September 20, 2007
Glenn Patterson: The Third Party
A small distinction which makes Glenn Patterson unique among contemporary novelists – and I’m not saying it’s something he’ll be putting on his CV – is that he lives round my way. Sadly I won’t be making money from Heat magazine for candid snaps anytime soon as Patterson hasn’t quite reached the same level of renown as his friend Robert McLiam Wilson, who was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. Silence clearly impresses, as Wilson hasn’t published anything since 1996’s Eureka Street, whereas in the same time Patterson has published four novels and a collection of non-fiction. That’s the Protestant work ethic for you.
The Third Party invites immediate comparison with fashionable writers like David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami by being set in Japan, but the essence seems more Lost in Translation (which the book explicitly acknowledges at one point) than number9dream. Our unnamed narrator is a fortysomething executive for a plastics company which has developed an ‘exciting new storage solution’ – “clingfilm would soon be consigned to the pedal bin of history.” He is staying in a hotel in Hiroshima for a conference with clients.
And so the story progresses in a slow and elliptical fashion, as he meets various fellow travellers and visits tourist attractions both on and off the beaten track. Among the people he meets is a fellow Northern Irish writer, referred to as ‘Ike,’ and some of whose details may be catharsis on Patterson’s part (“Actually I’m a writer.” “Anything I would have heard of?” “Tell me the novels you’ve heard of and I’ll stop you when you get to one of mine”):
After our first meeting I had checked him out on Amazon: dot-co-dot-uk, not dot-com. Two novels, ranked ninety- and a hundred-and-fifty-something thousand. I read the publisher’s descriptions. They sounded like the sort of thing I would normally run a mile from, ie they featured the words Northern and Ireland in close proximity. … There were six more titles, some of them listed more than once, none of them currently able to be offered.
Ninety- and a hundred-and-fifty-something thousand. What was that? Hopeless? So-so? Not half bad?
On his travels in Hiroshima, through culture shock and problems of scale (“To look up at the ribs of that roof was to see the whale from the plankton’s point of view”) our narrator also visits the A-Bomb Museum, where “it was impossible to pass through any part without your conscience or compassion snagging on something,” such as a video of a tethered dog when “that spot became precisely the worst place on earth. … The dog leapt and twisted in the nuclear-test wind. If it could have reached the lead it would have bitten through it. If it could have reached its own neck it would have bitten through that.” The reasons for the narrator’s particular interest in evidence and expressions of holocaust-scale guilt are later apparent.
Although I normally share the narrator’s horror of novels about Northern Ireland, one of the strongest passages in the book is when ‘Ike’ is giving a reading from a new novel set back home:
She noticed every speck of dirt on the ground. She was angry that they hadn’t had the decency to clean the street for him, neither the police nor the men who had decided that, due to a congruence of historical and political circumstance to which only they were privy, this was where his life would end, and who had hung around in the darkness – because they were reasonable like that, they didn’t mind waiting – to deliver the news.
And I was enjoying the curious and rootless journey so much that I was somewhat disappointed when the narrator’s past was explicitly revealed near the end; the mood of uncertainty and foreignness was so well judged that it almost seemed superfluous. But it does tie together the strands of the story, and make it worth considering an early re-read, just so I can catch the significance of what I missed first time round: and have some questions ready for Patterson when I next see him.