Men, like a kind of violent infestation, come and go around Alison Cheetham in her mother Emmeline’s house. One night they’re beating up the women, the next they themselves have faces like raw mince. One minute they’re twisting your nipple, the next they’re up north with some other blokes and a van. They like to keep to themselves, along with their dogs and deals, in the sheds on the waste ground at the back; but they can appreciate an audience too, and they often come into the house to have a wash, or a vomit, or a wank in the lavatory–though god knows why they should need that, since Emmeline is obliging enough. Their gibberish and violence make sure nothing in Alison’s life has a shape. School is difficult. There’s never any money. Her mother, increasingly confused by a diet of downers and beer, ends up with an invisible friend called Gloria to talk to; while at five years old, locked in the attic where she’ll be safe from both the men and her own anger, Alison meets Mrs McGibbet, her first guide to spirit world.
Twenty-odd years later, we find her travelling the M25 and its environs, her surname both more and less appropriate than it seems. Inside the car, something dead is beginning to stir. Outside it’s still a male landscape, full of “perjured ministers and burnt out paedophiles” But at each turn-off, each junction, women are waiting to know their fate. Alison has turned her childhood to her advantage and become a professional psychic. With her spirit guide Morris and her personal assistant Colette, she brings if not enlightenment then comfort to the municipal halls and raddled old theatres of Greater London.
Spirit world is business. The medium provides a service having little to do with mediumship except inasmuch as mediumship is its rationale. She brings relief for the condition of being human, especially the condition of being a woman. In this blackest and most sarcastic of comedies, though they shape the narrative in absentia, men are seen to be few and far between, feeble even when they are pivotal, a sideshow to the real event. The real event is a baby, “wound up with colic, twisting in the arms of an unseen mother,” and “preying on her attention as if he were entangled in her gut”. Similar powerful images–of disease, of anxiety, of the loss of ambition, the revealed emptiness of love, the incessant, unrelenting, unrewarding demands on your strength–build up a composite of the condition spiritualism has been designed to alleviate with its shabby but effective balm of charlatanry. They are the answer to the question, What is the role of the medium ? and perhaps more importantly, What is the condition of women that they should still need one ?
Alison Cheetham’s world has needed a damp cloth over it since about 1975. There are nights when you look down from the platform to see only closed stupid faces. You have to win their hearts. A correct guess about her kitchen fitments, Alison says, will make any woman drop her guard: only then will the dead speak. “I’m getting a broken wedding ring. It’s this lady here in beige. Is it you, darling ?” The dead are often as bad as the audience. They cluster round you so desperately, but all they want to do is talk about cardigans. They undergo a “mingling and mincing and mixing of personality… the fusing of the personal memory with the collective” and thus mistake themselves easily for Queen Victoria or their own older sister. Eventually they shuffle away, but before that, just like the audience, they always ask the wrong questions, “has the number 64 gone, are we having a fry-up this morning ? Never, am I dead ?”
Alison’s life is, on balance, less rewarding than her audience’s. She can’t sleep. She eats compulsively. Her neighbours think she’s a lesbian because she lives with Colette. Meanwhile, in spirit world–which for Alison runs together with the world we call our own, and about which she dare tell no one, especially the punters, anything approaching the truth–Donnie Aitkenside, Keef Capstick, Pikey Pete the gypsy and Morris himself, all those violent clowns who tormented her mother, still surround her, farting, scratching their balls, driving off on mysterious errands in other people’s lorries. Morris wraps himself in the curtains like an ectoplasmic cyst. He licks out Alison’s glass as soon as she leaves the room, “running his yellow fissured tongue around the rim.” He pursues his sly attritive war with the psychically illiterate but ever-watchful Colette. He is less an entity than a programme of spiritual disinformation, and through him the worst forces in Alison’s life are reorganising. Men like Pikey Pete may be dead but they never let a woman go. They want revenge for the thing Alison did to wrest control from them, all those years ago.
As in all Mantel’s work, dualities abound. Beyond Black is an odd-couple story, of a medium who is fat and generous and her assistant who is thin and stingy. Equally, it opposes the dead to the living, spirit world to our world, the professional to the punter, and the commodified to the real; while as a side issue the emasculated antics of contemporary men are compared with the grosser folkways of their fathers and grandfathers, to the keen detriment of both. But these oppositions are never secure. They infect one another, they share boundary conditions, they steal one another’s best tunes. Like spirit world itself they refuse to remain pure. Do the dead live ? It seems possible that they do. Are the living dead ? In Mantel’s view that’s a no-brainer. Meanwhile, braided between them, optic fibres of ectoplasm bring us sudden tantalising glimpses of the ghosts of Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Beryl Bainbridge–and of Mantel herself, who haunts this book the way she haunted An Experiment in Love or A Change of Climate. Much like a novelist, Alison sees “straight through the living, to their ambitions and secret sorrows.” It’s the psychic’s job, the author reminds us, “to introduce her audience to the metaphorical side of life”. With that, you appreciate how clever a title Giving Up the Ghost really was.
