Beautiful Mutants / Swallowing Geography

Deborah Levy

These two short novels are weird with incredibly loose narratives, or rather collections of characters and scenes in which things happen with a feeling of sequence. Within these loosely tied vignettes are some beautiful passages rooted in the anxieties of exile. Deborah Levy has published several more novels since these first two, and I gather her work has evolved into more conventional territory. Coming off the intensity of reading The Warmth of Other Suns, these were kind of perfect in their surreality but with enough evocative moments to keep me interested.

Swallowing Geography, features a wanderer named J. K. (after Jack Kerouac) who travels with a typewriter in a pillowcase. At one point she sees a small garden with table and chairs and wonders why she doesn’t have this. “Why have some people got them and not her? To have a home is to have a biography. A narrative to refer to in years to come.” Later she flees to the marshlands in the winter to lay on a pebble beach in the rain.

Three months later, feeling better, she unpacked her bag full of maps… Manuscripts which divided the earth into seven parts of the body: backbone, diaphragm, legs, feet, throat, rectum, head and face. She studied how the geography of speech and desire have all known invasions, plunderings, struggles and disguises. There in that marshland so bleak she could only look at it in parts, the horizon a long white scar, she thought about the instruments of early science used for surveying, measuring and mapping the world. The lenses, microscopes and telescopes that helped the subject get nearer or further away from her object of study, that led her through unknown worlds to the theatre of the galaxies. The further her mind wandered, the more curious she became about inscribing experience and information: if maps correspond to reality as seen at a particular time, what happens if she observes a number of realities at the same time? The word ‘perhaps’, which could be a route to possible words, but used in a certain way becomes the route to a single conclusion. Unlike the word ‘if’, which implies the discovery of possible universes, by making them.