January 31, 2011
Adam Mars-Jones is one of those writers who remains, to me, frustratingly underappreciated, despite his profile as the Observer’s fiction critic, or a man who “reviews anything not nailed down.” He has no one to blame but himself. In 1983 and again in 1993, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, despite not having yet produced a novel. And the fifteen years that passed between his first novel The Waters of Thirst, and his second, Pilcrow, can’t have helped. Still, he has now seen the error of his ways and is publishing fiction regularly: a four-part meganovel about a disabled man who tells us everything in exquisite and excruciating detail. Oh. The second part, Cedilla, was released earlier this month and has been welcomed with giddy enthusiasm. While we await volume three, I took the opportunity to ask Adam Mars-Jones some questions about the Cromer chronicles and his work generally.
The two books weren’t separate projects. Yes, it was mainly written by the time Pilcrow was published (in fact by the time Pilcrow was offered to Faber). I submitted a readable draft in May 2009, and a final one at the beginning of December that year, for publication in August/September 2010, though that didn’t happen. There was plenty of fine-tuning to do, to make sure that there was enough balance / symmetry between the volumes while also respecting the creeping onward flow of events.
Cedilla is a very large novel – or part of a very larger novel. How did this masterpiece of contrasts in scale (or ‘coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars’) find its form? Do you worry about carrying the reader along with you on such a long and detailed journey? Or to put it another way, were there any moments during the writing when you thought, “What I’m doing is mad!”?
The whole thing is clearly mad. I only realised how mad when I started editing material together to show Faber (2006?). If it had been in notebooks I would already have had a physical sense of how big it was growing, but in computer files its bulk was digitised away. It was only at that late stage that I realised that it couldn’t be a single volume.
I have to say I enjoy the disproportion between the littleness of the hero and the great size of the books that contain his epic of helplessness. It seems both strikingly wrong and strikingly right.
As for the form, Angela Carter used to tell students that they should plunge right in — not start with something about “So it was that on that November night I climbed the green stairs that would become so familiar to me. . .” but to get on with the scene you want to write. Good advice in general, but with this narrator the story was how he got to the room in the first place (not something to be taken for granted). Doors close against him, and can’t easily be opened. This was a life lived without short cuts and there could be no short cuts in the telling.
If you’re physically disabled as my narrator is then you have very little control over space, and it follows that you are at the mercy of time. The pace of the narrative needed to slow down correspondingly, with the hope that its extreme continuousness would become mesmerising rather than simply oppressive. It may be that there are readers who are put off by something that seems so very downbeat, but it was important to me not to serve this life up on a plate for consumption. A certain amount of surrender is called for! This person’s existence is multiply marginal — but not to him…
The prejudices that the modern liberal reader is likely to hold against John Cromer are not his disability, homosexuality, or vegetarianism, but his championing of homœopathy and religious faith (and perhaps his pedantry too). To what extent are you trying to balance the reader’s engagement with John Cromer with their distance from him?
Ideally the relationship between reader and narrator should be dynamic, plastic, fluid (after all, if that aspect doesn’t work, there’s not a lot else going on!). I can’t plot in detail the vagaries of this rapport — all I can hope to do is set up a force-field of potential charges, both seductive and antipathetic.
I don’t much mind what people reflexively hold against John — for instance gay readers normally want a bit more wish-fulfilment than they’re offered in these books! Paradoxically my great advantage here is that he is almost equally far removed from any possible reader, so that there is a real prospect of the free play of sympathy. A rabidly atheistic homophobe whose father is in a wheelchair (supposing such a person could touch the book without getting a rash) might conceivably have a global reaction to the book that was relatively similar to that of the modern liberal reader you hypothesise without coinciding at any single point.
I don’t particularly believe in homœopathy (thanks for preserving the digraph, by the way) but I wouldn’t want to be without my Arnica cream when there’s a bruise going on. And I do try to suggest that a major part of the character’s fascination with the system is its granting of power to the very small and insignificant. John has a similar fascination in the book with radioactive particles…
John’s religion gives him a feeling of connectedness, the sense that he’s part of the world despite appearances. That seems psychologically healthy. Hinduism too, the tradition that attracts him, regards pain as neither punishment nor sacrifice but unreal. Also healthy, I would think, since he must go through so much of it.
