September Reading: Gunaratne, Rooney, Murdoch, le Guin, de Waal, Tokarczuk, Deighton, Eaves

There are some books missing from this photo: Normal People by Sally Rooney, given back to the kind student who lent it to me; The Trick to Time, sat on a shelf in my university office; and In Our Mad and Furious City, donated to the university library – I wanted to get an extract from it straight into the course reader for our undergraduate Writing London module and this was the surest way of doing it.

Let’s start with Guy Gunaratne’s novel. I liked it very much. As with many other readers I was bowled over by the confidence and fluency of its interlocking narrative voices, and the sense that the characters and events, big and small, were coming straight up out of the city and onto the page. It is an easy and impressive read: the individual sections flow swiftly, never getting snarled up, as interior monologues can, and the sense of adjacency between these few characters living out a few days in a north London housing estate matches the theme of frantic, disconnected urban living. We are linked closer than we can know.

I gave it to my 16-year-old son, to try a chapter, just to see how he responded to the writing. Some of the YA fiction he reads is likewise concerned with contemporary social issues: would he buy someone doing the same in a more sophisticated narrative mode, with a wider historical reach? He liked it, though not enough to want to read on right away.

Interestingly, he queried the use of ennet for innit in black British teenager Selvon’s chapters. ‘Why does he do that?’ he asked. It was the right choice, I think: innit is too familiar as a locution, and can seem reductive, even parodic. You want your character to seem ‘street’: you make her or him say “innit,” innit? And Selvon’s ennet is part of his interior monologue; it’s not actually voiced, and in that context it sinks happily into the drift of his thoughts, bobbing up every now and then as a form of semi-digested punctuation.

Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but not shortlisted, and it has been shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize. I’d say that sounds about right. His approach is fresh, and structurally lively – on the surface, at least. By skipping around between five or six narrative voices, he jumps about his environment and orbits his central events rather in the manner of The Matrix’s bullet-time – the novel does feel three-dimensional – but two problems emerge.

Firstly, two of his narrative voices belong to elderly people, both of whose monologues focus almost exclusively on the past – the British civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles. They are interesting, and show real range in the writing, but all this harking back has a braking effect on the narrative.

Secondly, and more generally, the breadth of these different narrative voices also slows down the novel’s movement. The events it describes take place over 24 or perhaps 48 hours or so (writing from memory) and the lead-up to the quite substantial climactic event is so brief as to largely defuse any sense of drama. It’s like a pocket-sized version of Underworld, and it needs, if not a bigger canvas then certainly a longer timeline to make the impact it might – as a novel. It’s brilliant at set-up, character, the ambient noise of a true dream of life, but it’s less good at acts and scenes.

Normal People was also on the Man Booker longlist and not the shortlist, and again that feels about right to me – though I say this without having read any of the ten other longlisted novels. No particular kudos to them, then, but Normal People feels like a brilliant novel that needed a final twist to make it completely outstanding. I wrote at length about it here, but in short: it does character, and dialogue, and environment just as well as In Our Mad and Furious City – albeit far more restrictedly in terms of its social reach, engaging class and gender relations but not race or ethnicity – and it does time much better than that book, showing how people change, and don’t, over months and years. But it is lacking a novelistic backbone, or skeleton.

Furious City’s novelistic backbone is missing too, which Gunaratne tries to make up for with his rushed climax that feels like nothing. The more I read Normal People, on the other hand, the more I felt like it was about to make a killer statement about the novel form – how life simply doesn’t have a shape like novels do, and so the novel form is a lie – but it never quite did. It doesn’t work like a novel, but doesn’t really find a way of making its meandering narrative form seem like a serious conceptual alternative.

Along with Normal People the highlight to my reading month – and surely one of the highlights of my year – was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, which I picked up for a quid from a charity shop (having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Taylor’s piece about it in the Brixton Review of Books) and launched into straight away.

An aside: I tweeted this weekend about how, though I’m happy to scribble annotations in my books, I’ve never been in the habit of dating them, either when I acquire them, as some people do, or when I finish them, as some people do. I wish I did. Doing so would make a fascinating record. Some books get read straightaway – bang! – and not always for obvious reasons (devouring a newly released book by an all-time favourite author, for instance). After all, I’ve got other, unread Murdochs on my shelves, so why did I launch, almost without thought, into this one? Certainly it would be one of the shortest date-spans on my shelves, even though it did take me a few days to read it. Par ce que c’estoit luy, I suppose. Par ce que c’estoit moy.

Certainly I gobbled down The Black Prince with utter glee, stealing moments to grab a few pages, reading on in bed later than usual, ducking out on family television shows for an indulgent bath-read. Until this book my admiration for Murdoch had only fully spilled over into love with The Sea, The Sea, though A Severed Head came close. In a way The Black Prince takes the best of both of these books and combines them into a glorious hymn to matters of the heart and flesh, but it also rises up out of such things, at times, to acutely anatomise the human condition.

It’s an intellectual sex comedy that has moments of enacted or articulated philosophy, or, I suppose, psychology, if psychology can be used in such a way.

An aside: why do we say philosophER, but psychologIST?

For all this, The Black Prince is problematic, in that it is about an old, getting towards elderly man falling in love with a young woman more like a third of his age than half. She, on the face of it, loves him back, but then the story is told entirely from his point of view – until the very clever conclusion: far cleverer than I was expecting, or rather clever in a way I wasn’t expecting.

I also can’t think of a book that does ‘love’ better than The Black Prince: the quickening pulse, the paranoid supposition, the way the ‘will they/won’t they’ becomes internalised, and the mind starts to perform powerful calculus on the smallest words, thoughts and deeds until the results become monstrous.

