This post is built out of my year-long reading thread on Twitter, but expanded.
I started the year with a short Don DeLillo blitz, research for an academic chapter I’m writing. Some of this was rereading, but Americana, his 1971 debut, was one I hadn’t read before. It is strangely split into different parts, as if moving through different tonal landscapes, which is not an approach I associate with this writer.
The opening is a zippy corporate media satire – at times like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, published three years later – with lots of cynical male advertising executives trying to screw each other over, and screw each other’s secretaries. It then diverts into a long dull suburban childhood flashback, and then goes on a Pynchonesque road trip across the country, fantasmagorical in parts, skippably dull in others.
My conclusion on Twitter was: In the end I suppose I’m just not in the market for these old myths – which, now that I think about it, is basically a paraphrase of the opening line of Apollinaire’s Zone: “À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.” Unlike for Pynchon’s freewheeling carnival of invention, I got the feeling I was supposed to care for these characters, in their struggle to care about themselves, and there were simply too many unexamined assumptions that don’t align with my own for that to apply. It tries too hard to be cool, to shock, to provoke; it flails around to distract you from the fact it doesn’t know what it wants to mean, but as a debut novel it’s still hugely impressive and quite powerful.
I also zoomed through Great Jones Street (1973) and Running Dog (1978). In all these books DeLillo seems to be pushing against the novel form, wanting to find some other way of getting through than via a standard plot arc. Great Jones Street is interesting because of what it says about celebrity, and about music – which is a subject DeLillo has never really returned to. Running Dog to an extent is interesting about the mystique that arises when art and money converge, but he mishandles the thriller plot he starts off by gleefully satirising. The ultra-hardboiled dialogue boils dry, with pages and pages of interchangeable spooks tough-talking each other in the backs of limousines. There is an impressively destructive ending – as destructive as Great Jones Street, but really you get the sense that he’s given up before we even get there. By ‘given up’, I mean given up trying to find a way to resolve the plot in a way that honours equally his characters, his themes, and any remaining sense of reality/realism/credibility.
More on novel endings later in this post.
After DeLillo I moved onto A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, which I’ve tried to read at least once before, but didn’t get far into. As with Moore’s best stories it made me absolutely snort with laughter on a regular basis. It also ends wonderfully and movingly and, in a way, thrillingly – doing that thing that I think DeLillo has tried to do, to move outside or above the confines or sphere of novelistic plot: not just giving you what you think deserve from what has come before.
It’s clever in the way it stretches what could have been a fine long short story to over 300pp, but there’s too much stodge: more childhood flashback than is necessary (with Americana, is this a lesson?), even bearing in mind the emotional ballast it contributes to the payoff at the end, and too much compulsive-idiosyncratic detail, delivered by the bucketload. This last is of course a familiar aspect of Moore’s short stories, and perhaps she simply though that the same intensity of narratorial gaze can be endlessly extended without consequence, but it ain’t so.
Lorrie Moore’s short stories work because we can only bear to spend so much time with her characters.
To which her characters would doubtless say, Imagine what it’s like being us!
To which I’d say, That’s not how this works.
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner was a disappointment, after so much fervent coverage from people online whose taste often aligns with mine. It’s an oddly weighted book, with too much of Lolly’s tedious London life with her brother and his family, and less than I wanted of her new witchy freedom in the country. when she finally ups sticks and strikes out on her own.
My problem is that, even then, Lolly is so passive as a character. I was expecting her to do something to demonstrate her freedom. (That’s what the creative manuals would seem to say.) Obviously her disquisition to the devil at the end of the book offers an explanation for this (i.e. that witching is a state of being, not a rubric for action) but a stronger narrative would have helped. If I hadn’t known the book’s twist, and had just picked it up on the basis of Warner’s reputation, I would most likely have given up halfway through.
