understanding what to do now that our elders receive our every whim and fancy with as much irritation as wonder. When we are no longer creatures of innocence, then, when we stop pretending that we do not know our ultimate fate, when the authority of our parents becomes suspect, when it appears to us that our teachers wish to do little more than school us in whichever patchwork quilt of beliefs, superstitions and prejudices that they have draped around themselves in order to keep them warm through the day, it is perhaps no wonder that we get spots, take to our beds, and pretend that there is a particular individual who exits solely for the sake of speaking directly to us.
As the body changes, and sexual desire becomes a torment, and love arrives like a badly-named hurricane to ravish the once placid coastline of our psyche, and classrooms are transformed into ever-more serious arenas of learning where subject matter turns to serious concerns such as global war, quadratic equations, and the periodicity of chemical elements, we can all be forgiven for feeling the absence of the world of glitter and nursery rhymes, where the monsters could always be resisted with a strategic use of cuddles and glasses of warm milk, or by asking for the light switch to be pressed to ‘on’. But as we crave the easily-defined limits of that lost time, when all that mattered was the next hour, we are, in turn, seduced by the world opening out before us, with its timeless mysteries and horrors; even as we recoil from them, we are drawn by the mechanisms of the world, and so we wind ourselves up within them, ready to tick along with the time we are in.
It is in adolescence that the nameless dread of the end, of genuine enemies, of failure, of the reality of money and power, all of which feature in literature for children too, but in disguise, will have to be named, categorised, studied and accepted. The world must be seen for what it is, not what we wish it to be. That is what it means to grow up.
And what it means to grow up may be said to be a theme with which Ben Rice is much taken. Pobby and Dingan and Specks in the Sky, a novella and a long short story, respectively, which were published together by Vintage in 2001, and which saw the author being feted as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists of 2003, are fables for children about the dishonest truths of the adult world, or fairy tales for adults about the truthful deceptions of the world of children. Since the publication of these stories, the author, much like a character from one of his stories, has disappeared.
What is of concern, here, is the stories he has published. Let us begin with Pobby and Dingan. It is set in Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town in New South Wales. The narrator, a boy called Ashmol Williamson (whose name recalls the museum in Oxford), says, at the beginning of the story:
Everyone knew everybody in Lightning Ridge. And some people knew nobody as well, it seemed. Pobby and Dingan fat in to the little town just fine. Pobby and Dingan are friends of Kellyanne, Ashmol’s eight-year-old sister. Pobby and Dingan are imaginary. When they go missing, Kellyanne become sick and takes to her bed. Although Ashmol believes that his sister is a ‘fruit-loop’, he organises a search party for her missing friends: I stayed out till dark explaining to all these Lightning Ridge families how tomorrow morning they had to go out along Opal Street and the dirt roads and make a big show of looking for Pobby and Dingan so that Kellyanne could see that people really cared for them.
Rice judges the voice of the narrator perfectly. Pobby and Dingan is a fable with echoes of the gentle satire of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. Who decides what we believe? What do we do when what we believe is not what others believe? Rice is able to realise an entire community, in the manner of John Steinbeck. He creates a world in which the reader can believe, which is just as well given that the story is about what it is to believe in something.
Specks in the Sky, which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2001, is, if anything, even better than Pobby and Dingan. It is about the arrival of parachutists in Ryder Jarvis’ front yard. Ryder is a tomboy who lives with her mother and sister in a ‘rickety old weatherboard house’ with ‘patched-up windows’ and ‘a lopsided sign saying ‘Jarvis Camel Safars’.’ Ryder’s father has left the family home. The parachutists, who appear to be members of an elite US squad, use the house as their base. One of their number is missing; they mean to track him down. The men, who have classic all-American names like Chip, Bud, Greg, Hank and Mart, are the twenty-first century male equivalent of the Stepford wives: they are good round the house, polite, sensitive, keep themselves clean, and, when not making their new hosts comfortable by cooking or buying flowers, will discuss their emotional responses to literature. While Ryder’s mother and sister are charmed by these mysterious creatures, Ryder becomes suspicious of their provenance and motive.
Specks in the Sky is a companion piece to Pobby and Dingan. Both stories are about absence and loss, the ordinary magic of everyday life, the lies we tell ourselves, and the way that the faith we choose to put in people and institutions is so often shown to be misplaced. The clarity and simplicity of the narration, the humour, and the flow of the story, are extremely impressive. The stories are the work of a master craftsman.
Specks in the Sky, which, with its brevity, retains some of the punch which Pobby and Dingan loses in its final third, is a joke at the expense of reports about the contemporary crisis in masculinity, a good-natured tale about the need to resist illusion, or a political fable about the absurd sentimentality which surrounds the violence done in the name of freedom. Or perhaps it is none of those things. It really doesn’t matter what I think the story is about, any more than it matters what anyone else thinks. Like all great fiction, and Specks in the Sky is great fiction, this story is a riddle which, while permitting any number of solutions to its problems, offers no definitive conclusion. It is, after all, a story, not a standpoint. It is left to the reader to make the meaning, to find within its pages what is needed at the point of reading. Rice’s stories demand re-reading. They also ask questions: why go to made-up things? Why venerate the authority of the author? Why seek me out when I will not be found?
Garan Holcolmbe 2013