‘The Damnation of Fist – a Tragedy’ follows the life of John Fist, a bright young man who forsakes his simple, natural affinity for the beauty and wonder and of the world, and for the miracle of existence itself, to pursue the contemporary vision of human fulfilment. It witnesses a warm, ingenuous spirit buckle under years of its corruptive influence, finally descending into a personal damnation by way of the very success he seeks.
Turning his young mind from deep appreciation and contemplation of the marvels of human being towards a career in City high finance, John finds that his acute natural perspicacity carries all before him. The ease with which he is able to influence situations and people, building a brilliant career and becoming the object of admiration and acclamation, tempts him, inch by inch, into abuse of his abilities. An open and carefree character, for whom the reader develops great affection, grows increasingly selfish and, little by little, evermore false, stretching his moral boundaries not only to exploit people in business but to betray lifelong friendships, and deceive a wife and family whom he sincerely loves.
But John never ceases to comprehend what he is doing and his behaviour torments him. We feel that his suffering and essential good nature must one day contrive to redeem him, even to the very end, yet John convinces himself there is no escape and that he is damned by the actions his expediencies have compelled.
‘The Damnation of Fist’ is necessarily in the form of an autobiography but it challenges, at first playfully but later with powerful purpose, both novelistic and autobiographical modes of narrative. It exposes the blurring of inward and outward – of fiction and fact, of reality and imagination – wherein every human identity is formed. Using angles of perspective which undermine the notion of objective truth, the novel wonders if, in ceaselessly distilling a narrative from our life in search for our ‘I’, we do not create a self that is other than us: indeed, whether today’s idea of ‘self’ isn’t inherent self-delusion.
A second, although by no means secondary question posed is why we humans so rarely consider what obligations the gift of a once-in-an-eternity chance of existence might lay upon us. John Fist is a normal, if keenly intelligent young man with an affinity for beauty and wonder. His working class upbringing and environment mean that his assays to pursue this natural empathy – through thought, literature and art – into the heart of existence are conducted entirely alone. In the vacuum of himself as he grows this impulse meets with no quotidian validation, and the course of his life gradually separates his naturally intense world of inward from the increasingly pressing world of outward, over time driving them into bewildering antagonism and conflict.
‘The Damnation of Fist’ is a story about stories. Not only does itself draw upon a rich heritage of literature, the novel observes how we human beings cocoon ourselves in layer upon layer of stories: stories about our culture, our family, our circles, our personal history, our victories and our defeats. Consciously and unconsciously, each story is developed – continually added to, reworked and retold – as a justification for our selves, such that our whole life might be thought as having an all-encompassing story and an overarching meaning. And yet, given the vast scope of consequence, the novel contends that few of us are as cautious as we should be about the stories from which we choose to construct our lives.
The title of the novel declares it an undisguised reworking of Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’. To base a tale upon the conceit of the ‘Faustian pact’ seems dangerously to risk cliché but the novel asserts it an unfortunate human inclination to turn all before us into cliché. We pare down and simplify all experience, grabbing at perceived significances with which to pave life’s insistent onward path. Thereby we create the notion of our own individual human being, which we continually attempt to sustain and fulfil with every action and thought. Using the clichéd tale of a man who, metaphorically or otherwise, sells his soul, the novel attempts to show how easy it is to deceive ourselves in pursuit of our desires; how by over-simplification we can produce a diminished and distorted idea of ‘self’ which may even escape our control.
Through twenty-four years of one life’s episodes and experiences – sincerest love, deepest turmoil, fiercest drama, highest joy and lowest comedy – we are challenged to confront our conditioned responses to our own life. Rich with literary reference and quotation, illustrating the liberating power of individual thought, the novel draws attention to the magnificent wonder to which we are all born, and to the daily world of mundanity, mean-spiritedness and delusion we too often install in its place.
Yet the beauty and joy of existence constantly shines through, even the novel’s bleakest moments: wherever there is life there is hope indeed!
In a world increasingly characterised by egoism, fear and greed, as well as the insidious manipulations and insipid distractions of modernity, ‘The Damnation of Fist’ suggests it is not only John Fist’s redemption that lies in embracing those experiential epiphanies to which we are all heir but whose significance we tragically disregard or wholly fail to see.
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