(REVIEW) The Boiled in Between, by Helen Marten
In this review, Jess Payn teases out the elastic reworkings of body and form in Helen Marten's The Boiled in Between (Prototype Publishing, 2020), a novel that is a 'cosmos of the suburbs, but one that cultivates proximity to a play', with a bewildering sense of 'already having happened'.
Ruptured, spitting surfaces, molecules rubbed into gaseous transmutation: boiling names a breaking point, when liquid becomes atmosphere. In artist Helen Marten’s sliding, unruly novel, this state of bubbling agitation attaches not to water, blood or the passions, but bodies: ‘I was a sad sack of boiling cells sandwiched in their millions beneath two scrapes of dizzying blue.’ Individual organs: ‘My stomach, my brains, my great heaving heart still boiling away as though simmering in a dull vat of vegetables en route to becoming soup.’ And the wobbling, hot, naked form: ‘Stutters and curves of touch, his whole body so tightened in knots right then unwrapped, boiling.’ Like many of Marten’s elastic reworkings of image, ‘the boiled in between’ is a phrase mesmerised by substance, by the affinities between form, field and feeling. Fittingly, it brackets the novel, making a middle of everything in between, though the journey from hastily assembled fried food, ‘the grand scramble, the boiled in between’, to a dead dog lying in ‘a pool of stinking liquid […] marking out the difference between his dead and my boiling alive’ is open-ended enough to refuse the fixings of definition. ‘Between’ is an inaccessible space between objects or tenses. It’s a zone that doesn’t exist without surroundings. Somehow, ‘boiled’ cracks open this gap, enflaming the relationships between eating and sex, death and heat.
Marten has said of her art that she is ‘really interested in the point at which things become husked down to geometric memories of themselves, where a house, for instance, a pair of legs or a cat could be communicated with huge economy and speed via just a few lines.’ Like the sky in the novel, ‘fallen out, sky grey, sky mutton-clouded’, she reduces readymade form to leftovers, linguistic habit becoming a kind of ghost limb. The transference of metaphor, the alchemy by which one thing becomes representative of another, is often pleasurably warped in her work and similes are inclined to become untethered: ‘Always hips, those aching contours, pulling pleasure out of your coat like lovers’. As sculpture, this interest in ‘dissolved wonky semiotics’ plays tricks in two- and three-dimensions: ‘collage in a sense, but more staggering; something more like snooker,’ as she explains in an interview, ‘a knocking-on of things but done within an envelope of distinct logic.’ Marten won the Turner Prize in 2016 for her multi-media installations, but writing has always been important to her work — her most recent exhibition at Sadie Cole of eighteen untitled pencil and watercolour drawings was accompanied (or abandoned?) by eighteen fragments of a narrative. The Boiled in Between is her first full writing project, a year out of the studio.
The resulting book is a novel, a cosmos of the suburbs, but one that cultivates proximity to a play, its scaffolding visible by way of titled sections, which introduce varieties of dramatic monologue: ‘Ethan, A kneaded clod’, ‘Patrice, Busy (future perfect, feminine)’, ‘Messrs. External & peaty, Rotten earth’. Such demarcated chapters feel like entrances and exits, sometimes even stage directions (‘Patrice, Full of face’), and there’s a prologue to acquaint us with the set — a dismal return to the once conjugal home, ‘All the broken windows and propped doors are where we left them’ — as well as the speaking parts. The Messrs are first, a protean, plural voice of atmosphere and observation: ‘neither body nor air, but a silent streaming of temperature’. They self-describe as ‘instruments of psychic observation’ but aren’t to be mistaken for a nebulous mist. They understand bodies: ‘We like to feel the pulse of [time] beat about our temples and grab our wrists. On the soft underside where the skin thins and bruisy veins tangle hurt and beauty in lilac bundles’. Their opinions are hard-edged: both observer and observed, they ‘found’ Ethan and Patrice, a soon-to-be-divorced middle-aged pair, the other two voices of the book, and ‘bedded down to watch them squeal’.
