The Well Deceived by Issac Kuhnberg
“What sort of plot?” challenged Rattle witheringly.“The worst possible,” said Wisley. “Floater intends to utilise the school’s science laboratories for the manufacture of a hypothetical ‘second-gender’: a monstrous race of beings with sexual characteristics entirely different from our own.” “That is preposterous,” said Rattle flatly. “What conceivable purpose could there be in attempting something so unsavoury, so unspeakably perverse?” William Riddle is a scholar at Bune, the ancient public school where the sons of Anglia’s first families are prepared for a leading role in society. His first few weeks are a miserable round of bullying and abuse, until he makes a friend: Paul Purkis, son of a government minister. Together they create a grotesque private world populated by criminals and deviants, as an outlet for their contempt for the school and its staff. Overnight William’s world collapses. He is called into the headmaster’s office and told that his scientist father has committed an unspecified act of treason. William is hauled off to a detention centre to be interrogated. Escaping, he finds refuge in the louche sub-culture of the capital city, and comes to learn that everything he has ever been taught is a complete fabrication. The Well Deceived is a thought-provoking mystery, in turns comic and disturbing, set in a country that resembles England in the 1950s, with one crucial difference.
Spotlight on William Riddle
William Riddle, the narrator of The Well Deceived, is in many respects a version of my younger self. So much was inevitable when I chose to make him my narrator. But in a novel a character’s personality is only a starting point: things only start getting interesting when we see is how a character reacts to the situation in which he finds himself. The fact that Anglia, William’s country, is populated exclusively by men, radically determines the course of his life by dictating the way he expresses his sexuality and his relationship with authority.
For William, the society of Anglia is normal, because it is the only one he knows. As he learns more about that society, however, he begins to question its credibility. The process begins with his relationship with his father, a brilliant but socially awkward scientist, who clearly knows rather more than he is prepared to admit. William admires his father but realizes that his own gifts lie in a different direction and that his father’s advice is for this reason not to be relied on. Nonetheless, he yields to his father’s persuasion and agrees to become a scholar at Bune, the ancient public school which educates the sons of Anglia’s first families. Bune takes its name from the Grand Duke of Hell: an ambivalent figure who possesses the dual role of commanding thirty legions of demons and having the power to make men eloquent and wise. Bune, for that reason, can be either an opportunity or a curse. For William, it turns out to be both.
In his first year at Bune William is made to serve as a tick – a kind of menial servant – to an older boy named Nevis, an abusive bully who does his best to make him think of himself as an inferior boy of inferior status. His fortunes improve when he is befriended by Paul Purkis, the son of a government minister. Together the two boys create a grotesque imaginary town called Malcaster, which serves as an outlet for their feelings of alienation from the school and its headmaster, who William soon comes to think of an enemy.
As his status within the school improves, William becomes increasingly less critical of the society that sustains it. Once he can see himself as one of the future leaders of society, he decides that privilege is a necessary, if not desirable, component of an orderly society. He undergoes the disturbing rite of passage known as ‘Union’, and he and Paul are made Praetors. A golden future beckons.
Overnight William’s world turns upside down. He is summoned to the headmaster’s office and told that his father has committed treason and that he is to be expelled. A policeman called Jarvis takes him off to a detention centre to be interrogated about his father’s whereabouts.
Now for the first time, William learns what it means to be without protection – to exist at the mercy of the state. His transitory privilege has been stripped away, reducing him to the status of an outcast. It is at this point that the third and most meaningful phase of his learning starts. To find out how much of the truth he uncovers, and how much remains concealed from him, you will have to read the book.
One of the challenges of writing the book was defining the nature of William’s sexuality. Early in life, he develops his own theory of attraction, based on his experience as his monastic nursery school:
As a general rule, boys are drawn to the physical type least like their own. The slighter boys are drawn towards the stockier, and vice versa. The same pattern of attraction has applied at every phase of my life, and in every pocket of society, I have visited: so much so that I suspect it of being a universal law of nature.
William’s understanding of sexuality is less complete than he realizes. Observing, for example, that the relationship between himself and Paul is not a sexual one – something he thinks is just as well — he fails to consider the possibility that Paul might have very different feelings on the subject. Later on, when the two boys go slumming in a Cantleford pub, Paul’s readiness to flirt with the youths who buy them drinks leaves him peeved, but essentially unmoved. William, apparently, is something of a cold fish. Significantly, the closest he gets to an intense sexual experience is his experience of Union:
I was flying amazingly over threads of roads and fields like postage stamps and forest-clumps like heads of broccoli, upwards, towards the sun. Below all this, in a green glade, improbably beautiful dancers were performing acrobatic feats for my entertainment, coupling, tripling, quadrupling. I was consumed by a ravishing kaleidoscopic geometry of elastic globes and yielding folds and creases, constantly melting and reforming into fresh arrangements of succulent flesh and flowering hair…. White light blossomed, and a soundless explosion that went on and on and on; and for an unmeasurable passage of time I was incapable of thinking or perceiving anything at all.
William, as I say elsewhere, may start out with a personality like my own, but as the book progresses he takes over the narrative, and leads me, as he leads the reader, into uncharted territory.
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