5 March 2022

An extract from The Doloriad by Missouri Williams

Posted by Missouri Williams

Missouri Williams’s strange and shocking debut novel The Doloriad follows the fortunes of a family descended from incest as they attempt to survive in a world ravaged by an unspecified environmental cataclysm. A Old Testament fever dream of depravity and salvation, The Doloriad is unlike anything you'll have read before...

When she’d first arrived in the city, she’d been all alone except for him, and it was he who had looked after her when she’d wept and screamed and thrown herself against the walls of the small bedroom that they shared, brother and sister. And though it was rumoured that they shared a bed, this had not been true because in this city they shared nothing apart from the grim white fact of the room and her misery, which belonged to the past and was also their misery, a family misery, and as it would follow them wherever they went his sympathy was predicated on the simple understanding that if not her, him. But they were also joined by something beyond sadness, and when he reflected on it further it struck him that what pulled them together was nothing other than an immense vanity, because they were so similar, as if her face were the proof of his. Despite the fact that they were only siblings and not twins, it was true that even in the sprawl of their family people often forgot this distinction as a result of this incredible similarity of feature and gesture. They had been lumped together since birth, only a single year to separate them, and had grown up in unison, though she had always been in charge. All this had meant that when she had announced her intention to forsake their city for another it had only been natural that he’d follow her lead, being the younger and more docile of the pair. It had been essential for her to escape their fat-fingered mother (although even then he had known that it was inevitable she’d become a fat-fingered mother of her own) and in the first burst of their freedom she had been happy and unencumbered. Only before long the past drew even with her. The stemma of the family! The whole sick mess of it! He wasn’t sure where to assign responsibility. It was clear that something was tormenting her, and as she tossed and turned on the white bed she gritted out that whatever it was was in her head, that a bright pink worm with their mother’s face was there, deep inside her brain, chewing away and giving her no peace. It had wriggled in through her ear while she slept in her childhood bed on the tense, excited night before their departure for the city and the strange future it embodied, because the worm, too, had sensed the possibility of escape. It was this worm that ate away at her now, riddling her with loneliness and preventing her from catching the trick of it, the language of the new city, while her brother could already manage a few words, was already caught up in its strange and guttural rhythms, though he hid it, didn’t want to admit that he was capable of leaving her behind. But he’d had his problems with the way she never called anything by its name and in doing so lost herself in a web of symbols that possessed only a glancing association with what was real and tangible, and so he couldn’t do anything about the worm, and neither could he talk her back to the past and the world that had been theirs; and he thought it had something to do with language, with the fact that the language of the city was not their own and so she had had nothing to break the fall into the receptacle of herself, the miswired circuitry of her head, with its heaping, grasping associations. The worm! The wolves! The poison in the water! She was tired, exhausted by the drama of life in the alien city. She wanted to go back but didn’t know how. Their family, the stink of failure—these things frightened her more than the timeless grey present into which she had slipped without knowing why. It hadn’t been clear to him that they were different, that the similarity of their faces and their shared history did not, after all, mean everything, but once in the new city he understood, suddenly, that she was not him and he was not her. When he went to the university and started to study the distance between them grew. It was at the university that he had met his wife. His sister had been glad when the city died and even gladder when eleven years later his wife did too. She had taken their survival as a sign of something greater and his wife had been in the way of her mission. But the truth was that she had always been jealous of his wife, who belonged to the city and the new life that had never welcomed her the way she’d expected to be welcomed. She didn’t want to make a place for her in her new image of the world. His wife’s city—the city that his sister had come to hate—was dead. The abandoned skyscrapers were humbled at last. The parks with their shady paths would burn and one day the great river would dry up. His sister was new, alive, invigorated by the change. Until the discovery of the old schoolmaster, it had just been the three of them and she had been the one to find them food and shelter, to lead them through the contaminated areas and to force them to survive. She had pushed them to keep on living with the same mad ferocity that he had seen in her as a child, and she had hated his wife for her willingness to let it end. His wife had looked at the dead earth and seen nothing to redeem them. She was ashamed of the vanished animals, the poisoned rivers, and the barren fields. And even from the beginning of their relationship she had let him know that she was infertile. She hadn’t cared—she had known long before the cataclysm that the city was going in a bad direction and the last thing she had wanted to do was to add to the misery she saw around her. His wife had never wanted to inflict the spectacle of the world on anyone else, but his sister wanted a baby. For them to be the last humans ever, eking it out in the ruins of the old city, waiting for death—his sister had hated the idea! She had pleaded with him; he hadn’t given in. Eventually she had swallowed her pride and asked his wife. Until that moment he had never realised how strong her sense of purpose was. Her visioning—the ark, renewal, time’s beginning again—had taken him unawares. Who could have guessed that she felt it so strongly, the future coiled up in her? But his wife had relented to his sister’s desire for continuity, despite her own love of endings. She had seen her suffering and couldn’t bear it. And so the very qualities he’d admired most about his wife were what pushed him into sleeping with his sister. It wasn’t wrong, she had said to him, to want to make a go of it. If they couldn’t find others, they could make them. Once he’d gotten over his initial disgust and admitted the attraction that had always been present in their too-closeness, sex with his sister acquired the kind of sick, solipsistic pleasure that he associated with masturbation. It wasn’t wrong, his wife had said, to give her what she wanted, which she had the decency to pretend was only children and nothing to do with the taboo of his body; the desecration of the last remaining familial bond. The names of their surviving children were a prayer to life, an offering made to a god who he suspected was no longer there. Jan, Bara, Katka, Adela… It never stopped bothering him that she’d given them the names of the city, as if this were her final joke on it, and he’d never been won over by the project—which remained, sullenly, her project—just as how in the life before he had never been won over by children and the futurity they embodied because his wife’s passivity was his own, and all he had wanted was to let the world drift past him. After the conquest of her brother and his wife, his sister had flourished. She grew bigger and stronger, while it seemed to him that his own wife weakened, as if the life his sister was brimming with had been siphoned off her. The significance of their survival, the idea that there had to be a reason behind their solitary existence in the empty world, sustained her, gave her strength. Even the later appearance of the fat schoolmaster did nothing to dent her faith. The cataclysm had confirmed everything that his sister believed about their world. In time he came to understand that the expression he’d caught on her face when the three of them had emerged from the faculty basement and encountered the deserted streets, the silent city and the blasted countryside, had, if anything, been gloating, as if now that reality mirrored what had always been her idea of it, she could finally let go of her sadness and be free. But everything that he had loved was dead. His sister’s sadness, their sadness, had leapt from her heart to his, and the burden of life weighed him down like a rock. His sister could make the world in her image and there was nothing to stop her. He didn’t care, couldn’t care. Someday he would end it, but it had always been hard to end things and now their uncle saw that it was harder than ever. He put his head in his hands and wailed. The Matriarch gave no sign that she had heard him. The lights went out, the spectators sighed, and then nothing was heard save for the quiet, regular breathing of the little white sheep, a pale glimmer in the void. The audience waited.

The Doloriad by Missouri Williams is published by Dead Ink, priced £9.99

Books mentioned in this blog post