In truth I’m far too tired to write cogently about books, but the Conservative Party leadership election debate is on television and if I don’t sit and try to bash this out now, I’ll only sit following it on Twitter. So I have this pile of books next me – read during May and the first half of June – and Tiger Bay (Tapestry) playing on my laptop, and a small glass of leftover bourbon, and I’m going to see what comes up.
Lanny I read in sunny May, sitting on a slope above a football pitch, while my son trained ahead of a Sunday league final his team ultimately lost. I’d had the book sitting on the windowsill by my desk for a while. It hadn’t particularly grabbed me the few times I’d picked it up – not like Max Porter’s astonishing debut, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which I remember reading in proof on a train journey from London to Norwich, tweeting as I went (this is just the start of a thread):
Well Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is superb.
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) April 15, 2015
Dead Papa Toothwort didn’t grab me the way Crow did, nor did I particularly care for the curlicues of found or overheard text from the village that spiralled across the pages – spot on though they were in their surgical skewering of the worst of English parochialism. (It reminded me, too, of Will Eaves’s equally many-voiced, equally ventriloquistic The Absent Therapist.)
Things settled down though, once Lanny and his parents and good old Pete the scruffy, hip, half-retired, half-hermit artist elbowed their way into the narrative and Porter began to show what he’s really good at (apart from springing poetry live from the forehead of prose sentences: can we take that as a given?): the cool, drifting, seductive dynamics of middle-class family life.
So: the growing trusting friendship between Pete and the loveable oddball Lanny; the raw, touching concern of Lanny’s mother for her child, wanting to protect and nurture what is unique and characteristic about him, but fearing what price the world will extract from him because of it; the forgivable awfulness of Lanny’s dad; the almost flirtation between his mother and Pete, that really might just be a genuine mutual sympathy. But in a small village, in any small community, who can tell?
The book held me and took me with it (that hedgehog! that horrid crime novel that she is writing, despite herself!) but it didn’t pack the same punch as Grief. That felt like a radical statement, sui generis, a miraculous matching up of form and content, that burst onto the literary scene seemingly out of nowhere. Lanny is… a bit the same. The same (or similar) family dynamic, split into voices, and set against the more experimental tenor of the outsider voice: then, Crow; now, Dead Papa Toothwort. It looks a little bit like a… formula.
And while the narrative movement of Grief felt inevitable, and no worse for it – there is only ever one way out of grief, though we skin our knees and rip our hands to get there – in Lanny the fabric of the set-up is disrupted by a singular plot-event that is dropped into it like a stone into the middle of a pond. And I hate to say it, but there is something a little false about the way the narrative unfolds from this point on. Little can be said without spoilers, but it feels like there’s a sleight of hand in terms of what Porter is and isn’t telling us, that colours how we read the tensile and climatic sections of the book. (Bad Papa Toothwort is part of that sleight of hand.)
If that makes me sound like a grumpy-old-narrative-git, then the same thing happened with Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, though that, too, I loved, for at least the first two-thirds of its length. I think it might be partly down to the teaching I’m doing on the MA at St Mary’s, which involves close work on plot and narrative structure. In this I’m being increasingly guided by what John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction, that not just plot but also narrative has got to be moral; it’s got to deal fairly with what it sets up, and deal honestly both with its characters and with the reader.
Moshfegh’s novel is a joy of voice – a bleak, brittle takedown of early 2000s New York artifice, as told by an (unnamed) narrator who has retreated from that world, but can’t shake the habits of mind that linked her to it and sustained her in it. (She worked for a while as a typically aloof assistant at a fashionable gallery, and all this stuff is grotesque but believable, like Bret Easton Ellis at his best.) She is shallow, she is vicious, she is self-defeating, she is exquisitely articulate and fascinating and killingly insightful about everything and everybody except herself – think Fleabag, but without the self-knowledge. It made me laugh and squirm and shudder with anticipation for what might come, even though the novel’s premise is that what’s coming is nothing. The narrator wants to take herself out of life, without going so far as suicide, in the expectation (not even really the hope) that the drugged hibernation of a year or so will leave her revitalised – but for what?
