Lucy and Todd

The Server – Tim Parks

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm
What is reality? I hear you sigh. The Server is a deft and not merely entertaining re-positing of this troublesome question, full of that Western doubt which is of course hastening our downfall. But that’s what we make our novels from. Beth Marriot is a witty, troubled force of nature, a singer in a successful band. Out of post-adolescent chaos she causes a death and comes close to dying herself. She resorts to the Dasgupta Institute, a Buddhist retreat. After her initial journey to enlightenment, she stays on, for months, as a “server”. She works in the kitchen, dreamily “in love” with the way carrots look at dawn, the zen of chopping them. Beth is intense and brainy, full of strop. Like many partial converts she goes ballistic when anyone else breaks the rules.

She’s trying to work out whether this enormously complex experience will be the one that sorts her. She finds a revealing diary. It belongs to Geoff, a London publisher, who’s come to the Dasgupta in the throes of familiar middle-aged crisis: wife trouble, mistress trouble, daughter trouble and business trouble. Establishment chaos meets alternative chaos.

Reading Geoff’s diary foments a lot in Beth – there’s the illicit thrill of reading it (writing, like sex, is forbidden here) and it puts her in mind of the world outside for the first time in weeks. We watch her attitude change, a new maturity takes over. She imagines herself playing the characters in Geoff’s life. An adept with “older men”, when she finally figures out which male he is she can’t help throwing her riot grrrl sexuality at him – just to see if it still works.

We’re on retreat, too, in The Server – it’s got an enjoyable, admirable feeling of pause. Tim Parks is very good at rubbing beliefs up against each other, which leads to subtle, unsettling questions. Is the kind of state now abuilding going to let us keep our concept of self? Does the destruction of that self signal the end of civilisation, or a new kind of “acceptance” necessary to our survival? Beth and Geoff leave the Dasgupta together, but they’re going to frustrate our piddling Western hopes. They’re not going to fall in love just for our silly need of closure, even though Geoff checks out her mini-skirted backside in a pub. Have they, in the end, opted not to submit to the system of Buddhism, to stick with the chaotic self of the west? Or diverted, soothed for a time, are they now more “aware of their suffering”?

The book is full of observations that are quirky, witty and deep: in his frazzled state, Geoff has the idea to start an “UNpublishing company”, a firm that contracts to keep quality literary work firmly away from the public: “I’m pleased to say we can offer you a contract to destroy this story in all extant editions typescripts electronic files and whatsoever other relevant media. Our offer will be for world rights of course.”

TMcE

The Herald, May 20, 2012

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