March 31, 2011
Anna Kavan is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for years, assured that hers was exactly the sort of low-tog-rating fiction I claim to seek. At the same time her most famous novel, Ice, seemed like the sort of book which didn’t need to be read at all: one of those where the blurb and chat around it seemed to say all that needed to be said. It’s easy to summarise but hard to write about: at least that’s my excuse.
Ice (1967) was Kavan’s last published work before the end of her life. That life is the one thing there’s no getting away from: like the work, the basic facts are both easily known and unknowable. Google Anna Kavan and you can’t escape the central spines of her narrative. She was born Helen Woods, and her early work (under her married name of Ferguson) was eccentric but unexceptional. After she suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown, she changed her name to Anna Kavan, a character in one of her novels, and changed her literary style to match.
Ice fits into what is perhaps a sub-genre in its own right: the possibly allegorical story of a protagonist (often unnamed) who embarks on a mysterious quest, and is frustrated by forces seemingly beyond his control. Expect repetition. Don’t expect a conclusion. Name your own examples, but Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, and Kafka (The Castle? The Trial?) spring immediately to mind. It also fits into the subgenre of science fiction which evades the usual pigeonholing; it shares with On the Beach a desperate inevitability (though is entirely devoid of Shute’s consoling patina of civilisation), and with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: the world is ending, with ice, and there’s no getting out of it.
Ice is easy to get through but eludes the reader; my usual book-thoughts slip and squirm around it. It has an unnamed narrator in a dystopic world who is trying to get in touch with a girl (“she was pale … almost transparent”), and rescue her from another man. Our narrator travels to different parts of the country, and always finds the man and the girl there waiting for him, but evading his grasp. They are everpresent but always unreachable. The transitions from one place to another are dreamlike – “reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me” – and Kavan gives the literalist reader a handy get-out when her narrator speaks of his prescription drugs producing “horrible dreams” which “were not confined to sleep only”.
But a literalist reading of this strange text is impossible, or anyway pointless. In story terms, there is not much more to it than mentioned above: other than a sense of slow progress toward the world’s icy apocalypse, the positions of many of the chapters could be changed with no loss of effect. The narrative integrity is fractured: at times the narrator seems to identify with the opposing other man (“I could imagine how it would feel to take hold of her wrists and to snap the fragile bones with my hands”), and raises explicitly the question of whether they are really two people. But, to confuse things further, he also narrates some sections in the third person from the viewpoint of the girl. His attitude to the girl seems as much threatening and sexual as protective. “It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim.” In his introduction, Christopher Priest argues against reading the book as an allegory, because of its “lack of exactness the reader can grasp”. Yet how else to read it? Priest in fact goes on to accept that the book might be reflective of Kavan’s mindset through her heroin addiction in later life: or, I would add, of her broken state of mind generally. This is surely not a controversial proposition, when the book contains such nudges as, “In a peculiar way, the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind.” Where some apocalyptic novels are analogues for the geopolitical fears of the times, Ice seems to retreat to innerspace for its conflicts.
It was Priest’s introduction which made me think of the connections with (my only experience of) his own work, the more controlled but equally disruptive novel The Affirmation, where, as here, reality is both clearly presented and ultimately unknowable. The coming catastrophe, although it involves encroaching ice, is not clearly defined, and at times the threat seems to be in the narrator’s head, like ‘the Emergency’ in Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword. “It appeared that the situation at home was obscure and alarming, no precise information was coming through, the full extent of the disaster was not yet known.” The inability of this reader to divorce the book from the author reaches an appropriate culmination near the end. The girl, the ever-retreating grail of his quest, expects “to be ill-treated, to be made a victim, ultimately to be destroyed, either by unknown forces or by human beings.” It’s an apt enough epitaph for Kavan’s easily summarised, difficult to understand life and work.
March 24, 2011
Before Denis Johnson became the Don DeLillo of the noughties (I’m thinking of his unfinishable fat novel Tree of Smoke), he was, apparently, a poet and a short story writer. This, his only short story collection, is unfathomably out of print in the UK.
