The Dumb House by John Burnside

Paperback, 198 pages
Published June 4th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)

“…the very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation…Such people would be the victims of an exquisite curiosity…”

To accurately assess this novel, I would first have to say that I have honestly never before encountered such an exquisitely void soul in fiction before. It was almost like staring into nothingness, a sensation I have not felt in reading in a long while, if ever.

John Burnside’s The Dumb House is a disturbing and unsettling narrative that crawls inside of the reader’s psyche and pushes the boundaries of what is socially, morally and, dare I say it, scientifically, acceptable. This work of short literary fiction burrows in and takes hold; before you know it, you’re on a deliberate and methodical exodus from the everyday, headed toward a climax that is as gripping as it is literarily brilliant and macabre.

This novel essentially starts with a bedtime story: Of all of the cold elaborate tales that Luke’s mother spun for him as a child growing up, the experiment of the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House, left its mark the deepest. This experiment, set in the ancient world of India, centered around one simple question that would haunt and motivate Luke for the rest of the novel: “whether a child is born with the innate, God-given ability to speak” or if it is a learned behavior. The Gang Mahalwas erected to find the answer to this question, tasking a court of mutes to care for newborn babies who were never to be exposed to human speech. Inside its walls there was only silence; the children never learned to speak. But the experiment, to Luke, feels incomplete. The nature of communication and its possible correspondence to the soul obsesses him. Did it correspond to the soul, and, if so, how could one see it? Could you touch it, see it, cut into it…

It is the tone of this novel that does a lot of the work. The tone of the protagonist, the tone of setting. Together, they build an intense fusion of the former’s analytical voyeurism and the latter’s airy and wraith-like qualities. It is like watching a madman inside a dream, complete with a Sleepy Hollow-like sort of haze that covers everything and turns the everyday interaction—a chance meeting at a library, an innocent letter sent through the post—into catalysts for sexual deviance and callous violence. The characters felt almost ethereal and had a dream-like quality, as if they, and likewise, their entire world, were constantly shrouded in a sepia haze. That almost-surreal quality reminded me of The Vegetarian, House of Leaves and even 1Q84.

Yet, for so many of us readers, it is the protagonist that we most care about. We want to feel what it is like to slip into their shoes; we want to crawl into their minds and understand the mechanisms of it. But, readers, beware. For in The Dumb House, Burnside managed to create a character who is as cold in his natural eloquence as he is almost detached in emotion in narration. The narrator is like a slick block of ice, rounded at the edges so as not to be overtly or obviously menacing and dangerous to the outside word, to the everyday onlooker. For some, the inner workings of his mind will utterly intrigue. Others will find him utterly deplorable. For there were two things about Luke that I slowly began to grasp as the narrative went on: he suffers from “Rich and Entitled Syndrome” as much as he does from severe ego maniacal delusions. He believes himself to be always laboring under the guise of curiosity and exploration of what it means to be human, even as he slowly destroys the humanity around him in search of this purpose. And this delusional quality is what made the narration so piercing, because it was consistently eloquent and disturbingly calculating in the coldest of manners simultaneously.

“…how easy it would be to find a young runaway on her first or second night: someone inexperienced, someone vulnerable. I’d read about men who wandered around the stations and backstreets at night, hunting down such girls. If they could do it, I could…Even if she wasn’t a willing partner, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, or what her true purpose was, she would be comfortable and well looked after, for a time at least. Most importantly, she would be engaged in something worthwhile…”

This would likely be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish, intolerant of the sexually perverse and/or uncomfortable reading about harm inflicted on women, children and animals, you should go ahead and turn back now. This one is full of that.

There is no mistaking that the prose is both elegant and intellectual throughout, no matter your feelings about the protagonist. This novel was unmistakably Gothic, with all of the subtle touches and fine-hair-raising moments requisite to earn such a title. From crop circles to human dissections, you can find an alternate world within these pages, one that will stretch the breadth of what you’re comfortable with and is altogether unlike anything else you’ve ever read. The Dumb House earned itself a solid 4 stars ****

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