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Charles Palliser (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Literature that refuses to solve its mysteries

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Essay | 15 minute read
Charles Palliser published The Quincunx almost 30 years ago, and everyone started writing differently as a result, argues one writer, who reflects on just how groundbreaking it remains

My copy of The Quincunx bristles with Post-it page-flags planted during previous expeditions into the interior, marking significant finds. The book’s broad spine is cracked in eight places, distinct furrows running from top to bottom. I reckon it can survive another reading – maybe two. Will that be enough to solve it? Probably not.

Charles Palliser’s epic debut novel was first published in 1989. If its sheer length made it physically difficult to pick up, then its extraordinary, headlong narrative drive made it impossible to put down. The main narrator is John Mellamphy, telling his story from some unknown point in the future. At the start of the book he is a child living with his mother, Mary, in apparently reduced but reasonably comfortable circumstances, in a north of England village of the early nineteenth century.

We, and John, gradually learn that Mary is in hiding. John is the rightful heir to ‘one of the greatest estates in England’ and there are those who want him dead. When danger threatens, the pair are forced to flee to London where apparent mishap begets seeming misfortune begets tragedy. John is sucked into a maelstrom of misery, dragged ever downwards from shabby lodgings to slums to – literally – the sewers. He has dealings with resurrectionists, streetwalkers and opium addicts. He finds himself in dens of thieves and debtors’ jails and schools where sadistic schoolmasters thrash pupils to death.

There are mysterious girls in crumbling mansions, crooked lawyers, stock fraud, lunatic asylums – the whole kit and caboodle of the nineteenth-century sensation novel. There are five families involved in the struggle over a disputed will, and our hero has hidden enemies on every side. At the very heart of the matter – the key mysteries – is the identity of his father and the events of his mother’s wedding night on which a murder takes place.

The Quincunx was a critical and commercial success when it was published – an international bestseller hailed as a tremendously accomplished and vivid recreation of a mid-nineteenth-century novel. The novelist Jonathan Coe wrote about devouring the book, losing himself in ‘the winding, crepuscular passageways of this superbly Gothic labyrinth’ and finishing it ‘with a shiver of satisfaction’ in the early hours of the morning.

Some reviewers, though, were slightly sniffy about the plot’s dependence on chance encounters. The New York Times critic observed that ‘you read the first page and down you wonderfully fall, into a long, large, wide, full world of fiction’ but also that ‘coincidences not only abound but ricochet’. Robert Bernard Martin in the Times Literary Supplement praised the depth of the author’s research but had reservations about his lack of a grand design. His review was headlined ‘An Underworld Without Pattern’.

I imagine Palliser, then a forty-two-year-old academic lecturing in Victorian literature at Strathclyde University, reading these reviews in his garret, perched on a high stool at his Bob Cratchit-style standing desk, banging his head against it. He hadn’t spent the last twelve years of his life meticulously plotting, planning and scheming just to have us miss the finer points of his subtly contrived creation. He wrote an afterword that was included in subsequent editions. It pointed out that he had deliberately breached the ‘implied contract’ between writer and reader of the nineteenth-century novel, according to the terms of which the plot is eventually explained in full, either by a reliable narrator or the author.

Charles Palliser near Sillon beach (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

We eventually learn who is behind Pip’s great expectations. The many twists in The Woman in White are ultimately all ironed out. We are never in any doubt that we will, by the end of these novels, know what ‘really’ happened. But The Quincunx, explained Palliser, has a ‘hidden narrative’ and there are ‘alternative explanations for some of the mysteries that John clears up to his own satisfaction’. Furthermore, ‘nothing of any significance that happens to John turns out to be a mere coincidence’ and, far from lacking design, the book is actually rigorously, mathematically, constructed.

A quincunx is a geometrical arrangement of five symbols in a square, as on the five side of a dice. Each of the five families in the book bears a quincunx on their coat of arms (Canongate, the book’s publisher, enlisted the official artist to the Scottish Herald, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, to do the artwork). The book is divided into five parts, each of which is divided into five books, each of which contains five chapters – so 125 chapters in all. In the middle of the middle chapter of the middle book of the middle part, John reads a document which should clear up all the enigmas but the relevant pages – occupying the precise centre of the novel – of the text are missing.

Palliser quizzed friends about what they had noticed. There were essentially three types of readers. Some had read it as if it was a nineteenth-century work without spotting any incongruities; others had become suspicious that all might not be as it seemed; and a few realised they were being hoodwinked. Palliser was delighted when one told him that the very last sentence in the book had forced him to start reading it again from the beginning. That sentence, magnificent in its ambiguity, refers to John’s grandfather without naming him. It suggests that the familial relationship between several principal characters is not as we thought, and that in turn casts doubt on other riddles in the book.