Jesus’ Son (1992) has perhaps as much claim to be a novel as a collection of stories. The eleven short fictions here have unity of theme, setting and character (all have the same narrator). It also has a consistent sensibility: the telling is clear but confused, as befits a teller who is a recovering alcohol and heroin addict – though at times we’re not quite sure just how recovering he is. Although the narrative is fractured, or at least threateningly weakened in places – for example, a character who dies in one story is alive again in the next – our man is not a consciously unreliable narrator: he tries honestly to convey his impressions, but sometimes fails. This is beautifully displayed, and helps make the whole cohere, at one particular moment. The second story, ‘Two Men’, begins “I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.” The narrator proceeds to relate his story, and by the time he gets to the end, we have forgotten the title and the beginning. Later in the collection, the story ‘The Other Man’ begins, “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” This was not the moment when I decided that Jesus’ Son was a work of some brilliance, but it put the tin hat on the conviction.
The nameless narrator drifts as a way of life, “sick of myself and full of joy”, and although he may be off the smack and booze, he’s not averse to a little prescription enlightenment (“The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened”). His hyperawareness makes everything vivid, the real things (like a car crash) and the unreal:
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
He seems to be drawn to hospitals, whether seeking help (“When I coughed I saw fireflies”), or further chemical stimulation, or work. In ‘Emergency’, the centrepiece of the book and perhaps the strongest story (you can listen to Tobias Wolff reading it here), he is working at the hospital with another muddling soul, Georgie, and they head off together on a road trip. It’s appalling and funny, always at the same time, and the sudden uncertainties (“Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed”) help bring the reader into the narrator’s addled consciousness. “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” The content, the plot, of the story is almost irrelevant; it’s a spillage of life on the page, seemingly random and shapeless but directed in a subtle and satisfying way. Which is not to say that Johnson is above more obvious pleasures:
“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”
“I was kissing her.”
“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.
“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”
In these stories, the ordered and restrained lives of most of us are so far off the scale that they are invisible to the narrator. He may be having a terrible time where he is, but he is not especially interested in joining mainstream society. (“I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.”) He measures himself instead against those who are even worse than he is, such as the people in an institutional home whose deformities “made God look like a senseless maniac. [...] You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.” Or he likes to compare himself with Kid Williams, a former boxer.
He was in his fifties. He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d wasted only a few years. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.
Going on is really what Jesus’ Son is about: going on whatever the future holds, even without a future, because the alternative is unfaceable. (Though here there is no explicit acknowledgement of that unnamable factor. He can go on because he does because he can.) Life is life; here the achievement is not staying on the level, but understanding your lot and living it. One man in the Beverly Home has a condition which renders him twisted, in “perpetual spasm”. “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” There is no self-pity or gloom here, however. “How could I do it,” he asks when spying on a woman through her window, “how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.” To which we reply: you will, sir, you will.
March 17, 2011
One of the hidden gems on this blog is J.R. Ackerley’s only novel We Think the World of You. So when I was disappointed by the next book of his I read, Hindoo Holiday, I decided my next visit had to be to the book I understood to be broadly the source material for the novel. (Ackerley’s method of acquisition of his dog – from a lover about to go to prison – is the same as in the novel.)
My Dog Tulip (1956) is presented as non-fiction but for the dog’s name: Ackerley’s dog was named Queenie (the name was changed for fear of causing mirth about the author’s sexuality). The connection with We Think the World of You is clear: the narrator of the novel is indistinguishable from Ackerley here, his strongest identifying traits being love of his pooch and disdain for the working classes.
To describe this book as a love letter to a dog is both accurate and inadequate. Ackerley described the fifteen years he spent with Queenie as his happiest, and when he finally had her put down in 1961, he lost much interest in life. Money brought in from winning the WHSmith Literary Award (for We Think the World of You) and the sale of letters E.M. Forster had sent him did nothing to alleviate his depression; indeed, he viewed the proceeds from the latter as “a sum of money which will enable [his sister] Nancy and me to drink ourselves carelessly into our graves.” This he more or less proceeded to do, dying in 1967.
However in the book there is no reference to this later darkess; My Dog Tulip was published during Queenie’s long life, and only an appendix from (I think) 1965 makes indirect reference to her death. (“She lived to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half.”) The book is composed of equal parts Ackerley’s almost pathological devotion to Queenie (hereafter ‘Tulip’, dammit) – and hers to him – and his frustration at the difficulties presented by daily life with her. One of these is Tulip’s untrammelled devotion to Ackerley, which makes it almost impossible for vets to treat her. Until one of them points out to Ackerley what might have been clear to him all along, had he not been hindered by his own love: “Tulip’s a good girl, I saw that at once. You’re the trouble.”
“Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. She has to protect you to begin with; that’s why she’s upset when people approach you: I expect she’s a bit jealous, too. But in order to protect you she’s naturally got to be free; that’s why she doesn’t like other people touching her; she’s afraid, you see, that they may take hold of her and deprive her of her freedom to guard you. That’s all the fuss is about, I should say. It’s you she’s thinking of. But when you’re not there, there’s nothing for her to do, of course, and no anxiety. Anyone can handle her then, I’m sure. That’s all. Dogs aren’t difficult to understand. One has to put oneself in their position.”
Ackerley never seems entirely keen on putting himself in Tulip’s position, preferring to revel in his own trials with her, though not unsympathetically. We get a good deal on Tulip’s waste (a whole chapter on it, titled “Liquids and Solids”), and the way Ackerley describes his dog’s posture when defecating may give an insight into the level of detail he is prepared to go into: “Her long tail, usually carried aloft in a curve, stretches rigidly out parallel with the ground; her ears lie back, her head cranes forward, and a mild, meditative look settles on her face.” (An aside: did Ackerley really write “sidewalk” when describing where Tulip does her business? This repeated Americanism in the NYRB edition trips up the British reader.) The half-century vintage of the book shows in passages where Ackerley wonders, rhetorically and even incredulously, how on earth people expect him to prevent his dog from fouling the pavement – the standard practice of post-shit bagging evidently being some decades off. This chapter contains some lovely sensitivity born from potential slapstick, as Ackerley stays with friends and Tulip soils their carpets, leading to agonies of guilt for our man, not because of what Tulip did (she was never invited back) but because she had tried to warn him that she needed to go outside, and “I had failed to take her meaning, and nothing I could ever do could put that right.”
But this attention to what comes out of Tulip is as nothing compared to Ackerley’s detail in, well, what goes into her, as he attempts to have her mate with a fellow Alsatian of suitable pedigree. (“Although I had no profit-making motive in the matter, so beautiful a creature as Tulip should certainly have children as pretty as herself.”) Here is where even my high appetite for elegant self-enquiring sentences by a man who would be struck dumb if deprived of the semicolon, began to fade. It’s not so much the intimate elements (“Miss Canvey, I’m awfully sorry to bother you again, but where exactly is the vagina?”) as the sheer length of the subject: almost a third of the 200-page book.
Happily, the last chapter, “The Turn of the Screw” ends the book on its highest note, the same elegiac tone which made We Think the World of You so haunting. Ackerley addresses Tulip’s ageing and her closing seasons of fertility (“It is spring, it is winter, it is summer…”), reflecting on how he can “give her everything she wants, except the thing she needs.” (Inevitably, a certain question arises in the reader’s mind about Ackerley’s closeness to Tulip. That tricky subject is discussed, along with much else, in Joan Acocella’s superb profile of Ackerley in the New Yorker, from which I took many of the biographical details above, and which I recommend without hesitation to all, whether familiar with Ackerley or new to him.) Finally My Dog Tulip seems less an individual book than part of something larger, the recreation of his life which Ackerley undertook in his four published works. He comes across as a man difficult to deal with, unclubbable, snobbish, but penetrating and self-revealing. His capability for love, expressed almost exclusively through his “beautiful bitch”, is all the more affecting for the narrow circumstances in which it flourishes, rejecting people as it embraces Tulip. As she enters her final years, Ackerley is walking with her in the woods when he spots shards of a broken bottle, which could damage her paws.
One pounce upon this bottle, with both front feet perhaps… I pick it up. I pick it all up, every tiny fragment. I seek it out, I root it up, this lurking threat to our security, our happiness, in the heart of the wood; day after day I uncover it and root it up, this disease in the heart of life.
March 10, 2011
Here is another example of the power of hype – or buzz, or whatever it’s called these days. I heard of this book on the Man Booker Prize forum, where I was told that it had been the subject of bids by twelve publishers. This usually means that the book has been sold for a high price (particularly for a debut like this); and that in turn means that the publishing publicity machine will be strongly behind it. It also means that the book has been judged to be of wide appeal, which may be promising or ominous as your tastes dictate. And so here I am, writing about the book, and adding to the noise.
Pigeon English has an obvious comparison in Emma Donoghue’s Room, for the ‘bidding war’ backstory but also the narrative form of the book, which is an innocent voice – a child – narrating dark or difficult subject matter. There have been so many prominent examples of this type in recent years that it’s a sub-genre of its own. Some of these books go on to great success (and even Booker glory) – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – while others, not obviously less interesting (such as Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans) sink with little trace.
