Hell is a Circle

Phillip O’Neil – Mental Shrapnel (Equus Press, 2020)

The image of hell dies hard. The rest of the Christian assemblage may have fallen away, but hell retains its power over us.

This is because hell is a description of a world without forgiveness.

I recently read René Girard’s work, Violence and the Sacred, in which he argues that sacrifice, whether human or animal, was not simply ceremonial, or a tribute to the gods, but a way of directing the whole society’s violence in one direction, thus dispelling it.

In a collective act of murder, ancient man could finally attain forgiveness. Eventually, Christ supplanted the living sacrifices.

Without a mechanism to allow us to forgive, ancient society entered a state of total distrust, total suspicion and total war. Without forgiveness, we unleash hell.

Phillip O’Neil’s book is a study in hell. Christopher Mahler, our protagonist, is either a psychotherapist or a war correspondent (his identity is unstable, in flux). He saw the worst of the war in Sarajevo and, years later, suffers blackouts as a result.

Sarajevo is a vision of the hell without. Mobs, murder and mutilation are commonplace. Simply seeing the war is enough to pollute Mahler. The chaos enters his soul.

Cut to 2008; Mahler is now in Prague, living in a halfway house with drunks and drug-addicts. He witnesses their decline while trying to piece his own mind back together. His bizarre PTSD-driven actions and fugue states are easily confused for drunkenness. He fits in well.

Finally, having seen the hell without and lived the hell within, Mahler pierces the fabric of reality. He goes in search of his memory, and his lost Beatrice, in a world of his own making.

This parallel existence takes the form of a city, similar to Unthank in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where every meeting is a confrontation and every compliment contains a threat.

The alternative worldspace is divided between PeaceZone and WarZone. The differences between the two are minimal and the line drawn between them is shifting and arbitrary.

At times we are back in the Bosnian war. Sometimes we meet the drunks and drug addicts from his building. Often the dead come back to life.

There is a reason that hell is a circle. We learn that through Mahler’s odyssey, and whether O’Neill truly succeeds in exorcising his character’s demons is up to the reader to decide.

This is a brutal book. It’s shifts in tone are often jarring. And yet that gives it a texture and a patina unlike any other book I’ve read.

I would expect no less from Equus Press, whose experimental texts are at the forefront of the contemporary avant garde. As publishers, they don’t flinch from discomfort, and works of twisted brilliance like Mental Shrapnel are the result.

This is a book that shoves you, then looks at you expectantly; waiting to be shoved back. A dynamic absolutely of our times.

  • Joe Darlington

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