What gradually becomes clear is that this is a novel about grief – both her parents, neither of whom loved her, have recently died, leaving her a stack of money, and one of the most tender parts of the book is her relationship with her hated best friend Reva, whose mother is dying of cancer. Reva, who envies and worships the narrator for her beauty and her callowness; Reva, who really wants to be kind, who wants to love and be loved, but thinks that because the narrator does so brilliantly without either of these things, then she should do without them, too.
Here’s a short example that shows how brilliant it is, in a flashback conversation with her parents, ahead of her leaving for New York to go to college, and in which they have been telling her to be careful, sexually, and to use contraception. Then the conversation swerves.
My father gave me a small, pink, shell-shaped compact of birth control pills.
“Gross,” was all I could say.
“And your father has cancer,” my mother said.
I said nothing.
“Prostate isn’t like breast,” my father said, turning away. “They do surgery, and you move on.”
“The man always dies first,” my mother whispered.
My dad’s chair screeched on the floor as he pushed himself away from the table.
“I was only teasing,” my mom said, batting the smoke of her own cigarette away from her face.
“About the cancer?”
That was the end of the conversation.
How good is that? The pain, the awfulness and – just visible beneath them – the desire for connection, for love. There is a great set of scenes built around Reva’s mother’s funeral, but then the book retreats into its previous mode – one of abstention and hibernation, as the narrator drugs herself into a state of suspended animation. What happens at the end (again, no spoilers) makes a kind of sense for the character, but there is no inevitability about it; she has not earned it, through her actions in the plot.
(A side note: the very ending of the book, which some people have been annoyed by, is the perfect example of the argument that the very end of a novel is in a way irrelevant. It is the climactic, penultimate scene that makes it or breaks it. The final scene – the envoi – can always be done any one of a number of ways.)
Around this time I reread Never Mind and half of Bad News, just for a fix of Edward St Aubyn’s poised, languid prose – the most English of prose styles, smothering the anguish like you’d smother a terminally ill relative who asked you to ease them from this world of cares.
I read Kerry Hudson’s remarkable Lowborn, which was hugely moving, and well balanced in terms of memoir vs reportage vs analysis. Because it covers those different aspects, however, and switches regularly between them, it doesn’t function fully as a memoir, in the way, for instance, that Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica or Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood do, both of them treating difficult upbringings. This book is less immersive than either of those, less tainted with the smells and stains of that life. Too much of it is spent in the present, looking back – which makes sense, because this is a political book as much as a personal one, and Hudson is making clear, necessary points about Austerity, and about how many people still live today like she did, then. I spent a few days working with Hudson at a student writing course she was running a couple of years ago, and found her immensely kind and friendly. She comments in this book about the strain that fitting into a world so different from the one she knew puts on her, and this struck home. I am exactly the kind of person who presents the kinds of assumptions about the world that Hudson has to fight against. A brilliant book – but not, perhaps, a fully brilliant memoir. Could it be… could it be that Hudson hasn’t quite finished with her childhood? That there might be another book on it that wants to be written?
I rattled through a few Japanese books, for some reason. I’d tried but never fully got into Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key, which is a brilliantly sardonic story about the erotic game a husband plays with his wife through writing a diary about their sex life that he then leaves around for her to read. It made me think, in a roundabout way, of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, for its interplay of four familially/romantically linked characters – and then I read a new Penguin Modern Classic, Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti, which is similar, in its take on the erotic dangers of a placid marriage, and is also told through documentary evidence (diary, letter, published short story), though this one treats a love triangle, rather than a love square. It’s quite excellent, and I won’t say anything more on it as I’d like to review it.
The NK Jemisin was read because I wanted to read some fantasy – it’s excellent, and ingeniously plotted. The Granta is there to represent the random readings that interweave all these ‘structured’ readings. Now I need to get back to Proust.
This month all these books are my own, or borrowed, except for Who Among Us? which came courtesy of Penguin. Many thanks!