There is, Palliser says, a ‘solution’, by which he means a version of events that he had in mind. The clues are all there, he promises. We just have to find them. This is easier said than done. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Bleak House, Dickens’ longest book by page count, is 989 pages long. The Quincunx has 1,221 pages, including Palliser’s 18-page supposedly helpful Afterword. The alphabetic list of characters stretches over six pages. It has, by my count, 103 names, although matters are complicated by the fact that different characters sometimes have the same name and characters sometimes uses different names. And what names they are: Henrietta Palphramond; Jemima Fortisquince; Barney Digweed; Silverlight; Pentecost; Thackaberry; Quigg.

When galloping through the book for the first time, it is all too possible to go careering over the faultlines so carefully engineered by Palliser. Kathryn Hughes, author of Victorians Undone and biographies of George Eliot and Mrs Beeton, read it soon after publication. ‘I’d love to say that I totally got it because that would make me sound smart and sceptical and shrewd and super-knowledgeable,’ she says. ‘But the truth is that I fall into the second category of reader – slightly suspicious.

‘At the time I was steeped in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which a few years earlier had become newsworthy once more, following the release of the film. So I knew that what I was reading was a “post-modern” novel with an “unreliable narrator” – both of which seemed thrillingly daring at the time. But, no, I didn’t catch on that there was a “hidden” narrative. I thought the final line simply provided a nice flourish rather than a prompt to re-read the whole thing again. I didn’t solve anything because I didn’t realise at the time that there was anything to solve.’

Nor did I. Which is why, when I read the afterword, I did read the whole thing again. This time, I spotted hints, nods and winks I felt embarrassed to have missed the first time round. For example, there’s a conversation between John’s friends Silverlight and Pentecost, the Punch and Judy men (did I mention there were Punch and Judy men? Of course there are Punch and Judy men) consisting almost entirely of meta-comments about the actual book we’re reading. Pentecost (there’s the ‘five’ again) believes that life is random and arbitrary. ‘Novelist-writers are liars,’ he says. ‘There is no pattern. No meaning save what we choose to impose.’ Silverlight believes that there is a design underlying the universe. ‘The purpose of a work of Art,’ he tells us, ‘is that Man may trace this out and find the pattern for himself. In any novel I collaborated upon everything would be a part of the whole design – down even to the disposition and numbering of the chapters.’ Could Palliser have made it any more clear?

Another character tells John: ‘Extraordinary as it seems, it was mere coincidence that brought you to our door. It’s the sort of thing that you expect to find only in a novel – and only when you know the author has been too idle to work it out any better.’

I’ve read The Quincunx four times now. It’s not just me who is mildly obsessed. An online discussion forum runs to some 150,000 words, more than a third of the length of the book itself. Software engineer Simon Morris set it up in 2010, incorporating an earlier blog started in 2003: ‘There are so many things to love about the book,’ he says. ‘The ironic distance between the cool detachment of the narrator’s voice, and the cruelty and horror of the events he describes; the depth of the plot – much of it concealed or implicit; and the breadth of the plot – it stretches across almost every social class of the time, backwards through multiple generations, and, implicitly, forwards to the next generation.’

Mark Evans, creator of the BBC Radio 4 comedy series Bleak Expectations and its TV sister series The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff (being the story of Jedrington Secret-Past), is another fan. ‘It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read,’ he says. ‘Frankly, I’ve never come across a more irritating last line, words which make you go, “Hang on, but… eh?” I actually have two quite strong issues with Mr Palliser over that line.

‘The first is that he’s written such a genuinely brilliant rattling yarn of a story that, as I read the book, I found myself going faster and faster, desperate to reach the end and find out what happened, meaning important clues slipped past me. Even on re-reading it, when I made myself concentrate and tried to read slowly, I found the sheer narrative drive dragged me away from that resolution and, once again, I think I missed vital stuff. But that’s an extraordinary accomplishment for any writer, so I doff my over-large Victorian top-hat to Palliser.

‘The second issue is trickier and that’s Palliser’s admission that it’s a book with an unreliable narrator and that therefore you shouldn’t believe everything he says. I mean, really? I’m not sure you should be allowed to write such a narrative-unravelling last line and then also add that all the clues leading you to it might be fibs as well.’

Of course, Palliser did not invent the unreliable narrator or the puzzle novel with the tricksy ending. As Hughes says, Fowles’ 1969 novel has metatextual elements and multiple possible conclusions. His 1965 work The Magus pulls the rug out from beneath the reader’s feet several times and at the end leaves them uncertain about what has just happened.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, published in 1962, features a 999-line autobiographical poem in rhyming couplets written by poet John Shade, along with a foreword and copious footnotes by his former neighbour, the oddball critic Charles Kinbote. From the footnotes, we gradually become aware that – spoiler alert – Kinbote murdered Shade. At least, that’s one interpretation. Many others are available, though Nabokov (like Palliser) hinted that there was a correct one, saying Pale Fire was ‘full of plums that I keep hoping somebody will find’. Regarded by many as his masterpiece, it is once again having a moment after featuring in Blade Runner 2049.

Vladimir Nabokov (Getty)

There is a growing tradition of TV and films using enigmatic books as signifiers or clues: the first series of crime drama True Detective referred to an 1895 collection of weird stories by Robert W. Chambers called The King in Yellow. The King in Yellow is a cursed, fictional play featured in some of the stories.

