Sidekicks: Constant by Penny Maez
This spare, uncompromising thriller is the most involved thing I’ve ever written. It’s much like living inside a sealed box, with no means of punching your way out. All you see are the walls.
As I mentioned in my previous Sidekicks post, I use pseudonyms to publish work that doesn’t fit into the Robert Maas universe. My Penny Maez novels are a “dread-filled rush into nightmare,” as I described them in that post, “an inexorable logical clockwork.”
This is certainly true of Constant, a horror novel that grabs you and shakes you viciously for 50,000 words and then spits you out carelessly with a shake of its head and goes off to terrorize somebody else.
On first reading, you may simply think it’s a nightmare. You’re all crushed up in that box I mentioned. But the actual theme of the novel is something else entirely.
Constant occupies an uneasy place in the Penny Maez catalog because it could easily have been a Robert Maas novel. Except “my” novels are all about rationalization, and with Constant I offer the reader no rationale whatsoever. It doesn’t provide a single answer for the plight of its protagonist.
In other words, it’s just like the world we live in, rather than the reassuring world of novels, in which you generally reach a conclusion on the final page.
Murderer identified. Aliens defeated. Fallen hero redeemed.
When you think of it, we — you and I — don’t know a single reassuring thing about the world we inhabit. For many of us, our answer is to turn our world into a novel.
Constant’s title refers to those comforting physical constants that we take for granted and base our worldview upon — like the speed of light or the relation between the radius of a circle and its circumference.
We need these constants. They’re our intellectual crutches.
Or, if you want to think of it the opposite way, like the idea that an omnipotent being is always looking after us, guiding our steps, and rewarding our good behavior, forever and ever.
Many of us need these constants, too. They’re our emotional crutches.
But what if you don’t have them? What then for the bald howling gape of the cosmos?
The plot opens simply enough. One ordinary morning, awakening in her ordinary room in her ordinary house, a girl called Melanie Lambert turns back her covers to find she has twelve toes.
Clearly, we are in the realms of fantasy here. Except Melanie refuses to believe in fantasy. She has a scientist’s soul, even if she doesn’t know what science is since it doesn’t exist in her pocket universe. So she looks for the means in which she could have grown those extra toes.
It’s hard to be a scientist when there’s nothing to guide you. I think of it, for example, much as it must have been for a child growing up in a mediaeval community in Europe. The only thing you know is a received wisdom, about which you can brook no doubt and which you are never allowed to question.
There’s no better way. The very concept of an other way, let alone a better way, is unlikely ever to enter your head.
In Constant this concept is taken to a level of continuous intellectual and spiritual strangulation.
Imagine the color blue doesn’t exist in this world. Not only can I, as an author, never refer to the color blue, I cannot have a character say “Hey, here’s an interesting new color. Let’s call it blue.” You’re not getting out of that box.
Constant exists in a world so depauperate that almost everything we know has been stripped away, which made it a challenge to write. I’m used to writing about environments, say, that don’t have a formalized means of measuring distance. But what if you don’t have a formalized means of measuring time, either?
These constrictions are the straightjacket my characters are in. I’m not going to help them and they’re not going to help themselves. The closest Melanie gets to a way out of her box is a phrase that a teacher writes on her blackboard one day, where only Melanie can see it:
WHAT OTHER THINGS DO NOT HAVE WORDS?
But it’s an unanswerable question, because without the missing words you cannot conceive of the things that lack them.
What Melanie does have to guide her through her world of unnamed things is a journal that she herself appears to have written purposefully in order to build up a system of knowledge. But this system of knowledge is painfully naive and Melanie grows to suspect every word of it.
Constant is one of several novels I’ve written on the subjects of amnesia and faulty narrators. In Melanie’s case, the faulty narrator is herself. Because she doesn’t know who she is, she is unable to connect herself to anything she sees around her, let alone the unimaginable world outside her pocket universe.
And yet, as I said before, the novel isn’t about these restraints at all, nor those comforting stories we tell ourselves to deal with our uncertainty.
It’s about the way Melanie tries to find permanence in her world, immortality if you like, through passing something on life to life. She achieves it in small, fumbling ways, first by writing, and then — when her own journal shows her that this is untrustworthy — by painting.
For Melanie Lambert, the moment of revelation comes when she draws her own hand. This is something that might last, something of herself, something constant.
And here’s the whole point of the nightmare. Constant isn’t about being imprisoned in a confined, depauperate environment. It’s about liberation: about learning to recognize and treasure your own creativity.
Because when everything else has been stripped away, the things you create are all that make you who you truly are.