Ice by Anna Kavan
Originally published fifty years ago and recently reissued in an anniversary edition with supplemental texts by Jonathan Lethem and Kate Zambreno, Anna Kavan’s Ice is a story of a man obsessed. A nameless protagonist is repeatedly afflicted with an irrational passion to find a girl from his past: she’s a young, Nordic sort of beauty, a wintry “glass girl” of innocence and purity that is perpetually in need of rescue. “When I considered that imperative need I felt for her,” the man reflects, “as for a missing part of myself, it appeared less like love than an inexplicable aberration, the sign of some character flaw I ought to eradicate, instead of letting it dominate me.” The narrator tails her like a private investigator and follows strange leads that connect her with a villainous man known as The Warden. The girl repeatedly evades the narrator, and just when his clues seem to run dry he mysteriously picks up a new trace and starts again. “The repetition was like a curse.”
Outside, snow and ice aggressively bluster. Kavan’s world is ecologically broken, and the incoming weather might lead to a global disaster far greater than whatever political turmoil has afflicted the continents. Countries are fractured and factions have emerged, but all eyes are fearfully set towards the stormy horizons and what hardship they may bring.
Ice stays firmly, frustratingly, in the realm of unreal: characters remain nameless and faceless and are developed more as ideas than they are as people. The narrator travels profusely but the landscape remains a shadowy frontier. “It could have been any town, in any country,” he says. “I recognized nothing. Snow covered all landmarks with the same white padding.” “I had a curious feeling that I was living on several plains simultaneously,” the narrator considers elsewhere in the novel. “The overlapping of the planes was confusing.” These ambiguities frequently lead to stretches of flat prose with little for readers to grasp and enjoy, but by keeping everything in her novel as unmoored as she can, Kavan allows the allegory of Ice grow into an intricate, enigmatic shape. As Lethem describes it in his foreword, Ice is “an index of reaction points as unsettling and neatly tailored as a sheaf of Rorschach blots.”
Unfortunately, Anna Kavan’s reputation precedes her. In addition to being hailed as a visionary force in experimental science fiction, she is also known for her debilitating addiction to heroin. (The title of her posthumous novel, Julia and the Bazooka, refers to the glass syringe with which her protagonist would shoot herself up.) Ice itself is a fevered, disjointed read, and roils drunkenly through scenes of hazy action and intoxicated obsession. While heroin is not explicitly mentioned in Ice’s dystopian future, something unnatural is certainly swimming in its bloodstream.
But it’s not quite fair to connect the two ideas and walk away. While stories of addiction often make for compelling literature, they also allow readers a perfunctory time with their analysis. It’s too easy to simply say Ice is a drug allegory, that the protagonist is unsuccessfully looking for that perfect high he once had, or that the encroaching icy landscape is like a numbing drug coursing through a body. While there may be something there, Ice is about addiction as much as Franz Kafka’s The Castle is: both stories explore what happens to mankind in the face of irrational purpose and duty.
While the repeated flights of the “glass girl” make up the crux of Ice’s formless story, readers should look elsewhere in the novel to seek what Kavan’s trying to achieve. The quiet political subplot, paired with an astonishingly ahead-of-its-time warning of climate change make for a curious worldview back in 1967. It’s important to remember Ice was written in the shadows of the early years of the Cold War, during a time when global collapse genuinely felt like a possible future. In the shifting landscapes of Ice, it feels like everyone besides the narrator is waiting for the world to end, and his obsessions are the only thing keeping him alive. Ice reveals itself to be a cautionary tale about inactivity and the importance of purpose, however vague, aggressive, or irrational. Obsession, whether addictive or not, gives us meaning; if we stop our search, we might freeze.