Review: Anna Kavan, Ice, and slipstream fiction
A lone, nameless woman flees across a barren landscape wrecked by a quickly expanding ice-age. But where she is headed and why she is running is unclear. The protagonist pursues her, and somehow she always remains just out of reach—more a dream or fantasy than a woman of flesh and blood. This dark, desperate and lonely vision of the world, dreamed up by Anna Kavan and published in 1967, evokes a deep sense of angst and fear. The precise form of that fear shifts throughout the book, at times triggered by the harsh turn of the environment, at others by the ruthless warden chasing the woman and causing her to flee.
Ice is a book that is difficult to hold on to—it just keeps wanting to slip through your fingers. On one level, it is a post-apocalyptic story. The entire world is being swallowed from the poles to the equator in encroaching ice. Nations are dissolving while wars rage and nothing will stop the spread of the cold. A military regime has taken command of much of the land that the woman moves through, but even they are hopeless against the change. The woman's search for a safe haven from a climate catastrophe is both hopeless and familiar—Ice could easily be read as an early work of cli-fi.
There's also the underlying story of sexual violence. The woman flees first from her husband, then from the warden—a powerful figure in the new military regime. The protagonist himself is deeply obsessed with the woman and pursues her so single-mindedly as to come close to death. Whether these are three men pursuing one woman, as seems to be the case, or whether they are somehow all different faces of the same man remains ambiguous throughout, but the story of pursuit and desperate escape is timeless.
These descriptions give a greater sense of plot than Ice really offers. Scenes and moments, some of them fantasies and others apparently real, stand side by side and it is often not clear what might be real—or if any of it is. There's also no clear sense of purpose or direction in the woman's journey, nor the protagonist's pursuit of her. Why does she suddenly leave one day, and why does the protagonist pursue her so doggedly?
The woman herself is constantly portrayed as ephemeral, fragile, made of 'venetian glass' or, of course, like a sculpture of ice. She exists in the novel solely as an object of violent desire, nameless (though, all characters in the book are nameless) and without any deep sense of agency or character. Because of her rough childhood, she identifies herself as a victim and, despite her struggles, only ever plays that role throughout. That is, until toward the end when things change a little (though not for the better).
On one level, it's disappointing to see the only female character in the novel fall into this sort of misogynist two-dimensionality. Yet, there's another reading of this situation. From the outset, we know the narrator is unreliable:
Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing.
Is it possible, then, to read the woman not as a two-dimensional creation of Kavan herself, but a portrayal of how she might be seen by this unpleasant narrator? Is Kavan making a point, that the protagonist would see an object of his desire he wants to simultaneously protect and destroy? One reading of the three men from which the woman runs is not that they're all the same person, but that they all embody the same toxicity.
On the subject of unreliable narrators—and unreliable realities—what makes this book especially powerful is how well it slips into the unconscious, evoking in the reader a sense of meaning and purpose even when it's not clearly conveyed through more conventional methods, like plot or character. This is part of the reason Ice is often referred to as an example of the spec fic subgenre "slipstream".
Slipstream refers to non-real narratives that draw on science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, and yet blend these in ways that aren't always clear. There's little of the worldbuilding and dogged internal rationality we expect from any of these genres. But it would be a mistake to call this story "magical realism" because there's nothing very real about this story. The core of slipstream fiction is cognitive estrangement; that which should be familiar seems strange, and vice versa. By raising deep questions about the nature of self and reality, slipstream fiction draws the reader into seeing things in new and sometimes challenging ways.
But it seems to me an important element of slipstream is the space it leaves for change, flexibility and interpretation. My impression on reading Ice wasn't that it was a straightforward text with a subtext sitting there waiting to be discovered. Environmentalist or gendered readings are certainly there. But it felt more like Kavan was giving me something much more impressionistic or surreal that would resonate on a deeper level, so that in the lack of structure and meaning I could create meanings things for myself.
Ice has stayed with me for a long time. Images of that woman driving through relentless darkness and cold continue to haunt me, and yet it also offers a sad vision of endurance and, perhaps, strength.