I enjoyed Pigeon English more than Room or Curious Incident, though the necessary elements which fit it into their category are also its weaknesses. It’s narrated by Harrison (‘Harri’) Opoku, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian boy living in London. The issue which the book surrounds is knife crime and, by extension, violence and the dubious position of ‘respect’ in urban and black youth culture. (The story seems to be inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor.) One might well ask what special knowledge a white man approaching middle age might have of such things. All I can say is that the linguistic tics adopted by Kelman in Harri’s voice – ‘hutious’, the overuse of ‘even’ as a blank filler, rebukes like “Advise yourself!” and “You’re vexing me!” – were enough to convince another white man approaching middle age, ie me. The language sounds real and contains just enough unexpected elements to convince the ignorant (me again) that it must really be authentic.
However for the most part, Harri’s voice is charming and funny, which goes a long way in this type of book. His exchanges with his sister Lydia – combative, petulant, sarcastic; in short realistic – are a highlight, and he has a proper childlike freedom of thought.
At first me and Lydia stayed together at breaktime. Now we stay with our friends. If we see each other we have to pretend we don’t know each other. The first one to say hello is the loser. At breaktime I just play suicide bombers or zombies. Suicide bomber is when you run at the other person and crash them as hard as you can. If the other person falls over you get a hundred points. If they just move but don’t fall over it’s ten points. One person is always the lookout because suicide bomber is banned. If the teacher catches you playing you’ll get a detention.
Zombies is just acting like a zombie. You get extra points for accuracy.
The weak point here is the new paragraph describing ‘zombies’, which looks too much like a punchline. Letting the adult author show through is the occupational hazard of child narratives. Harri is older than Jack in Room, and becoming streetwise, so a greater degree of knowingness is valid, but there are plenty of nod-profoundly moments, so called because the reader is clearly supposed to do so while Harri makes some ostensibly innocuous observation. (Of the training shoes owned by the boy stabbing victim at the centre of the book, Harri says, “They looked too empty hanging there. I wanted to wear them but they’d never fit.”) Conversely, the narrative can also be too cute with Harri’s ultra-innocent observations, such as the running joke where he reiterates that he doesn’t want to be “sucked off” by a particular girl because he thinks it means to be kissed really hard. That said, the portrayal of ignorance and invention around the subject of sex by children on the brink of adolescence is convincing.
As Harri conducts his own investigation to try to find out who stabbed (or ‘chooked’) “the dead boy,” we learn plenty about his family and their circumstances. His father and baby sister Agnes remain in Ghana. His aunt Sonia has a grisly method of remaining undetected by authorities who may deport her. It is at the extremes – the funny childhood experiences, the unspeakable adult ones – that Pigeon English does its best work, rather than when it tries artfully to meld the two. It also has some ‘stranger in a strange land’ observations about British culture and the national psyche which make their point nicely.
In England nobody helps if you fall over. They can’t tell if you’re serious or if it’s just a trick. It’s too hard to know what’s real.
The punning title comes from the pigeon which Harri talks to on his windowsill. Unfortunately, through some editorial blunder, there are short passages in the book narrated by the pigeon which have been allowed to make the final version. An interesting idea perhaps – representation of the weak or minorities – but one which seriously damages the book’s narrative integrity. (The pigeon’s voice can’t be the imaginings of Harri, as its language is too complex.) Fortunately these passages are brief, and don’t damage the overall achievement, which is a decent, contemporary and original report on innocence and its loss.
March 7, 2011
This big red book is so physically daunting – heavyweight, important-looking, 864 pages top to tail – that when it arrived my prior enthusiasm for it was suddenly dwarfed by a sense of intimidation. Fortunately, its arrival coincided with our home broadband going on the blink for a weekend, so instead of tweeting and surfing in idle moments, I began to read…
33 Revolutions Per Minute is, as it subtitle states, a history of protest songs. But it is a wider, deeper and more ambitious undertaking than that implies. Each chapter is named after one song, from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939) to Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ (2004), but in many cases, the song is a point from which to hang a larger social, political and cultural history of the times. Moreover, there is a risk that this book could be treated as one to dip into, as a reference work, which would rob it of its overall narrative force and lead the reader to miss the recurring themes and figures which populate its pages. Among its concerns is the question posed by Billy Bragg: ”that incredible feeling that you get from listening to music – invigorating, empowering – is that just a transient experience or can it be focussed onto reality and actually inspire people?”
