THE LONG DRY
by Cynan Jones
Coffee House Press, 117 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
We are in a Welsh farm. A cow goes missing. Gareth, the owner, spends the day searching for it. It is during days like these and it is in stories like these, of a Welsh farmer searching his property for a pregnant cow while his wife, Kate, stays in bed with a migraine, that we gain greater insight into what life is. We don’t need a great story line or a long adventure to be able to understand the nature of a person. We just need to be privy to their wandering thoughts as they find things to do with themselves on a warm, dry day.
Cynan Jones is a Welsh author who has written several other short novels to acclaim in the U.K. and, in the past three years, in the U.S. He portrays the heartbreak and simplicity of ordinary Welsh people. The Long Dry is his first novel, published in 2006, and now due to Jones’s American readership, being published in the U.S. As in Everything I Found on the Beach (discussed in an essay on these pages by reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin) and The Dig, the language and plot of The Long Dry are as sparse and dry as the landscape being depicted and yet they convey an emotional power I have rarely felt in other books:
Gareth passes the car where his son used to play so much. He has to go back and tell his wife he loves her. For a second he sees the car as if it was new—the times they went for picnics in it—rising from the brambles, and only seconds later does his sense fill in the mouse droppings, and spiders, and the thick dust that is on the windows now.
The story is told largely from Gareth’s third person personal perspective as he searches for the cow, and Kate, who, upset with her husband, has closed herself in her room with one of her not-infrequent migraines. At times, the point of view shifts to other characters, notably the cow itself as it goes wandering crazily and pregnant through the bogs, and also two unnamed boys who while on a walk make the difficult, uncomfortable decision of violently putting a rabbit out of its misery.
One of the points Jones makes through this medley of uneven perspectives is the incompleteness of a story told by only one character. The inclusion of the two young boys points most directly to this: their segment comes right after Jones describes Gareth walking past the dead rabbit, crushed under bits of concrete. Gareth stares at it, and “it infuriates him that men are capable of such articulate cruelty.” In the boys’ passage that follows, Jones reveals how the killing of the rabbit was an act of compassion, how it pained the boys to do it, the older one realizing “he had to hurt the rabbit and in him was the horrible slow panic of knowing something like this.” Not only does the older boy feel compassion for the rabbit, but also for his younger brother, who is having to witness such an act. Thus Gareth goes on with his day having witnessed what he thinks of as an example of human cruelty, whereas the reader comes out touched by the strength of the two young boys.
This is not the only instance of dramatic irony, in which the reader has not only more information than the characters with which to condition her perception of the story, but also the ability to see how greatly incomplete information influences a character’s perspective. One of the greatest sources of unspoken tension relates to the uneasiness in the relationship between Gareth and Kate. They hardly speak to each other throughout the novel—there is not much dialogue anyway—but their thoughts are weighed down by the worry that their relationship is fraying at the seams, as well as by the guilt they endure in having contributed to it. Feeling that she has changed from the carefree woman that he fell in love with, Gareth is largely frustrated with Kate (he believes the change is due to a series of miscarriages she had), and yet angry with himself for viewing her as weak and angry. One gets the sense that he does not truly love Kate anymore, but stays with her because of the convenience of habit. As he walks through the fields, he tells himself, “I must never forget how perfectly built she is […] She is changing now, but it does not matter.” The need he has to repeat these facts to himself, and to try and convince himself that her changes are not for the worst, reveal the difficulty he has in doing so.
Kate instead feels pinned down by a more direct guilt produced by the event that has caused a change in her: a one-time encounter with a farmhand in one of the farm’s barns. After the encounter the migraines appeared and she began cutting herself, and now though partly recovered she allows herself to indulge in her weaknesses, flitting off to her room when she feels the migraines come on, leaving her daughter Emmy to deal with the vet, come over to put down the dog. Jones reveals the disconnect that has opened between Gareth and Kate when Gareth decides he will tell Kate he loves her just how she is as she screams at him because a cow has started giving birth while he has been away. Warm aspirations and feelings that are entertained while each is alone shatter when the couple confronts each other.
The problem, Gareth decides at one point, is that “we live too long […] We’re expected to love too much and too long.” He feels this as he realises he is looking ahead to thirty more years with Kate. Jones does not make the same mistake with his novel, which manages to pack all this tension and emotion in a surprisingly short amount of space. The structure of the novel is quite unusual, as it is diced under different headings that all deal with diverse aspects of the farm and the characters’ lives: “Ducks,” “The Farmhand,” “The Vet.” Through all of these sections, however, run the same themes and the same general plot line: the search for the cow. The clear temporal progression of the story—through the narrative, or telling of the story dips from past to present to future easily—calms the otherwise fragmentary nature of the telling that suggests the fragmentation of thought, memory, and life itself; for it reminds us that ultimately we are all subject to the continuous, regular march of time, even when our emotion and thoughts are shaped in other non-linear ways. The structure of the story, and the way it is clumped around certain, always concrete, events and figures, prevents the prose from being flooded by excessive streams-of-consciousness.