As for pedantry — again it’s the control of the very small exercised by someone with no possible grip on the large or even medium-sized. It’s not unique to John, by a long chalk, to have more power over words and their usage than of the things words claim to refer to.
One of the appeals of Cedilla is its verisimilitude, with almost-appearances by real people (Jon Pertwee, Tom Stoppard, poor Michael Aspel) and obscure real books on gardening and homœopathy, which goes beyond the usual 60s and 70s cultural reference hot-buttons. Was there much research involved in John Cromer’s story, given, for example, that you too were a student at Cambridge in the 1970s?
The past is a different country, but increasingly they seem to do things much the same there, don’t you think? It’s more fun to stake out your own province of the past. Some of my attempts at research were thwarted, anyway. I tried to get access to the JCR (Junior Common Room) Suggestion Books of Downing College, Cambridge in the 1970s — since nothing could be more informative about the real life of students at the time, behind the stereotypes. It turned out that thanks to Freedom of Information legislation the best I could hope for was an expensive transcript with all the names painstakingly crossed out, and that didn’t seem worth the trouble.
Illness seems to be an unavoidable topic for you in your fiction: rabies, AIDS, kidney disease, Still’s Disease. Is this coincidental, or a useful analogy or metaphor, or something else?
There’s a lot of it about. But yes, it’s a useful reminder that the body is something we forget about (to a certain extent) while it’s doing what we think it’s supposed to, until we’re reminded in some unwelcome way. Nothing rebukes our fantasies, i.e. our daily mental life, like the non-coöperation of the body. An illness is a sort of narrative opposed to the one we usually tell.
Seasoned Mars-Jones watchers for a long time awaited the publication of Hypo Vanilla, which appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared through Faber catalogues during the mid-1990s (and is now listed on Amazon as published in June 2007 and “currently unavailable”). Did this mythical work really exist, and will it ever emerge?
Blame the Internet. There have always been books that were announced and never came about, but it’s only now that the mythical object is acclaimed as real by your average search engine, having no ability to distinguish between an existing artefact and a node of references, and then picked up by others of its kind. Alasdair Gray has written about the high theoretical price fetched on one website of his Book of Prefaces, which had never been published (though he has since brought that beauty to birth). Hypo Vanilla was a planned pair of novellas, one daringly called Hypo and the other called Vanilla, which didn’t seem to want to get written. I finished a draft of Vanilla but haven’t looked at it since, while I got more simply stuck on Hypo. After the Pilcrow saga is all done, I might resurrect them with a third novella to round off a pleasing volume.
It seems astonishing that I could get away with having a book announced, as you say, more than once in a publisher’s catalogue without my editor at Faber (Robert McCrum at the time) getting tough and demanding at least to have a look at what I was doing. I hope he doesn’t feel I abused his indulgence.
McCrum coped admirably in the early 90s when Faber had announced a novel (I won’t mention the name for fear of it turning up on Amazon), had commissioned a cover and asked me for a blurb, all without seeing the thing. At the last moment I told him that the project had stalled, but that I was working on something else which might fill the gap (the gap I had made). I wrote The Waters Of Thirst in a couple of months and he put his weight behind that, new cover, new blurb and all, as if this was standard business practice.
Perhaps it is my punishment for such misbehaviour to be haunted by Hypo Vanilla. Recently I had to make more than one plea to the British Council to delete its reference to the “book” on the Contemporary Writers website. Why did a supposedly authoritative resource produced by a publicly funded body get it wrong, when Wikipedia didn’t? Good question. The Internet is full of surprises.