In Lost, the cult TV show about an island on which very strange things happen, a character reads The Invention of Morel by the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, about an island on which very strange things happen.

Nor was Palliser the last to tease and puzzle readers. Sarah Waters is often mentioned in the same breath as him, particularly her neo-Victorian crime thriller Fingersmith, a novel he greatly admires. He has written of the book’s famous twist: ‘We’re encouraged to make assumptions about the characters that are suddenly revealed as unfounded and we have to re-interpret everything we’ve read up to that point.’

He could be writing about his own novel. The difference is that Waters’ twist happens in the middle of Fingersmith rather than at the very end. I think the Waters novel that is closer to The Quincunx, in spirit if not in form, is The Little Stranger, her unreliably narrated, unsettlingly ambiguous ghost story in the vein of The Turn of the Screw.

Fingersmith was filmed some years ago and a television adaptation of The Little Stranger is due later this year. Might The Quincunx ever make it to the screen? In fact, Palliser says, it has been optioned three times, the third lapsing only recently for reasons unconnected to the book. In these days of long-form series running to numerous seasons, there does seem a distinct possibility of it being filmed at some point.

Athough he received only a £500 advance for the The Quincunx (Canongate was either alive to the five – or simply parsimonious), Palliser was enabled by the book’s international success to leave his university post and devote himself full-time to writing. He’s published four books since and has written several others, which he is still tinkering with.

He was born in America and moved to England as a child with his mother, read English at Oxford and now lives in London, but biographical information about him is relatively scant and he likes it that way. ‘I know not having a social media presence – not to tweet, not to have a Facebook page – is a huge risk for a writer these days but I just don’t want to expend time and mental energy on all of that,’ he tells me on the telephone.

He’s currently working on two projects. One is a psychological thriller about two girls in Cornwall. The other is what he describes as a ‘follow-up’ to The Quincunx: ‘I can’t think of a better word because it’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel. I quite like Philip Pullman’s word “equel”. It’s in a similar style to The Quincunx and it’s set about thirty to forty years earlier in the same sort of milieu. I’m wondering whether to make one of the characters in this novel turn out to be one of the characters in The Quincunx.

‘There will be an element of mystery and there will be things that the central character misunderstands or is lied to about and then gradually figures out. But I’m not going to attempt that whole complicated business of the fives.’

‘Although it was fun to do, it did mean that I had to put the characters – particularly the central character – through an elaborate dance routine almost, like a cotillion, where he had to follow certain steps. I don’t think I sacrificed psychology to do that but with the new one I want the psychology of the central character to simply take him wherever it will regardless of any other considerations.’ He hopes to have it finished within three years.

I had wondered whether, in this age of bite-size ‘content’ and goldfish-like attention spans, something as ambitious as The Quincunx written by a debut novelist would get published now. Evans, of Bleak Expectations, thought not. ‘I like to think it would; but fear the opposite would be the sad truth as publishers seem very wary these days, clinging onto anything that’s safely and obviously sellable,’ he says.

‘If it were presented to publishers today the problem is that it would seem derivative, old hat,’ Hughes says. ‘That, ironically, is a measure of the influence it’s had on novel-making over the past twenty-five years. It changed the landscape, everyone started writing differently as a result, and so we’ve lost our sense of just how fresh and extraordinary it was.’

Palliser is doubtful too. ‘I have a horrible suspicion that it wouldn’t. I think people now might find a book of that length which presents itself as a Victorian novel somewhat daunting.’ Nevertheless, it still sells and people still ask Palliser about it. I can’t resist running past him my theory about John’s parentage. It’s a hypothesis shared by some on Morris’s forum and one I’m convinced Palliser himself hints at in his afterword.

‘Ah, interesting,’ he says, noncommittally when I explain. ‘But I’ve made a point of never saying what I think and I firmly believe that there can be equally valid alternative interpretations. I had the strange experience of sitting in a bookshop at an event in Newcastle listening to two readers – a mother and her son – talking about the book in enormous detail. They had worked out what I was thinking but they weren’t absolutely sure that they had got right. I’m afraid I didn’t tell them that they had got it.’

Palliser has trained his readers to mistrust him – perhaps he has been a little too successful. ‘I always wondered at Charles Palliser’s name,’ says Hughes. ‘To me it sounds like a deliberate parody of Trollope’s Palliser novels and I still don’t know if it’s his real name or a made-up one.’

Morris believes Palliser’s other novels contain clues to The Quincunx. (See, for example, the business with the red coat in The Unburied which seems to echo some of the events of the night of Mary’s wedding.) I have even wondered whether, in the ultimate meta-twist, the explanatory afterword itself isn’t stinking with red herrings.

Palliser insists not, claiming that he’s playing with a straight bat. But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? I’d be interested to hear what you think. Yes, you. Go ahead and read it. You’ll enjoy it. Trust me. I’m a reliable narrator.