The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White

 Faber & Faber, January 2018, 310 pp

Faber & Faber, January 2018, 310 pp

A mutilated, unidentified body hanging in a theater in central London, and a headstrong detective solving the case amidst bureaucracy; a group of young activists in a rural French village in the 1980s, eager to bring an abandoned bakery back to business. Out of these unlikely elements, Tony White has written The Fountain in the Forest, a detective thriller of unique caliber.

What makes The Fountain in the Forest peculiar in the sense that even the intelligentsia of the literary world have shown interest in it is that, despite being a crime novel, it takes a very postmodern approach to the genre. While several tropes of crime writing are present here, from the hard-boiled detective Rex, who is divorced, to his sudden new love interest, Susan, who he encounters at a café, from small clues to red herrings, the novel is palpably experimental in two senses.

The first noticeable feature anyone opening the book to its contents page will see are the curiously titled chapters in French, followed by an English translation, such as chapter nine: “Mandragore (Mandrake).” The chapters are named in accordance with what is called the The French Revolutionary (or Republican) Calendar that was the official calendar of the country in 1793–1806, “a non-hierarchical and secular system of ten-day weeks (or décades) in thirty-day months, without days of religious or royal significance,” as White explicates it in the preface, and continues:

In what became the dominant version of the Revolutionary Calendar, each day of the year also celebrated a different item of everyday rural life (although their precise distribution can vary), whether a herb, a foodstuff, a livestock animal, a tool or a utility: wild thyme, rhubarb, goat and beehive are just a handful of examples.

While the use of this calendar might make little sense for the first hundred pages of the novel, the reader can rest assured that it has a thematic connection to the storyline, which switches suddenly from contemporary London in part one to 1980s’ rural France in part two. There, in a small fictional town called La Fontaine-en-Forêt, lives a group of young activists who adhere to the long-abandoned calendar, in ways that evoke green values, if not, increasingly, activism:

They enjoyed the way that these names harked back to a simpler, pre-industrial way of life, as well as the basically irreligious and non-hierarchical structure that this implied, in contrast to the regular calendar with its saint’s days and Sabbaths, high days and holidays.

Besides this thematic connection, the chapter titles figure as sort of prompts of imagination for the author, who applies whatever rural item is the name of the day to the text of the novel. Mandragore, which I mentioned above, turns out to be the brand name of the potential murder weapon. Sometimes the connection seems more humorous than anything else, and I assume White has had a fun although challenging time trying to incorporate every item: in the “Thon (Tuna)” chapter, for instance, White offers Susan tuna steaks for supper at his place, without a deeper meaning that at least I am aware of.

The second visible experimentation that White applies to his novel are the highlighted words, which in real life are answers to the Quick Crosswords in the Guardian magazine from 1985, each chapter utilizing every answer for one day’s crossword, except every seventh chapter, because the Guardian did not come out on Sundays. Using mandated vocabulary might seem an even more artificial addition than the Republican Calendar, but it is, in fact, fascinating to follow how White fares. In some cases, he might manage to include several of the answers in one sentence, like here: “Later on, after he had awoken from a strange, Orlando-like nightmare full of intimations of immortality and in which a spell seemed to have been cast upon him or her by a mysterious French nun…” Sometimes, when the day’s crossword offers words like “Norma,” “Venus,” “modesty,” and “hyperactive,” you can almost guess the resulting train of thought, as a boy called JJ daydreams about his friend Sylvie:

If Sylvie had been Norma Jean herself, or if she had emerged from the sea and been borne, Venus-like – naked, and barely protecting her modesty – by fragrant winds on a great Vulval shell to some Arcadian shore, she could scarcely have appeared more beautiful to JJ than the already did. Nor could the connection between her beauty and his desire have been more profound. What was a nineteen-year-old boy with a hyperactive imagination who had been mistaken for a punk to do in this world of adults and – he wished – sexual possibility?

The mandated vocabulary is also linked to the story in the way that Rex is often seen with the magazine next to him, eager to solve the daily puzzle. Moreover, the solving of puzzles is an obvious analogy to his career as a detective and the novel itself as crime fiction. Therefore, in interesting ways, the diegetic level is reflected in the type on the page.

These two specific features of the novel suggest, and the blurb on the cover confirms, that The Fountain in the Forest is rooted in Oulipian writing, a style of literary experimentation based on constraints, dating back to 1960s’ France, and whose most famous advocators were the likes of George Perec, who famously wrote a novel, La disparition, without once using the letter “e.”

It is often acknowledged that restrictions feed creativity, and it is very much true here, considering what an original piece of writing The Fountain in the Forest turns out to be. It is a rather remarkable achievement when you keep in mind the constraints, or, perhaps, that is exactly why it excels. The story follows many conventions of the genre, and therefore does not belong to the kind of books I tend to read, and that is why I can neither be the best judge of them, but the experiments make the book matter much more, transcending the genre while simultaneously belonging to it on one level. (I don’t want to go too deep into this year’s Booker longlist, yet I can’t help thinking how much more this novel achieves compared to Belinda Bauer’s Snap). Furthermore, the novel is intellectually stimulating, yet never elitist. This is thanks to White’s interesting mixing of a popular genre with a challenging style.

I am not completely comfortable with some of the sexual elements in the novel, although I suppose they are justifiable in the light of Rex’s character: perhaps his raw, unconsidered sexual urges are a nod to the 80s, like the crosswords, to times long before the #MeToo movement, or maybe he’s just a realistic character who we, as readers, are meant to be shocked about. Being the first book in a trilogy, only time will tell what happens on the date that Rex and Susan go on in the novel’s last pages – assuming that the following volumes continue the same story. The Fountain in the Forest is definitely intriguing enough to entice me to read a second or even a third installment.