Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

In a chapter called ‘Pharmakon’ the narrator of Hex analyses the word.

In Ancient Greek pharmakon meant poison and cure and scapegoat. It also meant potion and spell and charm. It could mean artificial color or dye, even paint. It came from roots that meant cut and throat. The pharmakon doesn’t change its name whether it’s noxious or healing, whether it destroys or repairs. We assign human value to these results. Go ahead and employ a drug either in measure, toward health, or in excess, towards oblivion. The pharmakon has no intentions; it cooperates.

Potions that kill or cure fascinate authors. When Roland Deschain walks into a New York pharmacy, he expects ‘a dim, candle-lit room full of bitter fumes, jars of unknown powders and liquids and philters, many covered with a thick layer of dust or spun about with a century’s cobwebs.’ The mundanity of the drugstore blunts him: ‘Here was a salve that was supposed to restore fallen hair but would not; there a cream which promised to erase unsightly spots on the hands and arms but lied.’ The psycho genius of The Secret History (to which Hex has been compared) boasts that ‘The woods will soon be full of foxglove and monkshood. I could get all the arsenic I need from flypaper. And even herbs that aren’t common here – good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week.’ In her marvellous study A is for Arsenic, the author (and chemist) Kathryn Harkup explores the use of poisons in Agatha Christie’s novels, derived from Christie’s years working as a nurse and then an apothecary’s assistant – apothecary, now there’s a fantastic literary word. This stuff even comes up in children’s fiction. Professor Snape is denied Hogwarts’s Defence Against the Dark Arts job, but he does get to be Potions Master, with a creepy dungeon classroom that matches his sinister demeanour.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel is conventional only in its use of toxins. Nell Barber is a PhD scientist who has been expelled from Columbia after one of her colleagues dies of thallium poisoning. Exiled from the campus and working in a Brooklyn bar, Nell collects poisonous plants and hangs around the university in adoration of her mentor, Joan Kallas. Her obsession with Joan is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s crush on an older woman who Highsmith glimpsed while working at a department store: her biographer Joan Schenkar articulates it as ‘On one side of the Bloomingdale’s counter was the young, poor, seemingly subservient salesgirl; on the other side, the older, wealthy, apparently dominant Venus in furs.’ Nell is very much the salesgirl in this equation – the young Midwesterner to Joan’s cosmopolitan authority. The novel is presented as Nell’s notebooks, in which she writes about Joan quite as much as she writes about plants. ‘It’s acceptable to admire you,’ Nell writes to Joan. ‘Admiration is the acceptable starting point and I did start there.’

There’s a lot going on in Hex, relationship wise. Nell has split up with her boyfriend Tom, a medievalist who specialises in unicorn myths. Tom then starts having an affair with Joan, who is married to campus HR man Barry, who is having an affair with younger postgraduate Mishti, who is supposed to be with business student Carlo. Knight says that ‘it was a pleasure to design six characters from scratch and put them in maximum exposure to each other. It was like a math problem.’

With all this intrigue going on Nell herself seems like the wan narrator who records everything but doesn’t achieve anything, mooncalfing about and scribbling her cahiers. But Knight loves the character: ‘She has very low vanity, and she’s willing to suffer the indignity of her own indulgence in return for the pleasure of her indulgence. In an environment where everyone is striving for more health and more productivity and more success, it was refreshing to write a character who is really not trying to prove anything or impress anyone.’ And indeed Nell grew on me, certainly by the scene when she chases Barry down the street shouting ‘I’M A VERY GOOD WITCH BARRY… AND HERE IS MY PROPHECY…. YOU WILL BUILD A SHIP OF ROTTEN WOOD AND BLOAT IT AND IT WILL GET VERY BIG… AND YOU WILL SOAK IT IN ROTTEN WATERS AND IT WILL FAIL BARRY… IT WILL FAIL.’

Hex is a very contemporary novel, with characters that talk in riddles and non sequiturs. It’s a hell of a strange read, but also strangely exhilarating – a spooky wood of a book, full of flowers and nightshade alike.

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