Scorper by Rob Manguson Smith is a novel centred around scorping – the act of scooping out excess wood when creating a carving or engraving – under the advisement that “the artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist”. In the Sussex town of Ditchling our protagonist, the gawkily tall, professionally unsuccessful, and romantically inept John Cull arrives from his home in Los Angeles on a short vacation. During his stay in his grandfather’s home town John becomes a ‘scorper’ in his own right as he attempts to carve Ditchling into his own idealised view of rural England. However, as John makes increasingly disturbing discoveries he realises that Ditchling does not match up to his own romanticised view of it.
Upon arriving in Ditchling, John is confronted by a less than welcoming introverted community. Captivated by local town life, which predominantly revolves around pub rituals, John indulges in fantastic reveries about entrenching himself in this eerie community. Whilst John and the reader skim through extracts of an untouched copy of his grandfather’s book on the art of scorping, John increasingly finds himself using the book as a manual to guide him through Ditchling. Throughout the novel John goes through the daily strife of missing his host’s timetabled breakfasts, being recruited for Quiz Night, and having to handle the mercurial character of Eric Gill, the fictitious grandson of Ditchling’s most famed scorper, also called Eric. Eric Jnr continually manipulates John through an uncomfortable form of Pavlovian conditioning that gradually causes the latter to obsessively seek Eric’s approval. This conditioning begins to seep ominously, if not artistically, into John’s narrative:
Gong, he’ll scorp.
Gong, he’ll shake.
Gong – he’s an American – he’d better bow and
Smith’s narrative cleverly entwines a second person point of view, which forcefully links the reader with John, with disguised free-indirect monologuing. This technique emphasises the mounting tension and petty conflicts which begins to consume the narrative, John and the reader in a way which works against our collective better judgements. The writing is tantalisingly self-aware; John’s hopeful expectations, as well as his despairing feelings of inadequacy, reverberate throughout the narrative and his interactions with the ‘Ditchlings’, leading the reader to ‘scorp’ and characterise John himself.
However, despite the artful depiction of social anxiety and paranoia, both actual and projected, the writing is at times jarring. Amidst John’s epic quests to secure dinner with Eric Gill, or drop by the local pizza parlour to assert his natural place in Ditchling, his tendency to flout the plans he makes for himself leads to frustration. The reader is promised a trip, listens to John’s hypothesis of that particular social interaction, and yet it almost never comes to pass. Nevertheless, John’s psychological projections which have a tendency to appropriate villagers into roles which suit his needs. He imagines the villagers as parents, friends, lovers, and more introvertedly, theorise on what inanimate objects would say if they were able to talk. At first, John’s strange behaviour appears inconsequential, until it’s apparent that everything has consequences: “your time on Earth expands, along with your place in it, so you are no longer a you but a he, not a momentary visitor to Ditchling but a part of its history”.
A captivating narrative voice, an inlaid Gothic setting, and a plot which unravels slowly makes Scorper a curious but fascinating read. My only warning to any would-be-reader is that you will never see porcelain dogs, chicken coops and boot scrapers in the same light again.