When one has a secret source of satisfaction it is pleasing to talk of everything in the world but that.

Or

To drive someone one loves in a car is a special mode of possession.

Or

When God said ‘Let there be light’ this love was made. It had no history. Yet too my awakening consciousness of it had a history of bottomless fascination. When, how, did I begin to realize the charm of this girl? Love generates, or rather reveals something which may be called absolute charm. In the beloved nothing is gauche.

The fact that the love is described in such purple prose is part of the novel’s paradox. (Shades of Lolita here.) Is Bradley Pearson a great writer? At times he seems so – I said I loved the novel, didn’t I? And it is written in his words, isn’t it? – and at others not. The prose does reach great heights, and yet it is at the same time a parody of great writing, as if Murdoch is saying it is only through language that overreaches itself that we can write of such things.

And yet we are dealing with a 58-year-old man having an affair with a 20-year-old woman. While there is nothing pathologically paedophilic about Bradley, the fact that he knew his love (Julian, not a common girl’s name) when she was a baby is icky in the extreme.

Let’s leave it like this: while I find it impossible to find any genuine account of love in Humbert Humbert’s writing about Lolita, I can do so with Bradley vis-à-vis Julian. That his self-image (both as a lover and as a writer) becomes so thoroughly dismantled by the end of the novel does not detract from this. And yet the fact that Murdoch uses such a sexually and emotionally complicated and compromised character to address the nature of love does suggest that love itself is a form of derangement.

The other great pleasure of the book is its narrative verve. Where In Our Mad and Furious City and Normal People, in their different ways, dismiss the idea of shapely, well-formed and unified narrative, where things happen in the way they happen in novels, rather than in real life, Murdoch’s book embraces traditional novelistic narrative form – embraces, gooses, tickles and generally has a huge amount of mischievous and not entirely decent fun with it. People are always sending letters that appear at pertinent or impertinent moments; they are always walking in on other people in compromising situations; they are always declaring their undying love and then later undeclaring it. It is plotted rather like a stage farce. As with the prose style, Murdoch does the double job of honestly fulfilling our (learned, unnatural) narrative desires, and wickedly sending them up. It’s a book I will read again, no doubt. But it also makes me wary of other Murdoch books: this is so wonderfully done, can any of the others seems anything less than a disappointment?

In any other month I think Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness would have been a standout read. It is the first novel of hers I’ve read other than some of her Earthsea books – I’m generally not well-read in sci-fi and fantasy – and it is stunning. It’s a perfect example of how to ‘world-build’ and then set yourself loose from the logical constraints of that process. The problem with world-building, for me, is that, having created a coherent alien environment, the writer often seems trapped within it. The meticulously designed, decorated and organised plates – all of them – are kept spinning, for fear that anyone should doubt the system works. What le Guin does is to build a beautiful world, in a brief, intense series of scenes, develop it along expected lines, and then, eventually, get up and walk away from it. I haven’t read enough of this/these genre(s) to know how rare this is, but the final third of the book – Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice – seems simply to step free from the demands of the form, like someone stepping out of heavy clothes.

I love books that drift free from their moorings. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s little-read early novel A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven (aka A Time for Everything) does it, astonishingly. I love unexpected narrative leaps, as when Lily goes to Europe in The House of Mirth. (This perhaps is my problem with the multi-voice narrative a la Mad and Furious City. The first jump seems audacious, the second less so, and ever on in a series of diminishments, while the later jumps conspire to make the first seem less audacious than it did.)

The Trick to Time I admired rather than loved, despite the elegant prose. It didn’t have the innocent energy of My Name is Leon and though it made me sob at moments (you’ll know which moments, if you’ve read it) I was less interested in the present-day narrative thread than the past one. And I saw the late twist/reveal coming too soon for it to have its intended impact.

Then three unfinished books:

After The Black Prince I needed a palate cleanser. Someone had been tweeting about Len Deighton, can’t remember why, so I teetered on chair and window sill and got down from some inaccessible shelf his Horse Under Water, one of his ‘Harry Palmer’ novels. It’s a delicious spy thriller, svelte and debonair, carving a neat line between the lugubrious realism of Le Carré and the Technicolor fantasy of Fleming. I read about a third of it. That was all I needed. I could go on.

Strangely for me, I gave up on Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead having read about half of it. It’s rare for me to get so far in and not… plow on. But I put it down. I just didn’t get the sense that the absurdist rural astrological folk-tale-ish crime story was building towards anything. Doubly rare for me to give up on anything from Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Equally rare is for me not to read a new CB Editions book at the earliest opportunity. (Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be must hold the record for my quickest-read-on-acquisition book ever – I had finished it mere hours from having it placed in my hands by the ever-generous Charles Boyle.) But it has taken me three goes to get properly in to Will Eaves’ Murmur, and what a wonder it is. It is difficult at times, yes – there is a narrative mode or voice that I haven’t yet got my head around – but it also has an enviable lightness of touch. To hark back to my earlier point, it does seem to have found a new-ish form for the novel, that does not slavishly follow tradition, but politely points out how things might otherwise be done. It, like In Our Mad and Furious City, has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. If it carries on like this, then I would consider it a worthy winner. (I’d also applaud Cusk winning it, on the assumption that Kudos is as good as Outline or Transit. I haven’t read the other shortlisted books.)

***

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was a review copy from Fitzcarraldo Editions. Murmur was a review copy from CB Editions. Thanks to both. Normal People was a loan. In Our Mad and Furious CityThe Trick to Time and The Left Hand of Darkness were bought new. The Black Prince and Horse Under Water were bought second-hand.

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