(Update: and a worthy winner of the Scottish Books of the Year Award in 2013)
Close Your Eyes by Ewan Morrison
Reviewed by Pat Kane
The Independent, Saturday 18 August, 2012 (unedited version below, Indy published version here)
For those with revolutionary yearnings, it’s one of the more seductive whispers in our hearts: if all modern life is rubbish, then we must commit to a form of existence that challenges all existing behaviours, that lets us taste the future.
In the manifesto of Eva, the charismatic but controlling spiritual guru at the heart of Ewan Morrison’s elegant and urgent novel, this truth “came to me like a voice. I was woken by it every day, whispering to me, to leave the world of noisy clamour, to find others like me and no longer be alone”.
The reader of these words is Rowan, whose new child has unearthed in her a chasm of family trauma, suffered at the hands of Eva and her “intentional community” named Ithaca, nestling in the Highlands. Yet even the post-natally-depressed, searingly cynical Rowan - fleeing from her baby to try and solve the mystery of her mother’s death - has to admit to being moved by Eva’s words. Indeed the whole of Close Your Eyes is an admirable and intimate wrestling with the damages incurred by trying to heal, as Adorno once called modernity, “a damaged life”.
Morrison has a good ear, apparently rooted in his own folkie childhood with Communist parents, for the self-justifications of radical living from the 70s till now. When modern life is understood as a poisoned totality - where the “plastic people” around them are already “dust”, dull-eyed consumerists sleepwalking their way to nuclear armageddon - the alternative is a swirl of experiments, an embrace of mess and chaos, a wilful boundary-crossing.
Closing your eyes becomes a moving trope throughout the book. It’s the sleep that Rowan desperately seeks for herself and her child, and the state in which her mother takes her on long drives to protest marches against Polaris and Dounreay, listening intently to folk and Beatles songs in the back seat.
But it expresses Morrison’s broader point about the destructive results of too much liberation and free-expression in the family unit: children with multiple parents, parents coupling before their eyes, a militancy of the “organic” that dissolves the necessary boundaries between the “I” and “we” that prepare you for a functional adulthood. Closing your eyes becomes both a defensive act for the child, and an aggressive act for those - like the spiritual guru Eva - who use New Age ritual as the subtlest of dominations.
Morrison is, however, a generous and wide-ranging dyspeptic. His novels have been steadily sharpening their dissections of the creative classes on these islands. He delights in their elaborate pratfalls of self-delusion and misapplied competence, slipping around on a permanent grease of sexual desire (2008’s underrated Menage is like John Updike training his eye on Damian Hirst and his art-crew). His most recent journey into faction, Tales From The Mall, adopts a Frankfurt-School-style mordancy about status consumption.
So it’s not just the formless hippies that get it in the neck in Close Your Eyes, but the all-too-calibrated yuppies too. Rowan’s husband, Josh, is a deliciously sketched prig - a PR man intoning relevant passages from baby manuals, whose blithe, after-work playfulness with their baby daughter only intensifies her mother’s hormonal blues. In a sequence of his increasingly cold mails, texts and voicemails, picked up by Rowan at the end of her quest for the fate of her mother, Morrison takes brutal glee in plumbing the puddle of metrosexual empathy.
Morrison’s version of radical failure is much more intimate, soiled and grimy than other recent renditions. Movies like Uli Eidel’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex or Bertolucci’s The Dreamers balance out the dangers of revolutionary narcissism with a 70’s European-urban sexiness. Hari Kunzru’s novel My Revolutions adopts some of the same timeline-jumping mechanisms as Close Your Eyes, but is chiefly concerned with relativizing our fears of Islamic terror, by reminding us of how easily our own secular desperados once slid into violence.
Morrison’s main beef is with the kind of hippie communalism and banal, sub-Buddhist ontology (“it is what it is”) flown over from California, supping greedily from the Celticised mists’n’mystery of the Scottish Highlands (the swirling pixelated will’o’the wisps in Disney’s global blockbuster Brave will hardly help matters). In the search for her mother, Rowan discovers that at least she saw through the veils of self-indulgence, committing herself - however disastrously for her daughter, and her own life - to anti-nuclear protest.
But Morrison is unsparing in his disdain for the forced communion and incoherent yearning that generally characterises the spiritual consumer. Anyone preparing for their next trip to the Findhorn Community in Scotland, that by-word for slick spiritual renewal, should float diaphanously past this book. But anyone wanting to read a wise, emotionally-literate gauge of the burdens - and blarney - of alternative living, should buy immediately.