October 22, 2007

Gerard Woodward: I’ll Go to Bed at Noon

Posted in Woodward Gerard at 4:48 pm by John Self

Perhaps on this blog there should be some system to tell people immediately which books I’m really enthusiastic about, a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s technique in Galapagos, where he placed an asterisk before the name of any character who would shortly die. If I did, there would be one on this post, because Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004) is one of those rare books which leaves no regrets whatsoever: except that I didn’t read it sooner. In my defence, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year as big hitters like Colm Toibin, David Mitchell and Alan Hollinghurst: how was I to know that Woodward was a match for any of them?

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is the middle book in a trilogy, but can be fully appreciated (at least I think I did) on its own. It brings us in full colour into the lives of the Jones family in north London from 1974 to 1979. It’s a saga squeezed into 440 pages, but the small type and the precise prose make it breathe as deeply as any epic.

The book opens with a funeral, where Janus Brian, the widower of the deceased, says:

You know, dear, all my life I have been scared of death, but since Mary died I have come to the conclusion that it is life that’s the really frightening thing. … Religion is supposed to make us cope with death, but we need something to make life bearable…

Janus Brian’s opium of choice, as for his brother Lesley (sic), his sister Colette and her son Janus, is alcohol. Colette, making progress from her days – presumably explored in the first Jones novel, August – as a glue-sniffer, favours a tipple of barley wine (“One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning”). Her son Janus is a beer man (“They would hear, from downstairs, the metallic retching of beer cans being opened. Four or five in quick succession”). Janus Brian himself will make alcohol when he cannot find it (“Cucumber Wine, Cauliflower Champagne, Brussel Sprout Whiskey. That was where all the fruit and vegetables from this extensive kitchen garden went – into the fermentation bins of Janus Brian’s home brewing kits”). Lesley we only see once in detail, and it’s a cruel, squirm-inducing portrait of the retired teacher among his former pupils:

Lesley leant back in his chair so far that he fell backwards onto the floor, arms outstretched, still singing, his mouth gaping with song. The locals poured Old Roger down Lesley’s gaping throat laughing as they did so, ‘Feed me till I want no more.’ They rejoined as Lesley ecstatically gargled and spumed on the cascading beer. The manner in which this event occurred suggested to Colette and Aldous that it was a regular occurrence on Lesley’s visits to the Bricklayers. The reason for his popularity here was his willingness, their former English master, to debase himself so abjectly on the floor of their pub.

They react to it differently too: Colette on the surface seems as functional and well-adjusted as her husband Aldous; Janus is violent; and Janus Brian likely to be found by Colette on a regular visit “semi-naked and semi-conscious on the bed.” Colette and Aldous’s other children, and their partners, must work their way through the behaviours that result.

Though steeped in ethanol, the story seems to be as much about the messiness that accompanies all family life, the unrequited love of parents for their children or “our sorrows that our children are slipping away from us,” and the fine line between cause and effect (“Janus, why couldn’t you just be a normal child, a normal man, why did you have to turn out like this?” “How could I be normal with a mother like you?”).

Woodward has a neat observation for every action, down to daily ablutions (“Aldous shaved, observing the familiar faces he made to make the process easier (the sceptical philosopher, the affronted duchess, the smirking connoisseur)”), but the pace builds as the book goes on, and by the last hundred pages – when the story has just about caught up with the back cover blurb – it’s practically a page-turner. He has a dispassionate, deadpan style which makes the moments of humour and tragedy all the more intense.  He also has a Gordon Burn-style interest in the buildings and structure of cities and the relationship they have with the people who live in them.

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is also rich in literary references, from the character names to the title, which comes from King Lear and suggests early death. One thing that Woodward shows in this magnificent, beautiful book is that if there’s one thing for a chronic alcoholic and their loved ones that’s worse than dying early, it’s continuing to live through it.

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12 Comments »

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this, all three books in the trilogy are beautifully written but this one really stands out. It is quite peculiar to live in the area in which the books are set and to walk past certain landmarks afte rreading them. Do you think you’ll read the other two?

  2. John Self said,

    Oh yes, certainly. I hear on the grapevine that the first, August, is up to the same standard, but that the third one A Curious Earth is not quite. But I’m prepared to make up my own mind … and you can be sure I’ll be sharing my thoughts when I do.

    The sense of place is tremendous, isn’t it? I almost felt I lived there myself while I was reading!

  3. jem said,

    I remember this! It was one of my Booker longlist reads that year. I recall enjoying it a lot – but in that Mike Leigh kind of way, enthralled but horrified, you almost feel too close to the scenes, like you need to step away and give the characters some privacy. Thanks for reminding me – I dont think I realised it was part of a set – I think I will check out the others too.

  4. Tony S. said,

    That’s what I’ve liked about the Booker for many years. They actually attempt to find the best novels that qualify each year. Thus you find books by authors that are somewhat unknown. In the US, many of the awards tend to go to the books that have been hyped the most, which frequently aren’t the best books. .

  5. Paddy said,

    Glad you liked it, John. I just fell in love with the entire family when I was reading it, even though they are so maddening and destructive, especially Janus Brian. It’s wonderful how much Woodward withholds from the reader. so it takes time before you realise that alcohol is the family’s great burden, one they seem unable to resist. Colette is one of the great mother figures in fiction – barmy, quixotic, but completely believable. Another person mentions Mike Leigh and while I get the connection, I’ve always felt Leigh is orbiting his characters in an occasionally snide way, while Woodward feels completely connected to them. A year later I read ‘August’ which isn’t quite as good, but still has some incredible moments and am eagerly awaiting the ‘A Curious Earth’ paperback. I also intend to check out Woodward’s poetry at some point; that forensic attention to detail is very much in evidence throughout the books.

  6. John Self said,

    Well thanks for bringing it to the top of my pile, Paddy.

  7. Scott Pack said,

    I have this in my To Be Read bookcase and will get round to it. I thought his poetry collection We Were Pedestrians was excellent so am looking forward to his fiction.

  8. [...] son, and everyone else (and those two as well) an alcoholic. Ever since reading, and loving, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon a couple of years ago, I’ve been eager to read August (2001), the first volume in the [...]

  9. [...] in my mind as the author who surely would have won the Booker Prize in 2004 if his brilliant novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon hadn’t been up against such a strong field, including Colm Tóibín’s The Master, David [...]

  10. [...] out as a poet, and his prose career began a decade ago with a well received trilogy – August, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, and A Curious Earth. I managed to watch those books go by without actually picking any of them up; [...]

  11. […] leaves no room for Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer, Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad, or J.R. […]

  12. […] we read by an author. Certainly that’s true for me with Gerard Woodward, whose second novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the keystone in his Jones family trilogy, still floats high above his others. Recently I read the […]


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