Review: Darkness Visible by William Golding

A man disfigured as a boy in the fires of World War II London and a beautiful young woman represent polar opposites of a spiritual spectrum: the first a literal-minded social outcast who believes himself to be in communion with spirits and undergoes great sacrifice in order to do their bidding; and the second, a believer in chaotic chance who exploits herself and others in order to satisfy her need for autonomy.

William Golding is on a serious mission here. He is concerned with questions of judgment, morality, community, and spirituality, but he denies the possibility of easy answers. The result is a dense novel, generally difficult, sometimes entertaining, written in prose that I sometimes found to be needlessly verbose. It is an interesting book, but I did not find the main characters to be convincing as individuals so much as vehicles for the author’s explorations of the extremes of human nature. Some of the secondary characters, particularly the bookseller Sim Goodchild and the pedophile Mr. Pedigree, were more compelling to me. That they figure prominently in the conclusion is to the novel’s credit.

Darkness Visible is a novel wherein madness is strongly highlighted, especially in the characters of Matty, a fantastical child who had survived a firestorm during the London Blitz and who develops into a farcical prophet-like figure, and Sophy, a woman who descends into terrorism, sexual transgression and violent racialism. These characters are brought together in apocalyptic style when Matty prevents Sophy’s plan to kidnap and ransom an Arab princeling and is destroyed by fire in the process. The novel ends with the pedophile, Mr Pedigree’s vision of the dead yet transfigured Matty. This final section which stresses that “One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so”, suggests an isolation of postmodern individuals in a world where rationality and knowledge is, as Sim Goodchild admits, as lethal as atomic weaponry:

“We’re all mad, the whole damned race. We’re wrapped in illusions, delusions, confusions about the penetrability of partitions, we’re all mad and in solitary confinement.”
“We think we know.”
“Know? That’s worse than an atom bomb, and always was.”

Set between the World War II and the late 1970s, the novel portrays a decaying England in the grip of a visible, hellish darkness, befitting the Miltonic allusion of the title:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes.
– John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The main character, Matty is an outsider and alien figure who looks with fresh eyes upon English life, its depravity, permissiveness and descent into chaos.  His survival during the Blitz is “improbable”, and his uncertain background, language, visions or hallucinations problematize the novel’s realism and intensify the overlap between art and life, fantasy and reality. You are never quite sure whether Matty is mad, some kind of prophet, a supernatural creation or, indeed, a figment of Pedigree’s imagination:

There’ve been times when I wondered if you actually existed when no one else was looking and listening if you see what I mean.

Perhaps Matty’s orphan status is intimately connected with the figure of the double in literature, and it might be a suggestion of the “divided self,” and by extension the divided, uncertain, schizoid quality to society that seems so much a part of post-industrial or late-capitalist postmodern life.

As with all great books, Darkness Visible is multifaceted and open to interpretation. It compels you to generate readings. However, if there is a central theme to this book that I can grasp, it is a sort of Freudian notion that trauma as children, and particularly rejection by parental figures, leads – in the case of Sophy and Matty – to profound and irreversible damage later in life.

Sophy’s decent into depravity started not with drugs or sexual experimentation, but with rejection by her father. As Golding describes it, with obvious Freudian overtones, as a small girl she attempted to woo him, succeeding only once in getting him to take her for a walk. During this walk, the young girl wished her mother and sister would never return – even wished they would die – so she would not have to share her father ever again. Later, there is her subsequent curiosity about the “auntie’s” bedroom, and what may have transpired there; and her terrible jealousy about her father’s impending second marriage.

The frustrated craving for parental love is less obvious in Matty, but nevertheless present. Matty’s craving for affection becomes fixated on the pederast Pedigree, a sort of unwitting reciprocity of the latter’s perverted passions, which may have led Matty to murder his rival Henderson. A desire to redeem himself and win Pedigree’s approval becomes the defining feature of the rest of Matty’s life.

The final irony in the book is that Matty, who has absolutely nothing in life, nevertheless finds a sort of redemption in the end, in spite of his slide towards insanity and the occult. On the other hand, by the time the story ends it is obvious that Sophy, who to all outward appearances had every advantage in life, has become an irredeemable sociopath. While wounds from war and fire can be mended, there are some less visible scars that never heal.

This is definitely a weird book, so if you can’t stomach it, don’t buy it. What with the deviant tendencies (take your pick – an implied child molester, a drug dealer, a dominatrix, a chess master who seems to have a new wife/mother for his children daily) of the personalities of the people Golding forms, one can easily be tempted to laugh this one off as a wannabe shocker with no real substance – but it’s not. I’d like to think it’s not. I consider this as a good novel, hands down – there is intelligence, mellifluous imagery, cleverness, wit and dark humor, a sense of cynicism, but overall, incredible creativity and prose. It may be a difficult text to get through at times because of the way it is set up and the episodic changes in its style at random, but if you’re looking for something different that will challenge some of your thinking and implant in you a different perspective on a lot of things going on in our world, don’t pass it up.

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