Ethan has a soft spot for booze: ‘When he doesn’t drink a little he will crumble’, the Messrs. comment, that odd future tense reading as a kind of prophecy, and his first lines in the Prologue sound dejectedly drunk, as composure gives way to decomposition: ‘I offer this brain to you like shedding orange peel. It comes to you soft in the shape of a face and says here, welcome, have my skin, my looks, my point of view’. He is constantly seeking sex, reading it everywhere: ‘He’d have a few dirty thoughts aroused just by handling the butter on the table.’ He has an encounter which causes the split from Patrice, and imagines a subjunctive in which that error of nakedness is erased: ‘By keeping our clothes firmly on, by exposing as little flesh as possible, could we drop off into another tense? Into a past tense where what I did hasn’t happened yet quite simply because there was nothing exposed to see it.’ As indicated by its prepositional situatedness (‘in between’), Marten’s book likes to experiment with interims, including of time, undoing the familiar scaffolding of the past, present and future and of narrative as a concatenation of events. The novel takes place in the afterwards of Ethan and Patrice’s relationship, but that sense of ‘having already happened’ is always bewildered and undone.
Patrice, fittingly, likes things hidden and covered up. Her first words are ‘The absolute honest truth frightens me’, and her oblique points of reference are often to mould and foodstuffs: ‘They talk about pity as though it is a molecule to be steamed with asparagus.’ Her full name is Flora Dorthy Lily Patrice –– ‘A long and struggling vine’, the Messrs. remark –– but she has no patience for plant life, relating more readily to letters and fonts: ‘a serif hardness’. To Ethan, who glimpses her first in the supermarket gutting fish, she is known as Dorothy and then Dot: a punctuation mark in his life now ‘Rubbed out’.
The beginnings and crises of their relationship are gradually told to us: Ethan and Patrice never unfold themselves directly (this is not a book you read for its plot). Marten is as much interested in the architectural spaces of homes, in fluid, substance and the metaphors we assign to ‘stuff’ and every perceptible surface, as she is in delineating ‘human’ character. Or, rather, she’s drawn to exploding the assumed boundaries between the two. Her thinking is often ecological, acknowledging being as a mesh of jostling lifeforms: fundamentally relational and irreducibly strange. Patrice describes her mind as an organic lump abandoned to the elements:
I have my own perfect stew-like dribble of ideas and oak trees, all of them crusted over with fungal fruiting structures, with honey-coloured mushrooms and their caps slimy after rain. This is what a modern brain looks like: lesions and boulders and toothpicks jammed in the sides. This is modern life lived as a lost dog or one beetle fighting another for its ball of dung.
The momentum with which unlike forms are combined feels almost aphophenic (a dribble of oak trees?), but also speaks to Timothy Morton’s argument in Being Ecological that ‘ecological awareness gives you a world in which everything is relevant to everything else’. Mostly, though, the rhythm pulls towards the textures of animate and inanimate matter. Language becomes a bloated, flabby vessel, an unreliable but vital go-between. The ‘acuteness of being a body’ as well as ‘the grammatical problem of having a body’ (the book is, after all, not a play, making all embodiment a remote substitute) are both central preoccupations, where ‘body’ is itself understood loosely: a building, a house, even a puddle of milk on the floor (‘My own elastic materiality, my own rubbery guilt, it was all connected to this spilt milk’). As Ethan questions, ‘what is a body, anyway, when framed in words? A dough trough? A collapsing figure for poking and kneading? For baking, for burning, for pulling apart like a hot-pocketed roll?’ Marten wrings transformation from semantic coincidence, seeing the fatty, material potential in theoretically ordinary concepts; she is not afraid to push representation to the point of alienation or embarrassment.
While this may mean at times The Boiled in Between seems inscrutable, it is always intoxicatingly so. ‘I wanted to smear it over myself, to lose myself’ is Ethan’s reaction to a rotting sheep’s carcass, and the book thrives in that same space where disgust and delight meet. In a phrase that captures the tumult of this swampy, saturated plane, the novel is a ‘migraine of excitement’.
The Boiled in Between is out now and available to order via Prototype.
Text: Jess Payn
Image: Jess Payn