Spill Simmer Falter Wither is the exquisitely crafted, exquisitely sad tale of a man, Ray, and a dog, One Eye. Both outcasts from society, they become companions in loneliness. When One Eye attacks another dog, Ray panics; packs up their lives and takes to the road.
This post discusses the end of Spill Simmer Falter Wither in detail. It also makes liberal use of quotations, but they’re too beautiful for me to apologise for that.
I found this book utterly absorbing, moving, even devastating. Much of this is down to Baume’s beautiful writing style, which is well-crafted without ever feeling laboured, as well as her characterisation of Ray and his relationship with One Eye. The two take almost equal roles in the narration. Third person descriptions of One Eye bookend the narration. Ray’s first person narrative regularly breaks into second person, as he addresses his observations and recounts his memories to One Eye. Then Ray’s dreams about One Eye’s past, in which Ray sees through One Eye’s eye(s), transform second person into first person, narrowing the distance even further between these two lonely figures.
One of the things that has stayed with me most in the weeks and months following reading this is the depiction of Ray’s sadness and isolation. “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental note of my registration number. 93-OY-5731. They all think I don’t notice. But I do.” (p.13). He’s afraid of the impact he will have on other people: “We can’t be spotted by such cheerful strangers. We mustn’t dare to mar their joy with our shabby faces, our carload of stolen nests, dead bears and decomposed fathers on such a day.” (p.265). Ray’s fear mirrors One Eye’s own – every object One Eye sees has the potential to be used as an instrument of torture:”Plastic bags with their rustle and squeeze, aluminium foil with its twinkle and gash, dishcloths with their thrash and wallop.” (p.35).
Ray is defined by his sadness. “My sadness isn’t a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop.” (p.51). Sadness impacts the narrative too. There is a refrain of, “And suddenly, it’s a sad place, don’t you think?” (p.222, p.274) as possibility is blotted out by regret. The extreme beauty of Baume’s writing contrasts with the frequent brutality of what is described and the way it is described. I realise part way through reading that this seems to match the narrator’s negative view of the world. Berries leak “black blood” (p.178.), branches are “severed, bark stripped” (p.168). One imagines that Ray doesn’t see a bunch of flowers, he sees a massacre of stems. It’s such a brilliant way of introducing us to his point of view, a way of allowing us to actually see through his eyes.
Even the gruesome can be lyrical under Baume’s influence: talking about roadkill she writes “creatures pancaked and sundried to a ship’s biscuit of their former selves.” (p.147). And she makes the ugly beautiful: “Dandruff falls from her scalp onto her shoulders. It shows up like glitter through the dark, as if she is sporting a sequinned mantle.” (p.188). And this gruesomeness prepares perfectly for the moment at which Ray’s ultimate secret is uncovered, when we find out he watched his father choke to death, put the body in the attic to be eaten by rats, and then dismantles his skeleton to dispose of it.
Ray describes himself as, “fifty-seven. Too old for starting over, too young for giving up.” (p.12). And yet over the course of the novel, we see him do both. He starts over in adopting One Eye. He complains, “Sometimes the vans collide with my hanging baskets as they leave. We watch as they carry the scarlet heads of my geraniums to their next delivery. Now even the geranium heads are better travelled than I.” (p.34). And yet, again, the novel sees him starting over, packing up his life and travelling with One Eye.
But we also see Ray give up. The ending is ever so slightly ambiguous, incorporating a flash-back to domestic happiness with One Eye just as Ray apparently commits suicide. But the lack of definitive resolution is effective on a number of levels. Firstly, it stays with you, eating at you as you attempt to decipher precisely what happens. Not least because what is likely to have happened is exactly what you want not to have happened. You cannot let it go. You cannot mourn its ending, nor the ending of Ray’s life, because you do not explicitly see that ending. It ends in euphemism, at once despairing and hopeful, as One Eye charges off into the distance, the book’s ending his new beginning.
But the lack of resolution also hammers home the sheer futility and unfairness of Ray’s death. As approached the final pages, I really couldn’t see it ending any other way. And yet Ray’s brilliance – his knowledge, internalised eloquence, his boundless love for One Eye – genuinely make the world a brighter place. Appropriately, given his name is the “same word as for sun beams”.
Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill Books, 2015)