Reading The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell

The Ninth Circle – Alex Bell
(Gollancz, 2008)

This novel begins with an arresting image: a man wakes up on the floor of a room he doesn’t recognise. His face is glued to the floor with someone else’s blood. He has no idea how he comes to be in such a bizarre situation. In fact, he has no idea who he is at all. In an effort to, as he puts it, avoid fading ‘right out of existence’, our narrator, who quickly, and maybe a little too conveniently, discovers that his name is Gabriel, decides to keep a journal in which he records his discoveries about himself and his situation.

The first-person narrator is traditionally unreliable; we have no one’s word but the narrator’s that he or she is telling the truth, whatever that means. In daily life, if someone tells us a story we can often verify or refute it via secondary sources. In fiction, we are at the mercy of the narrator. In which case, what are we to make of Gabriel’s story? His situation is peculiar: he is in Budapest, in a beautiful flat, with a seemingly limitless supply of money, and no idea how he came to be there. He is aware almost immediately that he does not seem to be subject to the same bodily needs as other people: he can go without food or sleep for days at a time. All he can do is wait, convinced that sooner or later other people will return and tell him what’s happening.

The days hang heavy for Gabriel, and indeed for the reader too. As a character he tends towards the histrionic, and I wearied quite quickly of his soul-searching, which is unfortunate as the novel moves very slowly, lingering on Gabriel’s every small discovery and slight shift of mood. He is for the most part not a man of action, but a watcher, an observer, and the first-person journal obliges the reader to stick with him all the way as he roams the streets of Budapest in a suitably melancholic fashion.

Which is no kind of life, as Gabriel comes to realise, and yet he seems to find it difficult to engage with the outside world. He establishes a tentative friendship with his neighbour, the pregnant Casey March, and strikes up an acquaintance with the mysterious Zadkiel Stephomi. Casey offers him a vicarious domestic life, but Gabriel’s experiences with Stephomi, including witnessing a fight involving a burning man, seem to point towards Gabriel himself being other than human, and we gradually come to realise that we may have strayed onto a battlefield, in which the war between heaven and hell continues unabated, and the Antichrist is arriving earlier than anticipated.

Or have we? For as fast as Gabriel presents the reader with an explanation, it’s ripped away and a new, better story, the real one this time, emerges from behind it, until that in turn is discarded for another. Is Gabriel human or supernatural? Did he lose his wife and son, or are they just another layer of camouflage? One is left with a sense of Gabriel making it up as he goes along, so to speak, filling his journal with whatever comes to mind as a means of explaining his situation. Is this the journal of a madman, or someone with too much time on his hands? By the time we reach the point where the author offers an explanation for Gabriel’s behaviour that seems marginally more plausible than the rest, the point at which I think we are supposed to feel that his histrionics are fully accounted for and to feel sympathy for him, if we did not feel it already, it’s become too much like hard work to do so. Exasperation sets in as the story then lurches back in the direction of the divine, though with an odd little twist that is intriguing but wasted at that point in the novel.

To say much more about the plot would be to give away the denouement completely. Suffice to say it is less dramatic than I think the author imagines, and the is it, isn’t it?’ open ending is trite rather than thrilling. This is an intensely disappointing novel; I want to like it because it has some interesting ideas, but their development is frustrated by an almost wilful refusal by the author to engage directly with the bigger picture. The possibilities remain unrealised because we are trapped by the limited viewpoint of Gabriel Antaeus’ self-absorbed journal, obliged to slope round the streets of Budapest with him as he feels sorry for himself. He is a witness to hugely significant events but a player only belatedly; as a result, the real action mostly happens in the corner of the reader’s eye rather than centre-stage, and we are left with the delicately realised but ultimately not-terribly-interesting minutiae of Gabriel’s attempts to find out who he really is, and why these people have done this to him.

It is debatable how one might, in a post-Dawkins world, address the great Miltonic themes of paradise lost and regained. I admire Alex Bell for trying to take them on but I remain frustrated by the sense of reductio ad absurdam that leaves me in the hands of a narrator who is a lot less interesting than he needs to be to tell this story.