I often wonder why it is so hard to do things that are positively good for us, and why it is so easy to allow weakness and self-sabotage to take over. One of my therapists used to talk about ‘indulgences’ – the things that we rush towards when we are low that we tell ourselves will help when in fact they only make matters worse. So many things can become indulgences – alcohol and food, naturally, but abstract things too. Worrying can be an indulgence, as can strenuous denial; staying in alone or going out too much. Mr Litlove watches bad TV, I give in to magical thinking. Why is it so hard to stop the backsliding and make that little bit of effort towards everything healthy and sane? Perhaps we call them our ‘strengths’ because they actively require us to be strong to deploy them.
The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne is a novel that takes us deep into the heart of self-destructive behaviour without offering the least philosophical resolution for it. Our narrator is a man who goes by the name of Lord Doyle, though he sure as hell isn’t a gentleman. He is a corrupt lawyer, who has embezzled the savings of a rich old lady in England and run off with them to Macau, the Las Vegas of China. Here, he spends his days and nights in the sweaty neon glow of the casinos, gambling his dirty money away. We might term him a lost soul, but his own preferred description for himself is a ‘hungry ghost’, the Chinese term for the souls of suicides and those who died violent deaths, who when they are occasionally let out of hell rush towards food and entertainment. ‘Their hunger is a thousand times more intense than ours, and so is their thirst,’ Doyle tells us, as his own appetite for both food and destruction grows and cannot be slaked.
Lord Doyle is obsessed with punto banco baccarat, one of the most simple and unsophisticated card games, and therefore one of the most deadly. It is, he says,
a struggle with the pure laws of chance. When you play it you are alone with your fate, and one is not often alone with one’s fate. When you play it your heart is in your mouth.’
But there is a secret to coming out even:
Keeping a cool head, not with regard to a strategy aimed at deceiving others, but with regard to your own eagerness to win. It is a different kind of coolness that is required. The opponent is yourself.’
This is gambling as a sort of existential brinksmanship – a way of scaring one’s fate out of its hiding place and into revealing itself in the open. Though in fact what must be flushed out are one’s own deepest and darkest inner drives. As Lord Doyle plays game after game of baccarat, he forgets his own insights and becomes convinced that he is on the razor’s edge of fate itself, and that what happens is full of significance. As his bets become increasingly large and reckless, he believes that
I had been progressing towards this one clear moment, because one always has to be progressing towards some kind of final moment, some revelation, and when it comes it stops you in your tracks.’
In fact, he is brought to a halt twice in the novel by women who represent the split between good and evil. He loses all his money in a disastrous game against ‘Grandma’, a voracious older woman who plays fast and loose with her philandering husband’s fortune. And he experiences a brief but powerful redemption with the high class call girl, Dao-Ming, who saves him when he is in crisis. Her nurture of him seems to leave him washed in good fortune of a truly supernatural nature. But which of these shining lights will Lord Doyle follow – the pole star of Dao-Ming or the flashing neon sign of Grandma?
This is a beautifully written novel, oddly demanding for its slightness and the simplicity of the action, but peppered with surprising moments of illumination. I found it to be profoundly existential. What readers won’t expect, and what I won’t say much about because it needs to remain as a surprise, is that it has an intriguing supernatural dimension. These two elements – the supernatural and the existential – were the parts that really gripped me. The skeleton of the novel, with its old, old interest in the ways a bad man can be redeemed by a woman, not so much. Above all, it is a study in self-destruction, the lure and the recklessness of it, and the strange but compelling thought that we may simply be very bad at understanding where self-destruction lurks. Although Lord Doyle is hypnotised by losing money at cards, it isn’t as if either side of the gambling deal is exactly healthy: ‘Success is irresistible,’ he writes. ‘It’s like a crime scene, something that enchants the worst side of the mind.’ What the landscape of the worst side of the mind might look like is very much the topic of this elegant but chilling novel.