The difficulties for the modern reader in understanding protest songs which are up to 70 years old are clear. By its nature, popular music is of its time, often ephemeral, and at its strongest after the event when heard by those who knew it at the time, and are transported back into memory. It is easy to dismiss any song from decades ago as dated, when that is the nature of an ever-renewing form. So Lynskey’s valuable achievement is to return today’s reader to the times and context of the songs, so that we can hear them anew. (He argues, anyway, that in many cases “the political content is not an obstacle to greatness, but the source of it. [...] The essential, inevitable difficulty of contorting a serious message to meet the demands of entertainment is the grit that makes the pearl.”) In the case of Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – which described the bodies of lynched black men hanging from a tree – it is easy for us to condemn or dismiss those who walked out when it was performed, or those who objected to Bob Dylan’s ‘new direction’ in 1965 (in the chapter on his ‘Masters of War’). But these are, as Lynskey points out, “illusion[s] born of hindsight,” an attempt to transplant our own self-perceived sophistication out of time. Among the risks of protest songs are widespread misinterpretation (as in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’) or dismissal, either where the sentiment outweighs the artistry (“Any song should earn its audience with more than goodwill”), or where those closest to the subject matter have had enough of it (“Who the hell wants to hear something that reminds them of a lynching?”).
The issues in the early chapters are familiar enough: race (‘Strange Fruit’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’), poverty (Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’), war (Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’). But the book presents well-known histories – Vietnam, civil rights, the Depression – in a fresh way because of its unique cultural engagement. Although it is largely restricted to US and British music and history, Lynskey does venture to Chile, Nigeria and Jamaica; and even if this is only to justify fully the observation in the prologue that “in the worst cases, singers have been censored, arrested, beaten or even killed for their messages,” it nonetheless provides colour and variety (not to mention concise accounts, illuminating to this reader at least, of Pinochet’s overthrowing of Allende, and of the Biafran war).
In comparison with these big subjects, inevitably in some later chapters the protests seem less urgent: what empathy now for the Riot Grrrls (in the chapter on Huggy Bear’s ‘Her Jazz’)? The chapter on ‘Their Law’ by Pop Will Eat Itself featuring The Prodigy shows music becoming a protest for its own existence, as the dance and rave culture of the late 80s and early 90s was repressed by the government. This was an era, as Lynskey points out, when the spirit of the summer of love of 1969 was replicated without the troublesome things like Vietnam. The decline of political engagement in this period may have been caused, in the US, by the “lack of a common enemy to feed off” as Clinton became president, but in the UK such apathy was bemoaned by some pop stars such as Guy Garvey from Elbow (“It’s not cool to express your opinion or challenge authority any more”), though not by others, like Liam Gallagher (“Nobody’s gonna listen to knobhead out of Blur … No one even listens to Bono”). Still, few sank so low into self-absorption as Sammy Hagar’s ‘I Can’t Drive 55′, a song about frustrating highway speed limits: a protest from the privileged.
This is a book about pop music – “junk culture” in the words of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe – and despite its deft summaries of sociopolitical history, it’s the personalities which shine brightest and the rich details which keep the pages turning. Who of my generation knew, for example, of Eric Clapton’s approach to race relations in the febrile 1970s (Enoch Powell was “the only bloke who was telling the truth”), or heard a more perfect description than this of Woody Guthrie? “[His] wasn’t a very good voice, but it commanded attention: listening to him sing was bitter but exhilarating, like biting into a lemon.” Anecdotes aside, there are some powerful narratives here, which stand as exemplary essays on their subjects, not least the birth of punk in the chapter on The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ (which gives plenty of space to the Sex Pistols too), and a haunting and moving chapter on Manic Street Preachers and the achievements and agonies of Richey Edwards. Lynskey also exhibits an impressive literary knowledge (in a passing sentence, he sums up Ballard’s High-Rise rather better than I did) and a sly wit, unafraid to poke at his subjects’ more risible pretensions.
33 Revolutions Per Minute is a history of the ongoing rebellion against governments who take their citizens for granted, and of how the noise of resistance invariably filters up from the young and the sidelined, pop’s greatest constituents. It covers, to name a few not mentioned already, McCarthyism, the Cold War, Thatcherism, post-9/11 politics, and the political opposition between Stewart Copeland and Sting in The Police (“Not a single inch of shared ground”). Part of me would have liked a glorious multimedia version of the book – what price the rights for all these songs in an iPad version? – but that could detract from the strength of the writing. The book’s achievement is not only to make me want to listen to the songs, but to experience more widely the people behind the music (note to self: get hold of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory). The golden age of the protest song may be past, but the words of Pete Seeger more than half a century ago ring as true now as they ever did.
