September 8, 2011
Julian Gough: Jude in London
I had praise for Julian Gough’s last novel, Jude: Level 1, a barmy, barnstorming satire on boomtime Ireland in which “realism doesn’t get a look-in but reality is ever-present.” That book has now been retrospectively retitled Jude in Ireland, to match this second volume in a projected trilogy (Jude in America is still to come). But one of my concerns for the first book was how, even at 180 pages, it risked straining the reader’s patience for its antic comic style. How then will we fare with the sequel, fully twice the length?
Jude in London might have better been titled Jude: Level 2, as this is no Patrick Hamilton or Iain Sinclair vision of London (“a city to fill the visible world”) as a central character in the book. Indeed, as a misguided Victoria Wood character once said of Fawlty Towers, “It could have been set anywhere.” Even Jude, our innocent abroad, isn’t quite sure where he is to begin with (or often thereafter). He alights on land after an eventful swim across the Irish Sea. “I looked down at the alien shore with great interest. So this was England! Or perhaps Wales.” Jude has crossed the sea to follow his double quest: to find the secret of his origins hinted to him at the orphanage in volume 1; and to find his true love, Angela. No matter that Angela has not expressed much reciprocal affection. Like most quests, the journey is all-important and the destination incidental, or rather the journey is the destination (the blurb gives away most of the plot on the back cover).
The plot is a structure around which Gough can do what he does best: knock seven bells out of certain aspects of contemporary society in a charming and hyperreal yarn of bonkers comic brilliance. (Even the copyright page is amusing without being annoying.) The storyline is a sequence of set pieces, where the characters are the satire and the satire is the action: the elements are inseparable and indistinguishable, and the scenes are constantly funny and constantly serious. Followers of Gough’s blog will know that he predicted the credit crunch with uncanny accuracy 18 months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and so it’s no surprise that large chunks of Jude in London deal with financial folly. (“The Celtic Tiger died long ago. In agony, after getting its goolies caught in the credit crunch.”) Two superb scenes show Gough at his best on this territory. First, former property speculators down on their luck try to build a wall using one brick and their old principles (“Brendan’s word is his bond. … Sorry, I should have said, as good as money in the bank. …Ah, yes, I meant, safe as Houses”). Second, there is a beautifully absurd analogy for the property crash rewritten as the Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble (first published on its own in 2003, and which you can read here). In these pieces, Gough pursues flights of fancy with ruthless logic. The perfect symbiosis he achieves between language and subject means that the comedy is a vehicle for the ideas at the same time that the ideas are a vehicle for the comedy.
It must be said that some of the targets of Gough’s satire – property developers, bankers, Young British Artists – have been softened up pretty well already. He shows more teeth when he tackles the Irish literary establishment, though curiously, I felt that this was where his satire seemed less well directed. “Ours is the first generation in three hundred years in which the Novel has made no progress,” we are told. Yet the authors he specifies – Johns McGahern and Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín – seem among the least culpable for what Gough considers an excessive devotion to lyrical realism in the Irish novel. (Didn’t McGahern pretty much invent that form? Haven’t the others been innovators, now developing their style?) At its weakest, this section of the book devolves into a self-referential ding-dong with John Banville over waspish comments he made about Gough last year. But even while I queried its purpose, the scene of Jude recalling endless Irish novels of people attending funerals in the rain was very funny – and the words of one writer he encounters (“You can tell that we are Good Irish Writers, because the English give us prizes”) have a definite sting to them.
There’s a sense when Gough says that he wants “less good taste, more ideas, less melancholy, more va va voom” (and so on) in Irish fiction, that he’s making a virtue out of a necessity, and proclaiming those to be the desired qualities because that’s the way he happens to write. Shouldn’t the work speak for itself? But then, he does have these qualities and an ability to deploy them to good effect. Indeed, a shortage of ammunition is not one of Gough’s weaknesses. The book is both exhausting and invigorating. It has so many cultural references (from song lyrics to literary motifs) that reading it is like keeping track of the film homages in Shrek. It has things to say about economics, quantum mechanics, literature, even skincare (“a biro’s inner, ink-filled plastic tube is your only man for removing a blackhead”). It has an obscene villanelle. It has a surfeit of what J.B. Priestly called Komic Kapitals and too many silly jokes to count, including perhaps the worst forced pun I have ever read. (And I don’t mean the bit where Tracey Emin and Eminem join forces to fight for women’s rights and call their cause feminemineminemism. I am referring to a punchline bringing together Dylan Thomas and a colourblind pornography cameraman.) Sometimes, what seemed like a nice throwaway conceit in the last book (such as Jude having surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprio) now seems like a millstone that Gough must forever keep his eye on: and then again it can spur him into greater inspirations of creativity. Gough has not so much killed his darlings, as filled the book with them.
His antic style tests the reader: a little silliness goes a long way, but Gough explores what happens if you carry on regardless, and often makes it out the other side. For many – sometimes for me – the book will be read in a condition of perpetual frustration at its seeming aimlessness, its constant threatening to disappear into chaos. But the chaos of real life replicated in the page might after all be a welcome change from the artificial order of so much contemporary literature. And once or twice, Gough shows that his reach extends beyond the comic. One otherwise predictable scene where Jude, at a Turner Prize exhibition, innocently ‘tidies up’ a series of famous artworks (and, more predictably still, earns the approbation of art critics in doing so), ends with a two-page passage where Jude contemplates Damien Hirst’s installation A Thousand Years with a straight face. It’s respectful, affecting and impressive, and one of the only moments where the book becomes serious at the level of character as well as ideas. In a blizzard of serious points made in silly ways, a serious point made in a serious way comes like a punch in the gut to the reader. More peace and pathos like this would have been welcome.
In all, Jude in London must be considered a success on its own terms. It creates a vision – or extends one from its predecessor – and runs with it. In one sense that might be all we can ask from a novel. As Jude himself says: “I brought the living book closer to my eyes so that it replaced the world entirely.”
This review previously appeared in a shorter form in the Irish Times