A Lonely Man is the first novel by Chris Power, published this spring by Faber, following his excellent story collection Mothers. (Chris is a literary friend of sorts, in that we bump into each other at events, when those things happen, and once shared a very strange and memorable Norwich to London train journey with a drunken and loquacious American serviceman and his wife, kid and friends.)
A Lonely Man manages to be simple and slippery at different times and in different ways, and it features moments of sheer narrative acceleration, as if adrenalized, as if suddenly underpinned by a Motorik beat. I’d call it a domestic thriller, in that it covers territory that more often belongs to female authors and female protagonists, in which a violent threat impinges on an innocent and their family.
The protagonist – the innocent – is Robert, who’s a writer, meaning he’s quite passive in any case. The plot hangs on his chance meeting, in a Berlin bookshop, with another British expat, Patrick, who has been ghostwriting the memoir for a now dead – possibly murdered – Russian oligarch. Despite Robert’s misgivings the two become friends, and gradually the rumour of Russian violence drifts into the German sky and threatens to rain down over Robert’s young family.
Partly, though, what has lingered for me is the book’s ending. Without giving anything away it ends rather abruptly, with one crucial issue deliberately raised and then repressed. I was expecting more. I thought of an old maxim of mine, from a long-ago theatre review:
drama isn’t when things happen; it’s what happens when things happen.
That comment came from a play (at the Bush Theatre, I think) which ended with two people – a wife and husband? – both pointing guns at each other. You can’t leave it like that, I thought. We want to know what happens!
Obviously, unless the final page of a novel narrates the actual end of the universe, there will always be aspects of the narrative that will can think of – are invited to think of – as continuing. What writers often aim for (what I’ve aimed for, I think, with my published novels) is to resolve the major issues of the central characters, while giving a hint of how their lives will go on.
This didn’t happen with that play. We knew the characters well, by that point, but there was simply no way to know what was going to happen next – guns are hair-trigger things, after all – and so the abrupt curtain felt like an abrogation of responsibility.
A Simple Man isn’t like that. The unknown thing, the thing unresolved, is designed, I think, to haunt the reader, as it haunts the character involved. It’s frustrating, but authentically so.
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi was the first novel I’ve read of hers, though I’ve read some of her short stories. I prefer this. It’s a real treat of a book, page by page, delicious and seductive in the way it plays with its characters – the Bluebeard-ish writer, Mr Fox, and his wife Daphne, and his combative muse, Mary Foxe – and with the reader.
It keeps ripping itself up and starting in a new direction, but without the postmodern seriousness that often accompanies such gambits. It feels rather as if it was made up as it went along, and I think I’ve read an interview where Oyeyemi talks of it as a novel (one of her novels) that she treated as “a game”. If so, I’m game. I’m not sure it adds up to a coherent whole, but for the sheer pleasure of sliding through the pages, as if down endless delicious slides in a water park that never seem to open out onto the final landing pool, it can’t be beat.
Some of my reading this year is going to be auditioning and reauditioning novels for the MA and MFA Creative Writing I’ll be running at City, University of London, from this Autumn. A whole fiction reading-list to pick, all by myself!
Oyeyemi is in there, and so is Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I loved Normal People, but I think that I like this, her debut, even more. Like Mr Fox, it is a novel that has picked its characters from the top-shelf. It’s not that they’re likeable or unlikeable: they’re irresistible, beautiful and desirable in and despite their utter fucked-upness.
Conversations is the story of two couples: two students, ex-lover/friends Bobbi and Frances (the narrator), and two young-ish married arts professionals ten years their senior, Melissa and Nick, and how they screw up their own and each others’ lives.
On the surface, then, it’s all about how exciting it is to play fast and loose with your own and other people’s lives – but also about how exciting it is to be able to find the pure irony of tone needed to at once show this and distance yourself from it, which is what Rooney’s style absolutely does – but there is a more mature shadow to the book, as there is I suppose to A Gate at the Stairs, and for example Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals. The darkness of that shadow being that Nick and Melissa, in their thirties, haven’t grown out of the bad habits that Bobbi and Frances know they need to shed if they want to become sensible, real, normal adults.
