There is a reason why most novelists stick to the bits of life their readers will be familiar with. Break-up tales, crime thrillers and historical journeys are genres in their own right because we instantly know the remit, we know how it feels, what we’re in for. So Benjamin Myers has been typically daring in employing his florid pen to crop circles in the English countryside of the ’80s, for his scintillating The Perfect Golden Circle.
That he manages to keep the reader’s attention throughout within such an esoteric field is an achievement in itself. The book’s two protagonists, Redbone and Calvert, are the perfect company the reader needs. They have come together for the summer months with a plan to create the most impressive, developed and artistic crop circles the world has seen, with the help of a rickety van, spiritual inspiration, drunk aristocrats and weak cider. It is, we should be clear, a comic novel at heart, even though jokes themselves are hard to come by. As in the best English fiction, we laugh with and at our characters, seeing through their sardonic, cynical lens. The trace of long-drawn melancholy is never fully absent either; it’s no wonder we are taken to the silent fields of the English summer and its fading sunlight.
If this wonderfully strange book does have a structure, it’s the succession of ever-magnifying crop circles, from the intermediate Alton Kellet Pathway to the earth-shattering Honeycomb Double Helix. Interspersed with these are a series of hilarious newspaper reports, describing the chaos and wonder left behind by Redbone and Calvert as they continue on their quest. Every once in a while, we see Calvert sitting in his tiny hovel of a home, watching the TV reports of his latest creation. Parts of this novel are palpably funny, yet I was often unsure whether to laugh or cry. That Myers can conjure up such empathy with his two middle-aged recluses is a measure of his particular skill.
That melancholy is what makes this book more than just another take on the cultural fights of the ’80s. Calvert is a veteran of the Falklands War, but his mental state is not that of the eternally cursed soldier. He is at times pensive, bitter, laconic and verbose. When we read of how “existence is there until it isn’t”, or summer described as a “cold-blooded lizard beast sitting deep in the ancient dust of an ancient island”, it’s the ambiguity, the deceptive simplicity, that hits home. Most of all, it works, and that’s enough.
Patrick Maxwell is a journalist and writer