By Jon Clinch
“A Christmas Carol,” despite the multitudinous saccharine versions souped up on stage and screen every festive season, is a pretty damn scary thing, but Jon Clinch’s prequel to it is black as hell, outstripping even Dickens’s remorseless and painful probings of his protagonist’s soul. Wisely, Clinch has not attempted to pastiche Dickens (“The Inimitable,” as, somewhat tongue in cheek, he styled himself), finding instead a mordantly etched voice that instantly takes us over to the dark side: “The merchant ship Marie tied up at the Liverpool docks hours ago. … The fog over the Mersey is so thick that a careless man might step off the pier and vanish forever, straight down. But Jacob Marley is not a careless man.” By some uncanny act of artistic appropriation, he has, without imitating Dickens, entered into the phantasmagoric realm that is the great novelist’s quintessential territory, and, like the fat boy in “Pickwick,” he triumphantly succeeds in making our flesh creep.
But Clinch does much more than that: As in his first novel, “Finn,” with its variations on Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” he creates a penumbra of invention around the original novel ensuring — caveat lector! — that you may never be able to think of it in the same way again. Here, as there, he fleshes out characters and events often very lightly sketched in the original. “A Christmas Carol” was written at breakneck speed; Clinch endows Dickens’s snapshots with a three-dimensional, often alarming, life. Scrooge’s sister, Fan, a pallid presence in the novel (she dies young, always having been “a delicate creature”), proves, in Clinch’s reimagining, to be anything but pallid, coming to a tragic but profoundly romantic end.
His most startling and creative conception is the title character. After a prelude in which he establishes the deeply shady nature of Scrooge and Marley’s business, Clinch takes us back to 1787, to the beginning of their relationship at Professor Drabb’s brutal Academy for Boys, run on the principle of Manly Self-Determination, “whose tenets are explained in a framed broadsheet hanging upon the wall of each public room. The language employed by that disquisition is so archaic as to be very nearly Anglo-Frisian, and the logic wielded in its coils would mystify a scholar of the Talmud. … There is every chance that no party on earth, not even its ostensible author, has read it all the way through and survived.” The adolescent Marley immediately establishes a viselike hold over the newly arrived Scrooge.
In the fullness of time they go into partnership, with clearly delineated spheres: Marley the entrepreneur, Scrooge the accountant, detecting “in the progression of inked digits along closely ruled lines … something close to the music of the spheres. The numbers sing to him, and he listens with an open heart.” Neither knows anything of the other’s activities. Marley’s ways are “mysterious” to Scrooge, who perceives him to be “something of a chameleon. I have seen him become 10 different men before 10 different people.” Marley lives in an Escher-like dwelling with, of course, a very striking knocker, familiar to readers of “A Christmas Carol,” which Clinch renders newly macabre: It hangs “silent as an empty gibbet.” The crumbling house is a place of false corridors and concealed doors leading to the offices of phantom companies with phantom names: Squeers & Trotter, Barnacle & Sons, Honeythunder & Grimwig — all Dickensian appellations. Marley avails himself of similarly plundered names; when he visits the whorehouses, which is often and with brutal intent, he does so as Inspector Bucket, his alias stolen from “Bleak House.”
Marley’s operations are suddenly called into question when the father of Scrooge’s sometime fiancée, Belle, reveals that Scrooge and Marley’s company is involved in the slave trade; he will consent to the marriage only if it ceases its involvement. Scrooge immediately vows to do just that. And here the novel becomes unexpectedly affecting: We are given a glimpse of Scrooge in love, warmed to life by Belle’s decency and affection, capable of melting, of rejoining the human race. But that love is not, of course, to be. Scrooge chains himself ever more firmly to his desk in his quest to cleanse the firm of its taint. It is Marley — corrupt, murderous and ultimately diseased Marley — who becomes human, kind and loving. And his long pursuit of Fan turns into something both terrible and ultimately deeply moving, while Scrooge, as we have never seen him before, becomes a vengeful and implacable nemesis.
Clinch has done something remarkable in “Marley,” not merely offering a parergon to Dickens’s little masterpiece, imagining the soil out of which the action of “A Christmas Carol” grows, but creating a free-standing dystopian universe, a hideous vision of nascent capitalism in which nothing is real and every transaction is a fraud issuing from the brain of a master forger, who by the end has reduced even his own life, quite literally, to a trompe l’oeil. Clinch’s Marley is one of the great farouche characters, at once frightening and dangerously attractive. His literary antecedents are to be found in the pages of Bram Stoker, with perhaps a nod toward Peter Ackroyd, but ultimately the book is all his own. Clinch saves his most original touch for the very end, where Marley finds a kind of ecstatic resolution, laying the ground for the final painfully hard-won redemption in “A Christmas Carol.” We can but hope that this masterly Gothic prequel will banish forever the Currier and Ives version of Dickens’s dark fable.
Simon Callow is a British actor, director and writer. His most recent book is “Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will.”
By Jon Clinch
288 pp. Atria Books. $27.
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