January 18, 2008
Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow
Adam Mars-Jones is such a tease. First he made us wait ten years after being named one of the best young British novelists before actually publishing his superb first novel, The Waters of Thirst, in 1993. Then his next book of fiction, twin novellas under the title Hypo Vanilla, has been coming and going from Faber’s catalogue since 1995, without ever actually appearing (Amazon presently has it listed as published in June 2007, but ‘currently unavailable’). So, Mr Mars-Jones, with this 500-page novel springing unexpectedly up after all this time, you are really spoiling us: at last.
A pilcrow is a punctuation symbol – ¶ – used to indicate a paragraph break. The hero of Pilcrow, John Cromer, identifies himself with it because
I’m not sure I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet… I’m more like an optional accent or specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to track down on the keyboard of computer or typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn’t perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.
In fact John Cromer doesn’t stand on his own; he doesn’t stand at all really, or sit very well either, due to a childhood disease which has left most of his bones fused. As a result he spends most of his childhood in bed, and Mars-Jones’s achievement is to make these opening hundred-odd pages of immobility among the most interesting the book. We spend all our time in John’s head, but his parents are generously painted, if not flatteringly: his mother carries down a hysterical caution (particularly with regard to John’s health) from her relationship with her own mother, and his father is a traditional type (“in the 1950s, men didn’t touch their children except to smack them, ruffle their hair or carry them from burning buildings”). Their relationship has ghosts of its own:
There were no bad marriages in those days, none so bad they couldn’t be endured. … Marriage was the rest-cure then, for relationships between men and women. Marriage was bed rest for couples. Lie down as man and wife and wait to feel better. If after a while it doesn’t seem to be working, then keep trying for another few years. As long as it takes, in fact.
Pilcrow is an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways, because it eschews the pared-down, pixel-perfection of The Waters of Thirst and instead leaves nothing out for the period it covers: John’s childhood up to the age of about sixteen. The prose is less highly evolved, and at times I would have liked more Adam Mars-Jones in the narrative and not so much John Cromer. Yet there are peaks of brilliant wit, such as a tour de force scene where John’s mother explains the facts of life to him while he is still a young child, and using family euphemisms:
‘But that’s rude. Why do mummies and daddies have to be rude to make a baby?’
‘Well when they do it, it’s nice. So if it’s nice, it’s not rude.’
‘Nice? Nice? What’s nice about putting your taily in a hole between a lady’s legs? I bet it hurts!’
‘No, it doesn’t. The lady likes it.’
‘I DIDN’T MEAN THE LADY! I meant, I bet it hurts the man!’ My concern was all for him, in this desperate transaction. The poor man! ‘He must love the baby terribly to do that with his taily.’
‘Oh no, the man likes it!’
‘How do you know? You’re not a man!’
‘No, but I told you – Daddy says it’s nice.’
This was where her lying was blatant and I became incredulous with anger. ‘Daddy would never say it was nice to stick his taily in a hole between a lady’s legs.’
‘He says it’s nice.’
‘Bring him here. I have to hear him say it.’ I was almost in tears. ‘He won’t say it, he can’t say it because it’s not true. You’re fibbing.’
This raises the same objections of unrealistic precociousness in childhood dialogue that Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk did, but telling his own version of the truth is the prerogative of the first person narrator. There are other curious elements in Pilcrow which made me doubt the whole-truthness of John’s account. On the opening page he tells us that the first car he drove was a 1960s Mini, a curious choice for a young man whose hips are fused straight so he can’t even sit properly in a chair: how could he drive at all? Could John’s story, unremarkable in many elements even as it is, in fact be the fantasies of a completely immobile man, trapped in his own head? (“I was told not to move, and I was a good boy. I had to move something, and if it wasn’t my body then it would have to be my mind.”)
In time John goes to school – or almost. “I would be going to a hospital, and the school was tucked away somewhere inside it. The hospital would be there all the time. The school would put in an appearance now and then, as and when.” His two schools take up the last two-thirds of the book, which is most interesting in its convincing and heartfelt depiction of a disabled gay boy’s exploration of his sexuality: when all your physical activities are desperate fumbles, then sexual expression becomes particularly hazardous.
At the same time there are holes in John’s story: he makes references throughout his memoir of his spiritual explorations – Hinduism seems to be his path of choice – but we get nothing of this in the main story. Is this a pointer that the things which loom largest in our lives are those which we deal with subconsciously, and sweep under the surface? Or is it evidence of an unreliable narrator, along with little comments like “I’m not interested in family history, not really believing in either family or history,” or reminders of how, at school, John was especially gifted at “story-telling”?
The alternative is that Pilcrow is not a complete story at all: it stops rather than ends, and later volumes might fill us in on the elements hinted at but not detailed here (when so very many things are detailed here). Indeed, one website describes Pilcrow as “the first book in the John Cromer series.” That would explain a lot. Oh Mr Mars-Jones! I told you he was a tease.