We need thousands of new songs these days: humor, to poke fun at some of the damn foolishness going on in the world; songs of love and faith in mankind and the future; songs to needle our consciences and stir our indignation and anger.
March 3, 2011
I read David Szalay’s second novel The Innocent last year and was impressed enough to keep an eye out for his next (though evidently not enough to blog about it). With his new book he has made a satisfying and stimulating experience out of unpromising subject matter, and marked himself out as a cert for Granta’s next Best of Young British Novelists list. (Incidentally, I’m told that the author’s surname is pronounced Zolloy and not, as I had been saying it, a sort of hard-edged chalet.)
Spring shows also that Szalay is a brave writer: if it takes guts to publish a book with a bold and challenging subject matter, then it takes even more to publish one with a hackneyed premise and still make it feel compelling. Contemporary England – the state of the nation – love, eh? Tch! – men and women, women and men … My proof copy actually has the cheek to call it “a love story unlike any you will have read.” Odder still, that’s right: here there is no why, and it’s a love story with no coup de foudre, boldly unconsoling, no happy ever after, no happy ever before, even.
Our lovers are James and Katherine, thirtysomethings. He was once a dotcom virtual millionaire, “in the vanguard of the new economy”, before the millennium bust, and now seeks “no more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay.” If James has let ambition slide, Katherine has never bothered with it to begin with, frittering her education on a job in a hotel lobby. This was where she met her ex, Fraser, a paparazzo. That relationship in itself may or may not be intended to mark Katherine down as a flawed character, but it’s clear that Szalay isn’t playing by the usual rules. His lovers aren’t especially ‘likeable’ – that undesirable desire – and their motives are hard to pin down.
They are, however, real: Katherine’s diffidence, James’s tenacity and maddening dedication to a doubtful cause, half terrier, half puppy. There is painful comedy – the comedy of recognition for many of us, I bet – when he extrapolates his worst fears from the tiniest clues during a brief telephone call with her. As for Katherine, her motto might be Abraham Maslow’s “It is not normal to know what you want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” She feels that “a sort of politeness” had led her into her relationship with James and its “fiasco”, its “episode of pure sexual misery”.
‘Will I see you this weekend?’ he said.
‘I don’t know. If you want to.’
‘I do want to.’ To that she said nothing. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘When?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. After the nightshift. Phone me.’
Spring makes the reader think of how we value things and why: the permanent, the temporary, the sure and the uncertain. Is happiness in the moment enough? Or must we always be looking to the next stage, as though seeing winter purely as a prelude to spring? Transformation is present in the macro scale too: the book is set just before the credit crunch got its jaws into us, with all the dramatic irony that implies for the subplots of horse racing ‘touches’, characters with 110% mortgages, and the notion that people in prosperous times are less happy. (Some of the state-of-the-nation stuff doesn’t quite gel, such as one character being a member of UKIP; this does however give us the novel trifle of seeing Nigel Farage and the word ‘statesmanlike’ in the same sentence.) Szalay’s juggling of personal and political shines brighter in his ability to handle the several aspects of a life – work, love, home, past – which is reminiscent of William Boyd when he was still good.
Impressive though it is, there are false notes scattered through Spring. What looks like a naughty bit of narrative sleight of hand (remember Andrew Sean Greer’s egregious Story of a Marriage?) appears when Szalay takes us into a character’s thoughts but then withholds the identity and words of someone they’re speaking to on the phone. (Other POV issues, more attributable to personal taste, irked me less.) A reiteration of the phrase “London light” throughout the text seems tacked on, and recalls Salter’s Light Years, a comparison from which Szalay inevitably does not emerge well (but who would?). Occasionally, fussy wording trips up the reader (James “made water in the dark” rather than urinating or pissing; he filled a “wire pannier” in M&S, not a basket). The last is a shame, but not fatal, because everywhere else Szalay’s writing is admirably clean and unaffected, driving the reader on with indecent haste and with just the occasional pause to admire the phrasemaking (“her heart seemed to hit a pothole,” or “toasted paninis that looked as if they had been flattened with a truck tyre”).
Spring frustrates the reader deliciously (“There was something very nice about watching the video when you knew you were going to win. If only life was like that”) while satisfying in an equal and opposite way. “Not knowing was what was hard,” one character observes, but when handled the right way, it can be the very quality that pleases most.