The opening of Permafrost is one that seems to promise a simple storyline of mystery, intrigue and character evaluation, with one friend setting out to search for another, and this is what the novel that follows eventually delivers. However, there is a great deal else with which the reader must contend in order to tease out these elements from a book that – despite being relatively short – offers a host of distractions and deviations from the main plot. There is pleasure to be found in this work, but it is not always the most straightforward of tasks to find it.
The first obstacle of Permafrost is a trivial but irritating one: grammar. Jarring grammatical imperfections permeate the novel, combining with a host of brand names and detailed model numbers that are rammed down the reader’s throat to create a narrative that is often somewhat jerky. These elements may perhaps be affectations employed in order to reflect the speech and mindset of Robertson’s materialist first-person narrator, but there is a fine line between creating a distinctive style and distracting the reader from what is actually being described, and Permafrost was the wrong side of this line a little too often for my liking.
However, pace – or lack of it – is perhaps the most significant issue of the book. The opening chapter introduces a character with conviction, who decides, with no hesitation, that he will attempt to solve the mystery of his missing friend. However, what follows is an extended period during which our main character endeavours to set all the mundane affairs of his business in order before leaving, losing every sense of urgency in the process. Furthermore, once the search for Keith Pringle eventually begins, Robertson has a tendency to focus on long recollections of past events that have no bearing on the present plot, as well dwelling too much upon the dreary minutiae of the journey – there is a limit to how interesting highway rest stops can be! Some of these deviations are well crafted and extremely detailed, but they are irrelevant nonetheless, and they tend to detract from other episodes that seem to have promise but are abandoned too quickly.
With these numerous and protracted departures from the search for Keith, the focus of the novel turns rather to evaluating the character of Robertson’s narrator. Here the emphasis is very much on the effects of wealth in the narrator’s life, which is occasionally a revealing topic but which – much like many of the extraneous subplots and anecdotes – runs out of steam rather quickly. The intrigue of the character is in fact contained in the way in which his previous life falls apart and how his personality develops in reaction. This can make certain of his actions highly unpredictable and his character is not always particularly believable, but it is nonetheless one of few aspects of the story that has a developing arc, and it is very welcome for this reason.
In its penultimate chapter, the novel comes to a dramatic conclusion that – once one has become accustomed to the various oddities and obstacles of the plot up to this point – is unexpectedly quite brilliant. It is only very marginally in keeping with the rest of the novel, as the story is suddenly flipped on its head, with the narrator suddenly becoming the spectator of the consequences of unhealthy relationships and of the xenophobia that insular communities can manifest; but it is precisely this shock factor and detachment from the novel thus far that makes it so satisfying. A plot that seems to have little direction suddenly produces an entirely contrasting ending that, inexplicably, works well and does make up for some of the lesser scenes that precede it.
Permafrost is, then, a book that provides many obstacles for its readers to overcome in the course of its bitty and faltering plot, but occasional moments of humour and subtle eloquence do eventually lead to rewards, even if they are not the rewards that I expected. It is not necessarily a reading experience that was enjoyable from start to finish; rather it is one that is difficult to define, but it is, so far, surprisingly memorable.