Paul Kavanagh’s latest novella, Iceberg, has been available to the reading public for a while now. I’ve been reading it much longer than some would argue is needed for a book that clocks in at just under 120 pages. Disregard that. There’s a lot to soak up here. But before saying anything more of its written content, I want to briefly praise the illustrator for some really spectacular work. Alex Chilvers smartly complements this truly enjoyable read with some accompanying images well placed amid the novella’s transitions. Kudos, too, to Honest Publishing for putting this whole thing together in one neat, nice package.
I want stories that keep me planted unsoundly both in and out of reality, which is why I’m so glad for the existence of Iceberg. Kavanagh, in the highest compliment I can give to anyone who’s ever succeeded at publishing a story, has both a voice all his own and an original take on things. So in what manner does this then play out in Iceberg? Primarily in how the world Kavanagh’s created is just a little bit off, like a framed portrait that’s nailed to a wall and which at first seems to be crooked but then you realize it’s the picture itself that’s crooked. The frame is perfectly level. And maybe you begrudge that person for seeing things in a way you didn’t and thinking it a good idea to tilt the camera slightly, purposefully when they took said picture. But then you realize how much you like what they’ve done; you like its look and feel. They’ve done something you hadn’t thought of, and they’ve done it very well.
(Briefly, since I can’t recall what order I may reveal potential spoilers, consider this review rife with them and consider yourself spoiler alerted.)
Meet Don and Phoebe, two plebeians in a world seem cut from parts A Clockwork Orange and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a dash of 1984 just to make their plight extra hopeless. They live in fear of their cruel landlord, who imposes himself on them and forces them to buy cable at an ala carte (which is to say exorbitant) rate. TV specializes in programming “that delighed in showing the nadirs society had to offer.” It’s a nightmare world in which they’re forced to run from roaming street gangs of violent youths. So little, if anything, truly belongs to them — similar to the world inhabited by the the Proles of 1984. Everything is in disrepair, or as Kavanagh keenly describes, “violence and thievery were as common as dog excrement on the uneven pavements.”
An even earlier paragraph really sets a ton for the wasteland that follows:
The lived in a grim Northern town.
It had been shaped by the wind and the rain, by the screams, the cries, the punches and the kicks, the shattered glass that covered the roads, the vandalized shutters, the bars on shop windows and pubs, the flashing lights and sirens, the fear, the paranoia, the hatred, the abuse, the abandonment, the mildew, the mold, the moss, the smell of verdigris that soiled, by the nodes of wasteland that housed the homeless, by the failures and the diseased, by the imprisoned and the unemployed.
There is nothing for the people of this Northern town. Nothing to hope for. Any sliver of a dream is met with immediate resistance from any of a dozen or quadrillion forces. It’s as if the collective consciousness has decided there can be no good in the world, then proceeded to let that world take shape. And despite this, good finds a way to happen. Happiness finds a way to be achieved. Or at least that was my own takeaway.
Phoebe says, “We live in a world where anything can happen.”
And this singular line might encapsulate the entire spirit of Kavanagh’s story, ironical as it seems at the time of its delivery. Despite the obstacles, amazing things can happen. His protagonists can go on an adventure very similar to the one of James in his giant peach. They can make their own luck, as is the case with “winning” the lottery. So leads to inheritance of a giant iceberg all their own.
The truth is they didn’t actually win anything, not by the standards of anyone handing it out to them. It’s quite the opposite, we see, at the end of part 1. Another of the many fraudulent internet scams preying on people who are as desperate as Phoebe and Don.
The powers that be don’t give things away. Or so it would seem is Kavanagh’s estimation. But that doesn’t mean you too can’t have them. And it doesn’t equate to stealing. There are peaceful means to your own ends, too. In Iceberg, they get their start with a long and fateful journey. That Phoebe was scammed becomes tangential, an afterthought. Important as a way of understanding that the lottery is less a part of their mission than what they actually find. The happines there to be found.
To me, Iceberg is one of the truly perceptive stories of our present times. Kavanagh identifies the spectacular incongruities found in the so-called free world. Yes, good things are to be had, but so many forces in society seem dead set against your obtaining them. So much so, that a little delusion seems to be a good thing. Believing you’ve won something, anything, can be a great blessing. And going out to retrieve said prize is the true place in which redemption can be found.
Ignore the naysayers. To cherry-pick an apt line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.” The distinction between today and Thoreau’s day, the one Kavanagh seems to be hitting on, is that it is no longer simply the old guard that tells you what there is to be achieved and the way in which you must go about achieving. It is any number of other embodiments, institutions, the negative purveyors of culture we’re often unwittingly exposed to via, for one example, the nightly news. Why is it that if it bleeds it therefore must lead? Are we really so debauched? So fascinated by the macabre? Or is it, at least partly, that people crave seeing others with problems far worse than their own, as a mode of assurance that things a.) REALLY are that bad and b.) that of course others are the ones with the real problems, and my lot while bad doesn’t even compare to how much worse it COULD be.
We should be thankful. Really. And contented.
But maybe not. Maybe we can rightfully aspire to more, without infringing on others’ right to do the same. And maybe that would improve society as a whole.
My favorite part of the novel is the final segment. There’s a moment where the issue is abstractly in doubt. Death becomes the the term around which the narrative gravitates. And then, suddenly, the iceberg becomes real. It’s lambent. It’s tactile. It’s a place where they can have what they’ve always wanted. Antithetical as an iceberg might seem to the notion of abundance, at least at first blush, we find it’s capable of providing everything the couple needs. As one previous companion of theirs had noted “…the sea like a loving wife will produce babies lots and lots of beautiful babies.” “The sea always provides.” But it isn’t just the sea that provides, unless of course you deem the iceberg itself to be a provision of the sea. Soon they’ve carved out a fantastical dwelling, and a garden grows on their iceberg.
The iceberg, meanwhile, is not stationary, and Don and Phoebe are sent along on a new adventure.
I would say happy ever afterly, but in that deeply human way anyone should be allowed to hope for and aspire to.