Usually, announcing the death of a novel’s heroine would be spoiling the end. And traditionally, the death of the heroine would exclude her from further misfortune: game over. Not in this novel. In Richard Milward’s latest, the death of the heroine is just the beginning…
Kimberly Clarke moves to London with her boyfriend Stevie and lives off his various athletics sponsorship deals. Eventually tiring of him, Kimberly wants to leave but doesn’t have the courage. Instead, she tries to provoke him into leaving her. When Stevie commits suicide – this isn’t a spoiler, it’s announced on the blurb – Kimberly believes herself responsible. She takes up pick and mix religion and looks into Tibetan rites. She tries to balance her karma by being charitable to people she deems marginalised, but this gets her deeper into trouble. When she dies (blurb again) the reader is invited to decide what happens to her in the afterlife. You choose between six endings: Kimberly either goes to heaven, gets reincarnated as a series of animals, comes back as a ghost, rests in peace, gets resurrected into a dream-like metafictional world reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial, or goes to hell.
Kimberly’s Capital Punishment is a rare thing – a book which is important for publishing and for books themselves. A Times journalist has called it ‘the future’. A few weeks before the paperback release there was a limited edition run of three hundred with no front or back covers, a kind of record sleeve for the unbound pages, and the author’s personalised art work on each unit. The insides of the book are just as formally ambitious.
Kimberly is Milward’s most experimental novel, and, in hindsight, it seems as if his two other books were in preparation for this leap. Apples, his debut, featured a chapter narrated backwards by a dyslexic character. Ten Storey Love Song was set out without paragraphs or dialogue so the text resembled the tower block in which its characters lived. Kimberly is exuberantly innovative both in respect to the way the text is presented and the way the book works: bits of text are cut up; the page is sometimes split into columns to demonstrate the speech of bickering characters; there are footnotes, diagrams and mini screenplays. Then there are Milward’s inversions of traditional novelistic devices. The delayed discovery of a suicide note has long been a staple form of plot revelation. The misspelled suicide note, again, has been a brilliant carrier of pathos since Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. But Kimberly’s Capital Punishmentmust have the most audacious, irreverent use of a suicide note I’ve seen in a novel. There’s even a case of posthumous mistaken identity.
Milward’s exuberance is tireless and tiring, and it’s supposed to be. This book is meant to disorient the reader, just as Kimberly’s death, instead of bringing a sense of closure, merely allows fate/the author a chance to give her more grief. Though the grim reaper instructs you to select one ending, some of these lead you further to another, and you only get a full sense of the plot if you read all six. In doing so you are partaking in a dreamlike act of time travel or déjà vu. The book, in a sense, is designed to go on for eternity.
But for all its tricksiness there’s a refreshing honesty to the book’s outlook. Stylists of Milward’s calibre can get away with writing beautifully without energy or conviction, as though the skill is on autopilot while the heart sleeps. But this author still writes with the verve and hunger of a first-time novelist. The opening third of the book – with the leading lady above ground – would work as a self-contained traditional novel. It is expertly plotted and tied up, and could be seen as a modern day morality tale/philosophical exploration: an urban Candide. And no matter how surreal Milward’s prose gets – and it owes more to surrealist painters and film directors than to a specific living prose writer – it is fully aware of the ground beneath its feet; its locality. He can be brilliant without being showy. A bin bag has ‘frayed lips’, a bridge ‘stands paddling, with its blue trouser legs rolled up’. If you are a reader who isn’t open to all the experimentation on display, the strength and accuracy of Milward’s observations and perceptions will appease you.