If I were to teach Conversations with Friends I would look in particular at the narrative construction – is there a plot arc underneath that seemingly random agglomeration of scenes? – but also at the narrative voice, at how it modulates and accommodates Frances’s sense of self and being in the world. For every exquisite aphoristic insight, there is a narrative beat showing simple klutz-itude.
Two examples of the first:
- “She was radiantly attractive, which meant everyone had to work hard not to pay her any attention.”
- “Even mundane details interested her, though she often forgot them quickly.”
Two of the second:
- “I knocked my wrist on the bedside cabinet trying to pick up the phone.”
- “The dress was in a paper bag under the table and I kept kicking it accidentally.”
But let us return to endings. Conversations with Friends kind of does the opposite of A Lonely Man. Where that book abruptly shut down its plot, like someone slamming shut a laptop, as if to say: I’m not going to show you what happens, and that’s something you’re going to have to live with, like a mean parent punishing an undeserving child, Rooney’s novel seems to offer a sensible, rational, predictable resolution (the kind I’d teach on the MA: not as something you have to do, but something you can do, that tends to get done, and that, y’know, people like) but then adds a further, unnecessary twist, like a trill on the final note of a sonata.
(This is something I sometimes say to students: you’re coming up with too many grace notes. Grace notes are a distraction; you need to think about the melody.)
[Mild spoiler for Normal People coming. If you haven’t read that, skip to the indented quote below.]
On the one hand that twist reads like Rooney was embarrassed to finish the novel as it looked like it was going to end. On the other hand it reads like she’s trying to make a point about novel endings – that pat novel endings are silly: real life’s not like that, and we shouldn’t be tricked into thinking it is just because 99% of novels, films and plays end that way.
Which, well, two things: one, that’s an easy stance to take, but you might end up with annoyed readers. (I’ve no idea if other people think the same as me.) And two: she does exactly the same thing with her second novel, Normal People, deliberately refusing to resolve Marianne and Connell’s on-off relationship one way or the other.
The best endings, I think, are the ones that surprise the reader, first of all, and only secondly satisfy their desire for a particular sense of resolution, symmetry, calm. To quote John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, on what happens at the successful end of a novel:
Life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized; the universe reveals itself, if only for the moment, as inexorably moral; the outcome of the various characters’ actions is at last manifest; and we see the responsibility of free will. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretically good reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated. (pg 184)
The Art of Fiction is the creative writing book I return to more than any other. It is endlessly valuable.
My last finished book for January (finished this morning in bed) was Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, published by Fig Tree in March of this year. Claire is another writer I’ve met, and invited to speak to students. (She is a brilliant teacher, or a brilliant talker about writing.)
This, like her first two books, Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons, is about families, and how they push and pull against themselves, endlessly stitching wounds they have opened, and re-opening wounds that have healed, though these families are all odd, to a certain extent. This one, that once-upon-a-time numbered four – mother Dot, father Frank, and twins Jeanie and Julius – is reduced at the start of the novel to just the twins, left alone in their isolated and tumbledown cottage on the death of their mother
The twins are 51, and have never lived away from home. They are unequipped for any form of life, let alone modern life. (The idea that they might be living in the same fictional universe as Bobbi and Frances seems like a kind of insult or travesty, a joke bad enough to turn your stomach.)
The plot revolves around their attempts to survive, like Hansel and Gretel horrifically prematurely aged by a bad witch’s spell, but the richness of the novel comes from its thematic treatment. Like most other of her books, Unsettled Ground features an improvised bucolic idyll. The descriptions of the cottage’s garden and its vegetable plot, and the folk music the family once made together, and the twins still make now, tentatively, carefully, as a form of self- and mutual care, are splendid, and full of hope.
Thanks to Faber and Fig Tree for the proof copies of A Lonely Man and Unsettled Ground. All other books my own.