Berg | Ann Quin

A grimy little tale of shame, body horror and Freudian perversity set in the 60s on the seedy south coast. The memorable opening line doesn’t mess about: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.” Probably the only straightforward sentence in the whole text – it’s endlessly perplexing after that.

If ‘berg’ is a mountain in German, what’s a ‘greb’ – a mountain reversed? An abyss? That would certainly describe Alistair Berg/Aly Greb, a gaping chasm of Oedipal desperation, a psychological black hole. A festering stew of loathing, cruelty and need. The obsession with killing his father is about proving something to himself, becoming a Nietzschean super-man of pure action untainted by thought. Except not. His supreme act of volition descends into grotesque farce, and worse.

A greasy garbled queasy text. Pus, shit, and sweat seep from every page. Every physical detail is revolting: Berg senior’s clacking teeth and pathetic drunkenness; his girlfriend Judith falling out of her dress, her caked make-up, her false eyelashes hanging off, Greb’s dirty collar, spilled hair oil and strewn untidy wigs. Boarding houses with dirty pink wallpaper, stained underwear, encrusted eiderdowns, furtive masturbating in the cinema, the smell of boiled vegetables. Cracks, fissures and slits gape disturbingly throughout. Bizarre mistaken identities involving a ventriloquist’s dummy, Greb in drag – no-one is who they seem. No – everyone is more than they seem.

The reader cannot avoid feeling soiled. And yet, and yet – it’s captivating. The cryptic prose and hallucinatory feel keep you hooked, despite the visceral revulsion. It’s an impressive trick to pull off. It makes ‘All the devils are here’ feel tame by comparison – but if you like that you will love this.