Frank Semple’s first new book for a decade impresses TOBY FERGUSSON

The Broken Frame by Frank Semple,  344 pp, $18.99, (Lorrimer Jackson);  The Indiana Tower by Frank Semple (1998), out of print; Swimming Holes and Other Stories by Frank Semple (1990), out of print; Cutting Teeth by Frank Semple (1990), out of print; Deep Within The Wheat by Frank Semple (1989), out of print

Reviewing Franklyn “Frank” Semple’s splendid gothic novel ‘The Indiana Tower’ in 1998, the critic John Freibeger politely noticed that Semple was “not a writer over encumbered with popularity”.  It was, and is, a fair comment.

In fact, in the years since, Semple has proven less encumbered than ever and – much like James Wilcox or Chuck Kinder – he sits untouched both by the campus or the bestseller list (one of the ones who, as Jim Crace sadly said of the great Wilcox, “has enjoyed The Respect, but not the Sales or the Reputation”).

When, in 1989, he finally finished Deep Within The Wheat (his second book, but the first novel to bring him to any kind of popular attention) the exhausted Semple said of getting the novel done that it was “kind of like riding a dead buffalo backwards for five or six years and then discovering you were going to the wrong address”.  Deep Within The Wheat, a slow-moving and elegant book, told the story of Farmer – a single farmer running thirteen fields in Carolina.  The book alienated many with its size, an almost absurdly hefty 1282 pages, and its intricate, repetitive descriptions of farm life (the New Yorklitterateurs viciously mocked its 96 page description of his tractor and its 34 page single sentence hymn to a stalk of wheat at sunset).

It is clear now that Semple’s prose was a detailed and important arrival at what (the Iowa critic) Marc Verimeux has called ‘New Placidisme’ – bewitching the reader into compliance with the soft, unstoppable prose.  It is difficult not to be knocked over by this passage – which comes from the section on the tractor’s front left tyre:

Softly run soft run and crushed with green-grey, green-blue mud, the organ intricate octagons and chipped octagons of the first two inches above the ground itself, made their way into a second and a third and a fourth set of broken octagons as the inches moved on up the wheel the mud green-grey now blue-grey then green-grey again; each eight-sided short-lifted heavy-lipped black rubber piece lifted an eight of an inch from the smooth, clotted groves and valleys of the tough and scalded rubber; the black, blue-black of the first octagon gave way to the grey of the second, and the third returned to black …

In 1990 came both ‘Cutting Teeth’ and his book of short stories ‘Swimming Holes‘.  “I plan,” he told his agent at the time, “to take on the New York establishment and show them I can do it too”.  He failed. Cutting Teeth was a desperately misjudged and mismanaged attempt at a vicious Manhatten work in a sub-McInerney manner (plenty of martinis and grand talk, but very little talent).  Swimming Holes, eleven stories from the Upper East Side, was even worse.  Semple changed agents, disappeared back to Raleigh, and re-thought.

Finally, then, a year late, came The Indiana Tower.  In TIT, the narrative eye roaming from the newly built water tower of the title, Semple began the trick of looking into the horrors of small communities in failing towns.  Into vivid detail came Mrs Lady and Mrs Dallyrod (“their hearts [were] like a single bag of burnt sugar in the rain), and Aggy Powers (“scarred beautiful by hating”) and Hoho Jones: a bubbling cast of flyover grotesques of exceptional sadness.  He brought the “placidisme” together with a trick for the Carolina Gothic chat which, with the exception perhaps of Forrard Marks and Henry Mainwaring, has yet to be matched.  Talk even raised (at low levels, in small studios) of a short experimental film being made.  There was talk (wildly inaccurate as it turned out) that Mike Landis was interested in working on the project.

And so to today and the pale bunting we might hang out.  That Semple has created this delicate new novel, A Broken Frame, must be, then, a cause for quiet excitement; though printed in small numbers by Lorrimer-Jackson (a very small house working out of Raleigh, NC) any new Semple work is a hopeful step towards “the Reputation”.

Like nearly all of his earlier work A Broken Frame turns on the lives of a small number of desperate people in rural North Carolina.  The terrifying centre of their lives is the obese bon-vivant Mr Farraday: monstrously dominating the lives of the small (unnamed) town.  The bankrupt owner of the collapsed mill (“his mood ground away to nothing by years under the fat cogs”), Farraday is a close relative of the typical Semple anti-heroes (Fat Arthur in ‘Swimming Holes’, Mrs Dallyrod in ‘The Indiana Tower’).

Farraday initially moves in with the Tenkers – a young, terrified, married couple. Oddly, he passes himself off as a lodger (though in one of the truly unheimlich scenes of the early part of the novel, we see Farraday return to his own enormous home in the middle of the night and walk naked through its many rooms).  Will and Sally Tenker, clerks at the local bank, find themselves increasingly losing their will before Farraday – their families soon become increasingly involved, and an obsessive cult grows around him.

In the second half of the novel, the story is passed to a typical Semplian narrator, Stovie.  He takes us on a tour of the ruins that came after Farraday’s domination:  “that man,” says Stovie of Farraday, “was like a slippy sqealer I once saw – a pig with teeth sharpened up and which ate the other pigs.  A hog smacking vampire pig in a lemon light yellow suit”.  It is a metaphor, of course, of American collapse since the end of the Cold War; of the agricultural world that passed with the super-farm (mocked here, the one false note of the book, in the form of ‘Bang-titty-bang Farm Enterprises’) and of the general diminishment of the human heart.  This chaotic, apocalyptic vision is, in its way, closer and truer than any work yet.  Revisiting Deep Within The Wheat after this, you see that it was accuracy that Semple sought – accuracy above all.  Trying to tie this into hundreds of thousands of words was one route (and not unsuccessful) – coming at it through the lens of the small town and its fewer characters, he has made it just as successfully.

Once asked (during a lecture given in Raleigh in 1994), why he wrote so continuously about the lives of the South, Semple answered:

“[it is] a great mistake, and I hear it said all the time, that you must go out and up and around and down to find the language.  The language with which we all speak, that’s the key.  I would ask for a dead grey horse to take me to my last bone-yard before I would ask to go to the city and find out if they have stories there.”

The journey it seems is over.  Here is, without doubt, Semple’s best work yet.  It can only be hoped it is not his last.

Toby Fergusson


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