A rambling precis of The Falcon, a novel
The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door
Have been silenced forevermore
And the distance is quite simply much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before
I need you so much closer
(from ‘Transatlanticism’ by Death Cab for Cutie
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
(from ‘The Second Coming’ by W B Yeats)
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must, \ Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun. (from ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ by John Donne)\
This novel is not complete. Far from it. Some of it exists in the pure arrogance of psychic space, made beautiful by its existence in purely abstract and therefore invisible terms. I can fall in love with this novel because it stands astride the liminal divide of existence and non-existence: it is not fair to say that it does not exist, because I can talk about it at length (watch me) but also it does not exist. Where is this novel, except in some computer files and in my head?
So, what’s it about? I should be able to tell you, if I know.
April 2020, my grandad dies. He has acute Alzheimer’s; Covid rips through his nursing home, unstoppable. His death, once slow, becomes sudden. We cannot go to the funeral. We hold a memorial over Zoom. We chalk it up to the surreality that has fast become normality. His death will not leave me. The living need death to be a proper finality, a denouement, so his unfinished story lingered in my mind ever since. I moved into his house, post mortem, feeling always as though I were in a liminal space. When I left, he came with me. Because this is the thing about death; you, a human being in a world built of order and structure and rules, come as close as you can to chaos. Chaos is what existed before existence, the unknowable, the metaphysical; you are drawn to it despite your material proclivities, despite your materialist certainties. Death demands mythology — nothing else will satisfy. You spend a winter morning carrying a bird around a forest and you feel as though there is something more to this life than mere materialism. Maybe your Catholic mother was onto something. Maybe there are things beyond your philosophy.
You imagine what dementia must be like. You imagine it as the human mind becoming chaos, pure chaos.
In this state of chaos, anything can happen. But some things have to happen, no matter what. And so, the central idea of the novel was born — a man, in the darkest throes of dementia, becomes a falcon. A peregrine falcon. Transmogrified.
What is he trying to escape? The present. But, really, the present is the past; we don’t live in the present, but a version of the past filtered through a current need. What makes the past so inescapable? What makes us think that we live in an ordered system? Why do we mistake order for chaos? Are they the same thing? These are some of the questions The Falcon will explore.
So, meet Reg. His mind is chaos itself. So is his family. Past and present and future are the same to him; they are all melded into a present that’s trapping him, not freeing him, because Reg has dementia. His eldest daughter, Bernadette, has escaped an abusive marriage only to experience a breakdown of selfhood. His son, Ian, is a Catholic priest haunted by his illegitimate daughter. And he has never understood his youngest son, David, a near-mute roboticist whom Reg has suspected just might not be his since David’s birth. David has been building robots since childhood. His father does not trust them and has been known to destroy them.
Reg was married to Lesley, who was the mother to Bernadette and Ian and, according to her, David, too. Lesley died not long after David’s birth. Reg remarries, a sultry Irishwoman called Aoife. Aoife is a hypochondriac, perilously thin, always on edge. She grows close to Bernadette as much as she fails to engage with Ian and David. Bernadette, whose relationship with her mother was strained, comes to see Aoife idealistically, as the mother she wished she’d had. But Aoife is only interested in destruction; when Bernadette meets narcissistic police constable Andrew, she encourages the match and supports the dysfunctional marriage, which yields The Twins, throughout. Bernadette’s eventual rejection of the parasitic Aoife coincides with the deterioration of Reg’s psyche. Aoife abandons the family.
The novel itself opens in the aftermath of an unprecedented storm, experienced by each of the characters. Chaos, it seems, has arrived.
David has never forgotten his first robotic creation. It is a compression machine that holds one at just the right amount of pressure sensitivity. David’s prototype, created in the garage as a child, was destroyed by Reg in a rage. His goal is to make it again, the ultimate maternal comfort machine for boys who do not know how to seek out the maternal comfort and affection they desire. It is called mother, and he works on it privately in his lab, which is a converted basement. His job as a roboticist is the building of animatronic robots for a variety of functions.
Meanwhile, Ian is struggling. As parish priest of St Dymphna’s, he’s done a lot of good. He works closely within the community and his congregation is swelling, bucking national trends. He is a charismatic preacher, a persona at odds with his true rather insular nature. Things start to unravel when he is sent, against his wishes, a young curate to help him with his duties. Ian begins to fall in love with the man, though he has been in denial about his homosexuality for so long that he lashes out, becoming increasingly cruel to the curate, who leaves just as Ian realises how much he loves him. A big part of the tension at the centre of Ian’s life is his daughter, Allie, a product of a liaison during his seminary days that was an attempt to prove he wasn’t homosexual (perhaps his father is homophobic?). This tension increases when Allie starts breaking the strict contact rules he’d put in place to keep her a secret — she arrives in his confessional box on Saturday, but these sessions leave Ian wondering who the confessor is, and who is really conferring absolution.
Reg’s dementia worsens. He becomes incoherent, and increasingly violent. After a particularly bad night, his children are called in for a meeting at his care home. But when they get to his room, he has gone. His window is open; the curtain flaps in the breeze, a silent witness. The children cannot find their father. Somehow, these three — who find it near-impossible to communicate with each other, must work together to find their father.
Where is their father? He is soaring on the breeze, for he — though he does not know how — is now a peregrine falcon. A traveller. He just doesn’t know where he’s going yet.
The Falcon will be a novel about the spaces between us, and how we might close them, despite the chaos.