Sunday, September 11, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Transformations (on Nigel Dennis' Cards of Identity)

by Douglas Messerli

Nigel Dennis Cards of Identity (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955; New York:
Vanguard, 1955). Republished in the US (Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002)

Someone new has moved into the manor house, and the Paradises—brother and sister who reside in the lodge—argue as to the best course of approaching him in the hopes of obtaining money. Henry goes out for a visit to the house, but when he does not return by the next morning, Miss Paradise is beside herself with worry. Indeed, one might say, each of the characters in this hilarious book is "beside himself”; in a Britain where the old unquestioned identities have been lost, no one, it appears, is certain who they are or even who they might be. The Captain, Mrs. Mallet, and Beaufort, now living in the house, are themselves imposters, and in actuality are programmers for the Identity Club, sent out to secure the house and staff it before the Club's annual meeting. In a wink of an eye—and a little psychological reconditioning—the Paradises are ensconced in the house as butler and head cook, and are soon joined by a former doctor and nurse (who are transformed into gardeners) and a confused patient, Mrs. Finch, who in their waiting room displayed her uncertainty of self by answering to Mrs. Chirk.

Enter the club members themselves, a motley crew who have all taken on completely absurd identities recounted in fictional case histories presented as ideal facts. Three of these histories—that of H. M. Bitterling (who has discovered himself in the role of Co-Warden of the Badgeries), Alexander Shubunkin (who is determined to remain sexually undetermined as man and woman both), and Father Golden Orfe (once a secret agent but is now a brother living in a monastery)—make up the largest part of this fiction, and represent the spirited lunacy of Dennis's attack on national, sexual, and religious values.

The final downfall of the Club's president, commencing with a play summarizing the novel's confusions of identity (ridiculously attributed to Shakespeare) performed by the servants, and continuing with the appearance of a policeman to check out the happenings, brings this incredible satire to its satisfying end, as the servants—uncovering their old selves—are carted off to jail. Anyone who still believes the fifties to be merely of time of unquestioning conformity might well read this book.

Los Angeles, December 7, 2002

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