The Purifying Flame

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Glen Duncan’s new novel, A Day and a Night and a Day, is an intense and involving story of a man pressed violently against his own limitations.It’s a brilliant book – in terms of voice, structure, and current relevance – and it proves once again why Duncan is so highly regarded in his native Great Britain. This novel should make us Americans take note.

I didn’t come to this novel thinking I was going to like it. It’s about torture, and not just any torture but “extraordinary rendition,” the practice of outsourcing our dirtiest work so we can keep the old-school, electrodes-clipped-to-the-private-parts variety of interrogation off the books. (Can the resemblance to Enron’s accounting practices be coincidental?) Plus, the novel is about Americans torturing other Americans – but Duncan is a Brit, making me fear I was in for a lot of finger wagging, however deserved it may be.

Within the first five pages you know Duncan’s project is not admonitory. He’s much too smart for easy moralizing, and though it will probably hurt his chances for the Nobel Prize, he doesn’t come down on one side of any argument. Instead, he writes a novel. In it he portrays with accuracy and engagement both the tortured and the torturer. Augustus Rose is our main character, and we get to know him with biographical depth. He grew up a mixed-race child in 1950s New York, with the attendant benefits and humiliations; by the late 60s he’s a war protester, student, and inappropriate boyfriend of a WASPy young woman. This passion, more than anything during the day and the night and the day that Augustus is tortured, is what returns to him. It’s a compelling story on its own.

Rose’s torturer, a man named Harper, is a wonderful villain, a psychopath-as-dorm-room-philosopher. Here’s Harper during the interrogation:

“This stuff you can’t even have the conversation. Morality, meaning, truth, the terms are embarrassments. They’re like bloated old aunts who should shuffle off and die. The prerequisite for intellectuals now is the acknowledgement of the absurdity of the intellectual life. Philosophy is to politics what boxing is to total war.”

Dostoevsky is Duncan’s predecessor here – Harper is a kind of unrepentant Raskolnikov, full of the monstrous logic of young men. He’s a full bore existentialist, and not the good kind.

For all of Harper’s Nietzschean tropes, the interrogation has deep shades of theology. For Rose, who was raised Catholic, torture is kind of purgatory, and Harper is the dark angel in charge of scouring Rose’s life, uncovering his sins, and burning them away. Though the book makes comments to the contrary, torture is framed here as purification. A purification with no purpose, maybe, but a purification nonetheless.

This is the unsettling side of A Day and a Night and a Day: it somehow suggests something attractive about torture. Not the pain, but the idea of being called to account for one’s life. Can you imagine anyone – any god, any soulless government spook – breaking your bones, maiming you, for the secrets inside you? I can’t. And at the end of this book, this ordinariness felt strangely like a loss.

However topical it might seem, the novel isn’t about extraordinary rendition, per se. You won’t find insights into the nuts and bolts of smuggling suspects off to sites where human rights are, shall we say, a deregulated market. These details are sacrificed in favor of something more universal – and it’s hardly a trade-off. A Day and a Night and a Day is a beautiful novel about power, pain, and abuse in a world beyond good and evil. Sadly, nothing could be more relevant.

Scott Hutchins is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University. His debut novel A Working Theory of Love has been heralded by the New York Times as "charming, warm-hearted, and thought-provoking," and was a and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2012. More from this author →