Mantel, of course, shares initials with that other well known HM, Queen Elizabeth II, to whom the novel’s epigraph– “There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge” –is attributed. Beyond Black takes up the psychic narrative of HM’s Britain from the “fag end of the Thatcher/Major years”, presenting it as a state, or a state of mind, in which business has begun to replace our world with a more cost effective version. In this insincere but earnest Legoland, few people still speak English: instead they choose the faux-technical languages of estate agency, financial services or niche journalism, a Babel which makes it hard to know if you’re being sold cosmetics or car wheels. This is sometimes very funny, sometimes as wearing as it is in real life; but the effect is instantly recognisable. It’s the weakening or wearing away, the theft, of the real. You don’t buy chairs any more, you buy click’n’fix korner-group seating. You don’t buy a shed, you buy a garden building. (It’s called the “Balmoral”.) You don’t buy a house, you buy a unit of new build within a nautically-themed development. “Some contraction” to the room-sizes can be expected during the course of construction, and every humanising modification–including Artex-free ceilings–will come as a chargeable extra. The news of this will be brought to you by someone dissociated but venal who speaks in a New Zealand accent and religiously ends every sentence with a question mark. By the time Hilary Mantel has finished reminding you of such exchanges, you are no longer laughing: she has made them a metonym for the whole of the rest of your experience.
For Mantel, the prolonged defining moment of this condition occured in 1997, with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Spiritual business identified with Diana; from the word go: she was its patron saint. Women mapped their lives on to hers, and from the Wedding to the Funeral it was the responsibility of the psychic to make sense of that entanglement. Mantel’s own act of mediumship, when it comes, is quick and unforgiving: the Princess breaks through to Alison as a version of Alison’s mother. She has pinned some of her own press cuttings to the skirt of her wedding dress–even so, she can barely remember her own name, much less that of her sons. “Oh, fuckerama! Whatever are they called ?” And then: “Give my love to… Kingy. And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy.” Confused, drunk, mangy, she wanders off. When some people die, Alison explains, they become vague, they start to dissipate immediately. But we conclude that spirit world is as vapid and chaotic as the world of time; Diana has deconstructed herself first to her media function– Hello! Woman –then to the much darker act of self-abandonment which underwrites that. It’s an edgy scene, almost too funny to laugh at, and certainly the most bizarre in the book. For a moment we might be in a Steve Bell cartoon.
Part of the exhilaration of Beyond Black is its sense of being a tightrope walk. Any moment, you feel, it might default to undisciplined satirical mayhem–an episode of The Vicar of Dibley written by Will Self. What gives us our sense of security, our confidence in the artiste, is her management of the odd couple. Whatever opposition they represent in Hilary Mantel’s metaphor, it is both irreconcilable and self-generating. Colette is all praxis and no spirit. Alison is open to the world beyond, but she has trouble finding her shoes. They’re never allowed to climb up out of the oubliette their times have contrived for them. Alison, soft, slow, poor at figures, prefers pretty scarves and frocks. When she moves you can hear the rustle of Edwardian plumes and silks. Being a receptacle of the dead is a trade for the large-bodied, the generous of spirit — “In a small space. she seemed to use up more than her share of the oxygen; in return her skin breathed out moist perfumes, like a giant tropical flower.” Colette, on the other hand, you would hardly notice. With her “cyclist’s legs” and lycra, aerobicised and self-assessment-accounted to a shadow, she has no presence beyond what can be suggested by a push-up bra. Her mind is “quick shallow and literal”, her character assertive, and she has an instant grasp of any kind of commerce: but spiritually–and indeed in most ordinary senses–she’s an organism with no function. Even when she yearns for something more, her quest boils down quickly to the discovery that if learning to read the Tarot cards is too difficult, you had better “employ someone qualified to read them for you.” Service economy engages spirit world, spiritual business ensues, and a codependency is made in heaven.
In Colette, without core though she is, we find the core of Hilary Mantel’s savage, startlingly subversive and raucously amusing novel. Colette is drawn to Alison because though to herself she seems alive, she is already one of the dead. Perfume doesn’t last on her skin, and her feet fail to indent the carpet. “What’s wrong with me ?” she thinks. “When I’m gone I leave no trace.” We know exactly what will happen. She will cling to Alison for a while, unsure of what she needs, then drift back into the spirit world of Blair’s Britain, where, as long as you can earn your living and invest your funds, a banal self-absorbtion is the order of the day. The defining characteristic of the dead, after all, is that they have no life. That’s their appeal to the medium, who, though she has a duty to speak for them, exists in a condition of solepsism hardly less intense than theirs.