As most avid readers are aware, there are different novels for different moods and different occasions. We have the term ‘beach read’ for a reason, just as much as a quiet evening in bed with a glass of wine is a good time to really dig into a book—not story, novel, tale, but book. One that initially seems could be read for entertainment given the steady headway, cogent imagery, and erratic bursts of energy but in fact requires reflection to put the pieces together and examine what lays under the surface, Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) is a fine marriage of art and enjoyment, bed and beach.
In form, Ice is a triangle of characters that perpetually discombobulates itself while the world is slowly engulfed by a blanket of ice. An unnamed narrator pursuing an unnamed young woman protected by a man called the Warden, the trio move and shift across a landscape that is evolving underfoot due to the oncoming wall of ice and the socio-political climate of war it is driving ahead of itself. The narrator drawing ever closer to the woman as eco-disaster looms, it’s only a question of mindset whether he can hold on to his desire long enough.
As Jonathan Lethem writes in his introduction, the prose of Ice is at all times lucid and clear. And yet, the heart of the novel is anything but transparent. Given Kavan’s personal issues with heroin, not to mention the recurring imagery of white dust (ice), the reader is wont to read Ice as an allegory for addiction and the internal struggles of desire and escape. And it’s entirely possible; the pieces fit. But it’s likewise possible the novel can be superimposed over larger objects. For as ping-pong as the unnamed narrator’s actions become over the course of the novel, he never loses his humanity. Chasing some combination of his imagination and reality, for as erratic as his actions are, they are focused in reaction. Formed and structured like an early Ballard novel, Kavan focuses on his goals while the world shifts and changes around him.
But while the Ballard comparison is clear, I daresay Aldiss has it right that Kafka forms the stronger parallel. Where Ballard uses his scenarios to dig into the psyches of his characters, trying to find the fundamental cables and wires, nuts and bolts that hold the thing together under duress, Kavan, instead, uses the psyche as only one of her tools. External elements (beyond the catastrophe of setting) prove just as influential, if not directional. If Ballard’s early novels are inward facing, Ice is certainly bilateral; factors in the external world Ballard’s characters by in large avoid or stand tall, whereas Kavan’s unnamed protagonist wants only to interact. This becomes most clear when one finds Ballars characters responding to concrete elements or changes in their environment. With Kavan’s, there is a desire to possess, to reach out to own those elements despite the growing chaos of catastrophe. It’s this bilateral play where Ice forms its strongest relationship to The Trial or The Castle.
In the end, Ice is clearly a novel that has crossed the line between novel as entertainment and novel as art. Christopher Priest has called the novel ‘plotless’, and I concur. A series of fevered dreams with minimal transition, tension is maintained throughout with desire and inaccessibility, as well as the encroaching narrative device of ice.