But stream-of-consciousness, with the thoughts of the character in question shaping the events and narrative, feels natural in this format. This is most notable when the story is told from the cow’s perspective: “She kept walking in the sun and grubbed the hedge here and there because now the flies were driving her silly, landing on her face all the time, and the cow was very thirsty.” However the switch into another consciousness is never complete, as would happen with Virginia Woolf: there remains always the overriding presence of the third person narrator, who not only maintains a consistent sparse style throughout, but also slips details into the ruminations of characters that they would not know, such as when the cow thinks that “she hadn’t liked the bog, which for a long time had been full of hide-behinds, which were brought across from the lumber camps of Wisconsin and which Gareth’s father had learned about from the American troops he served with.” Most of all, though, there is the way in which the third person narrator has structured the story into sections with headings, flying in the face of a more fluid depiction of consciousness and rather purposefully crafting the story, bringing these lives into being as if they were part of an intricate puzzle that can be gradually understood the more pieces the reader assembles.
The most tragic moment of the story, and a great instance of dramatic irony, relates to the sudden knowledge, revealed slightly more than halfway through the book, the reader gains of what will happen in the future. I will not ruin it here, although I will say that half the tragedy for me was not the future events themselves—amply tragic already—but the matter-of-fact way in which they surprise you; and then the way in which the rest of the novel seems cruel for the characters who, unsuspecting, are slowly traveling towards this future. The greatest irony is when Gavin thinks back on the tragedies that befell his father and envies him. He imagines “that perhaps a crisis would cure them too—would push away the tiny problems that were damaging them like splinters.” The reader can hope so, too—although the nature of the tragedy to come makes it seem unlikely that it will do anything but hurt. Yet in this rumination the reader is met with the crushing naiveté we all have towards our own lives, unable to see, because of our limited perspectives and temporal restrictions, the greater picture.
The past, like the future, is one of the greatest players on the largely empty landscape that is the present. The role of memory, Jones suggests, as the search for the cow and the simple stream of sentences lumber on, is double-edged. There is the one side of it that inevitably resurfaces, undesired, as one continues through the mundanity of life. This is the side that replays Kate’s liaison with the farmhand in her mind as she lies in bed, or that reminds Gareth painfully of how carefree and barefoot Kate used to be. There is also another side, however, one that is actively sought out, exemplified by the diaries of his father that Gareth reads before going to sleep. Gareth himself is conscious early enough in the novel of why he reads them: “To bring some sound into the stillness.” This is a sentiment that is expressed more completely later with Gareth’s musings on the huge length of life. Gareth and Kate care for each other, Gareth cares deeply for the farm, but they have lost all passion and excitement. It feels sometimes that they do what they do simply because they must do something. Herein lies the small, insidious tragedy of the story: that life seems to produce an excess of pain over pleasure. The characters mull over the various tensions they feel throughout the day and although there are certainly moments of pleasure—for instance, Gareth’s love for his daughter Emmy—there is a pervading sense of life being lived out of habit and not desire.
Ultimately this is a beautiful little novel that leaves the reader reeling with the powerful emotions it manages to render in such a short space and with such sparse language. The simple storyline also gives leave for musings over possible symbolism. For example, what does the cow represent? Of course it could represent nothing in particular, simply a lost cow, one of the millions of small reasons we give ourselves to keep living purposefully each day.
What about the long dry? The last sentence of the novel is: “‘It’s raining,’ [Gavin] says, and [Kate] can hardly hear him.” The reason she can hardly hear him is because she’s crying softly, it having hit her how good and brave and strong of a person her husband is. It seems tempting to say then that this long dry refers not only to the weather, but to the tension in the relationship between Gavin and Kate, and the end of the novel suggests that both of those can be brought to a close. However Jones does not supply this interpretation without offering a layer of ambiguity. Although Kate is suddenly overtaken with strong affection for her husband, there still seems to be the problem of miscommunication, of disconnection, that was present throughout the novel, as when Gavin himself was overtaken by love. Then there is the knowledge of the future that haunts the reader and prevents her from seeing the last page as the end of the story. The novel fittingly ends when the long dry ends, but it may be because choosing an ending based on the lives of its characters is too impossible a task. The cow has been found, the rain has come; the rest—the emotions, the difficulties of the characters—have no such easy finish.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.