Crash of Hennington
The Crash of Hennington is a first novel by Patrick Ness, who is already known as a short-story writer. When the reader reads the subtitle “Welcome to Hennington—Mind the Rhinos”, s/he expects to be steeped in exotic surroundings, complete with fauna and wild populations ready to massacre one another relentlessly. Which is what s/he is actually given to feed on. “The Crash” refers both to the herd of rhinos surrealistically roaming the streets of Hennington while housewives and city counsellors alike go about their respective businesses and to the crash of a civilization of fitter monkey-offspring gone…bananas. First staging a purely conventional yet uncompromising race to mayoralty—which can in no way recall any current events—the novel gradually deconstructs assumed perspectives until it rides the surf of the absurd.
Three sets of characters are opposed in turn: the first one could be called conservative in as much as its members are all in favour of maintaining the pre-established order, with Mayor Cora Larsson’s protégé Max Latham at its head. This set is depicted as animal-loving, pacifying, uncorrupted, its members incarnating the traditional values of faithfulness, family love, logic and reason. The second one is the clan of evil, managed by Tybald Noth, a sort of rewrite of Stephen King’s Randal Flagg in The Stand, clad in black, green-eyed, black-haired, bringing destruction and disaster in his wake. On board the same ship is Thomas Banyon, the biological son of the local tycoon, an arched-legged freak aspiring to power who, like other freaks in history, believes that “God is with him” in the pitiful vengeful war he wages against the Establishment. Last but not least, Theophilus Velingtham, the head deacon, who in time will lead his own people across the deserted streets of Hennington, submerging the city with a blood-red sea of chaos, murder, fire and brimstone reminiscent of the worst plagues of Egypt. In-between wanders the crash of rhinos, whose leader’s mind the reader is given privileged access to, strong of a few dozen members, disciplined, considering that the group is the only motivation worth living for. If outside the group, a rhino can only be dead. The leader, a female, has faith in her own mission as the saviour of a race doomed to roam the surface of the streets of their small world, channelled towards a zoo-like ghetto and to probable extermination. In their midst, a simpleton with an ever-bleeding wound, one Maggerty the Rhinoherd, forsaken by the human race.
Around the three sets there revolves a hotchpotch of peripheral characters whose caricature-like portraits recall celebrated mythical figures—Lazarus called back from the dead, Romeo and Juliet, the prodigal son, among others—as well as allegorize the unfettered excesses of carnivals in their reversal of values.
However, the moment the festivities are likely to begin, doom comes hovering over the scene and swallows each and everyone, blurring prospects, destroying hopes, leaving no possible exit in the wings. Too many sins have been committed: pride, greed, lust, lechery, murder have changed Hennington into Sodom or Gomorra; Thomas Banyon’s Hennington Hills Golf Course is no other than a refined palace of lust where cow-like Jacki produces her pint-a-milk-a-day for the regressive pleasure of addicted suckers, while Peter Wickham or Maggie Bonham entertain other regulars, with the help of Forum, the new absolute magic maker whose name rings the bell of other opium dens: “God bless Forum. Forum’s name be praised” [p. 30].
That world of unlimited pleasure, of unrestrained sexuality, of unbridled debauchery is but one side of the coin tossed by gambling fate. When the coin falls on the other side, it spells destruction and the murder of all liberties. It spells fanaticism, intolerance, holy war, and fundamentalism, as well as terrorism and genocide.
The revelling program of former bacchanals is suddenly superseded by the butchery of random executions. The world has regressed into that of Nazi Germany, of Orwell’s 1984, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, or Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. History has once again invaded literature and forces its way in, compelling a different reading of the novel.
The Rhinos enter the scene again, untimely witnesses to the carnage that is decimating the city. They bring with them their heritage of absurdity, their filiation with Ionesco’s own rhinos, with a difference. As in Ionesco’s play, the herd is on the loose; the grocer, his wife, the waitress, the café owner, are all here, in the picture. But in Hennington, people no longer turn into rhinos. That took place once upon a time… but the sufferer, the experiencer of the never-concluded conflict between outside and inside, the poet following the herd is still alive in the character of Maggerty who could, if he had been given a voice, have said like Ionesco (Notes, contre-notes): « Je me vois déchiré par des forces aveugles, montant du plus profond de moi, s'opposant en un conflit désespérant, sans issue […] je ne puis évidemment pas savoir qui je suis, ni pourquoi je suis. »
And this is what The Crash is about: the eternal conflict between man and a universe he can no longer understand, from which all rationale seems to have disappeared and which questions his very existence. What happens in the novel is the projection of an inner struggle reflected in the thoughts and fears of the rhino leader: the tragedy of the unthinkable that forever feeds on the primitive impulses of man, betraying his essential barbarity. Man as an instinctual animal, driven by his desires and his thirst for power, but also man as a member of another herd, in which individual will is absorbed by the will of the group, be it a political party, a congregation, an army or just a mob. Man dissolving into the group and losing all traces of humanity, repeating the gestures of others, chanting the words of others, the sheep following the shepherd to their own destruction. Even the logical and the sane perish in the world of the absurd. But what reason cannot achieve, nature can.
The Rhino herd will survive, although many of its members have been murdered, just as Max and his daughter Talon will survive too, because nature prevails over reason. Contrary to Ionesco’s rhinos, Patrick Ness’s crash is no metaphor of barbarity and absurdity. It is the only point of reference in a world gone mad. It is the only trace of beauty and nobleness in the hideous carnage human beings are re-enacting time and again. It is the only remnant of a chivalrous age when man fought to defend his honour, and that of his tribe. The forces gathering to destroy society are the selfsame social forces that have created it. Totalitarianism is being born from the spirit of democracy in the same way as intolerance has at times proceeded from charity. The lessons of the past will never be learnt and alienation keeps freedom at bay. Some fifty years after Ionesco, Ness revives the rhinoceroses, here in the midst of worldwide madness and terror. Can this be accidental? Can the emphasis on a people’s mass reaction in the face of traumatic events be completely fortuitous? Will planned extermination ever be an answer to mass murder? Does not all this look like a typical case of mass hysteria?
The book is divided into six parts containing each around twenty micro-chapters (117 as a whole): Part 1, “Welcome to Hennington” [pp. 5-79]; Part 2, “There are no ends, only changes” [pp. 80-155]; Part 3, “All bets may or may not be final” [pp. 157-238]; Part 4, “Commodities” [pp. 241-324]; Part 5, “Hopeful campaigns” [pp. 327-406]; Part 6, “Election day”[pp. 409-486]. The regularity instilled by the construction in six parts with nearly the same number of pages reinforces the feeling of predetermination that hangs over the whole. An age-old tragedy is being re-enacted, the tragedy of mankind forever destroying itself and seeing its own children, like eagles, devouring its promethean entrails.
The Crash of Hennington is a surrealist novel in which all genres intertwine but none prevails. Between Old Testament wrath and New Testament humanism, the pendulum keeps oscillating, moving over characters imprisoned in a pit-of-hell of a city. Characters who are labelled either Rumour or non-Rumour from birth, who go through such ordeals as only the Book of Revelations could contain but who ultimately survive the Apocalypse, saved by renewed faith in themselves, in true love and in the natural order of things.
Ness plays on universals and plays rather well. He strikes the keys of satire, sci-fi, the supernatural, the absurd, the romantic, the revolting, the tragic, the humorous, whenever the tone suits the words. He surprises us continuously without ever leaving us stranded in the mesh of his intrigues. For those reasons and many more, The Crash of Hennington is indeed a good read, especially for those of us who delight in intertextual links.