A dig without depth: short yet overwritten
The ponderousness of Cynan Jones’s prose gets in the way of a very slight story
Winter bleakness: Cynan Jones looks to the landscape. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
A young man sleepwalks through the days following the sudden death of his wife. Together they had tended their sheep on the struggling old farm where he had grown up. But now she is dead, after a freak accident, and every task, every sound reminds him of her. The Welsh writer Cynan Jones looks to the landscape and draws from its winter bleakness.
“He went into the sheep shed. The ewes were variously rested and the place was maternal and quiet. There was just crunching, the odd cough of sheep. He rested the torch on the shelf and turned on the light and some of the lambs bleated and there was a clatter from the warming box as the orphans excited at the thought of food.”
A vivid sense of the busy silence in which animals dwell, eat, give birth and suffer is initially evoked. This offers an effective contrast to the opening sequence, which begins well as an unnamed man looks across the landscape “and recalled in those wells of light those farms which were sympathetic or against this thing he did”. Immediately it is obvious that “this thing he did” may be dubious. It is. He pulls a sack from the back of his van, and a dead and mangled badger falls out. “The dogs had pulled the front off it face and its nose hung loose and bloodied, hanging from a sock of skin. It hung off the badger like a separate animal.”
Despite the weighty striving for elemental effect, this is a harsh, theatrical work, rather crudely drawn, which somehow manages to be both overwritten and sketchy. Jones, despite his interest in the grotesque, fails to create true menace.
The narrative moves between the grieving solitude of the bereaved young farmer remembering his wife and the ugly antics of “the big man”, accompanied by his vicious dogs trained as killing machines, and, later, a father and son who come along to witness the spectacle of a killing.
In addition to sourcing badgers for the illegal practice of badger baiting, the big man earns his living by clearing rat nests. He never emerges as more than a brutal primitive, cryptic, slightly unhinged and two-dimensional.
Jones, the author of The Long Dry (2006), a far more convincing and cohesive work, has already been widely praised as a stylist, yet his prose throughout The Dig is heavy and overly literary, invariably striving for effects that simply do not convince: “. . . when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit”.
The strangeness of this does not seduce a reader. Instead one is left wondering if it would not make better sense to write that a child might be momentarily relieved of the fear of being hit.
Regardless of this the simile does not work. Do vans feel fear? Perhaps Jones also suspected this, as he persists and endeavours to reinforce it: where the big man “went he brought a sense of harmfulness and it was as if this was known even by the inanimate things about him. They feared him somehow.”
The sheer ponderousness of his prose repeatedly gets in the way of a very slight story. Bare ash branches are described as “mercurial and elephantine”, which is a very odd word choice; a moth is “singular”, not single; a horse is “gymnastic” instead of the more obvious athletic. Jones may wish to impress or excite, even bewilder with his eccentric use of language, yet he merely irritates.
In addition to the obvious balancing of the young husband and the badger-baiter is the equally obvious contrasting struggle of a newborn lamb barely alive and the fight put up against dogs by another badger, a large boar, procured for a grotesque hunt.
The Dig has already been praised and, as is by now inevitable whenever a heavy-handed literary narrative featuring unorthodox syntax, strained language and staccato rhythms is published, has also been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway.
Admittedly, Jones is highlighting the calculated brutality of badger-baiting and the vile duplicity of leaving the dead animals on the roadside to suggest they have instead been hit by passing motorists. This does give the narrative some political relevance.
Yet it is presented as a work of art, not a tract, and as a story it meanders along, shifting between the young man’s heartbreak and the big man’s vicious criminality. Jones never arrives at the sophisticated profundity of Joseph Smith’s remarkable novels The Wolf (2008) and Taurus (2010), each of which is a masterclass in understated lyric intensity, looking at animals at the mercy of humans within a compromised natural world.
The so-called hunters are portrayed as madmen: “One of them, the skinnier one, already had this kind of cruel little firework going on in himself. The other man just looked like he liked to push things and break things and didn’t look like he had the more scientific cruelness of the thinner man.”
The skinny man is described as being “socially stupid” while his larger companion “had a neckless squareness but did not carry any look of great athletic power”.
Far more compelling is the young man’s dilemma. His mother visits, hoping to encourage him to eat. He notices that she, having aged prematurely and acted as if she were old, long before she was, is now indeed older. “Like a teenager finally growing up and letting the honest little bits of character from childhood come through, now his mother actually was old there was something once again more girlish to her, and he could trace this.”
Elsewhere, when the lack of toilet paper finally sends him off to the local shop, he shuns the shopkeeper’s unspoken sympathy. Yet the man does push a roll in through the car window. It is probably the most eloquent moment in the narrative as Jones does not labour it.
Late in the book noise causes the farmer to fetch his gun. He is then distracted by checking the black lamb he had earlier placed for warmth in the Aga. The lamb is dead. “He got up and put the gun back in the cabinet, and then went out.” It seems plausible and final. Yet Jones then adds a pretentious sentence. “And there was something sacrificial in the way he did.”
It adds absolutely nothing, yet it appears to be a stylistic feature of his writing. Which act is sacrificial – his putting the gun back or his going out?
The Dig is a very short novel, yet it contains many extraneous words serving no purpose. Lauded for a stylistic originality that all too often collapses into wayward lunges towards linguistic individuality, The Dig is seriously inferior to that of his fellow Welshman Owen Martell’s limpidly superb Intermission (2013). Jones, in a flat, mannered narrative that feels far longer than it is and ends limply, appears to be working his way towards a momentous happening that never occurs.