It’s hard to imagine a book that clashes comedy and tragedy quite so blatantly as Berg, Ann Quin’s 1964 reimagining of the Oedipal myth. Rare enough is a book that begins by stating its intention—
A man named Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . .
—rarer still one that proceeds to do seemingly everything it can to avoid following the path its intention has laid. True, Quin’s novel teems with violence, but it’s violence offered as a substitute for a patricide that never quite takes place, and this substitute violence is almost entirely, even hysterically, absurd.
Take the scene in which Berg drops his father Nathaniel’s beloved pet bird, still in its cage, down several flights of stairs as his father looks on. On the face of it, this act is frankly cruel and violent; yet the bird was already dead when Berg dropped it, and he knew it was when he did. In fact, Berty the budgie had been previously starved and/or strangled by Nathaniel’s mistress, Judith, in retaliation for Nathaniel’s crime of accidentally letting out her cat, Sebastian, who was then killed, perhaps accidentally, by Berg, though no one knows Berg did it, and he didn’t know it was Judith’s cat when he did. So while Berg doesn’t set out with intentions to hurt Judith or her cat, he winds up killing the one and upsetting the other; and while he professes a desperate desire to murder his father, instead he drops a dead bird down some stairs. Throughout the novel, Berg’s violence is a joke (if not so funny for the cat), and moreover was set up as a joke from the beginning, an Oedipal one-liner with the sing-songy rhythm of a syllogism . . .