I see I’ve dodged the question in paragraph 1 about how much further there is to go with the Pilcrow saga. Two more books taking the character up to the mid- to late-90s, I think. The reference in Cedilla to Mallory’s body never having been found ties me to that, unless I fudge it of course, by having him miss the paper on the day the discovery was reported or giving him a convenient stay in hospital…
Of course it’s unrealistic to imagine that the NBA could have survived into the age of the Internet, but I don’t see that the ability of supermarkets to discount bestsellers has done anything but harm to a literary culture that has always seemed precarious. Self-publishing on demand seems to work for some people. I don’t have that much self-belief. The régime of semi-dysfunctional nurturing at Fabers has suited me perfectly. Whenever I grumble that I can’t earn a living from fiction as I near my 30th anniversary in print (and I can hardly say I’ve had a rough ride), and that Fabers don’t launch rockets to carve the titles of my books on the moon, I remind myself that no sensible publisher would have let me go so very much my own way.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
Absolutely. I thought Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography, published in 1969, which I picked up from a shelf in Charing Cross Road a few years ago with no great expectations, was astonishing. That very mumsy name disguises an uncompromising sensibility. Maybe the book fell a bit flat on publication because people weren’t expecting an old woman to avail herself of the ’60s freedoms (she decides to explore family history on the basis that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”). She puts in a mention of the face-lift she had in her 70s, to amuse her grandchildren, who she speculates would live in a socialist state where such things were illegal, or a world in which they would be the only toilette for a woman after 30.
Since then I’ve read at least one first-rate novel by her (The Loved and Envied), though one that is hard to read in its grain these days, as a profound study of a range of asymmetrical relationships, because so many of the characters are stinking rich (or at least pretty whiffy). The Donmar production of The Chalk Garden convinced me that as a comedy it’s the equal of The Importance of Being Earnest, though with a lot more in the way of human interest. A later play, The Chinese Prime Minister, which she thought the better piece, was intended to be an argument for the joys of old age until wicked Edith Evans got hold of it and squeezed out of it all the pathos that wasn’t meant to be there. Perhaps the Donmar could get their teeth into that. . .
Two Irish classics: The Real Charlotte (1894) by Somerville and Ross is a rather acrid tragedy written by a pair of women (a couple, even) better known for the comedy of The Irish R.M. I can see how you can collaborate on a comedy (just top each other’s jokes), but on a tragedy? It’s a mystery. Their control of point of view is extraordinary, so that we gradually become aware of how much of her personality the heroine keeps hidden. “Heroine” seems the wrong word for someone so destructive, but sympathy holds for this un-gentle, uncongenial woman, seething with rage and desire, in a society that has only the most demeaning uses for such people.
And The March Hare by Terence de Vere White (1970), describing Dublin life of a slightly later period, with a lighter touch but no less penetration. Holding the 1973 Penguin is a historical exercise in its own right, a flashback to the time when a book could be confidently and successfully published with no quotations from reviews, no puffs from other authors and no reference to prizes or short-lists, simply with the description “waspish Irish story-telling at its best.” The time of the NBA, yes, but so much else has changed since then. . .
January 20, 2011
Adam Mars-Jones’ last novel Pilcrow was one of the curiosities of 2008. I was impressed by the writing but befuddled by the overall conceit – a book of fictional minutiae which was seemingly endless (in both senses). However it matured in my memory sufficiently that it became one of my favourite books of that year, and I began eagerly to await the sequel. Three years later, here it is.
Cedilla begins with an advantage over Pilcrow. Back then, we were in the dark. Now we know that this is a multi-part story, that John Cromer is here for the long haul. And long is the operative word: Cedilla’s 733 pages dwarf Pilcrow’s 525, and apparently with these two volumes we are only halfway through Cromer’s tale. This knowledge is important (of which more anon), but it also makes it worthwhile for me to make a rare reference to the blurb of a book. How do you get a reader not only to read 1,250 pages of tightly-written prose with not an awful lot of dialogue or ‘action’, but to look forward to the next 1,250? The answer in this case is charm: Mars-Jones starts his charm offensive on the inside flap, with a beautifully judged blurb. After a brief overture, we get a refrain of the line from the blurb of Pilcrow: “John Cromer is the weakest hero in literature – unless he’s one of the strongest.” It’s hard to overstate how much this simple reiteration pleased me, and drove me into the book with the rare feeling that the text, and not just the reading experience, had begun before I’d even reached the first page. The charm continues further down the blurb, with the very Mars-Jones observation that, “None of the reviews of Pilcrow explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars, but that was the drift of opinion.”
Charm is how John Cromer gets his way too. He needs other people’s help, being so limited in his abilities. In Pilcrow we learned how he was treated for childhood Still’s Disease in precisely the wrong way, leaving him with fused joints and unable to walk, not to mention, at four feet nine inches, “just a little taller than Edith Piaf. She was the lady on the radio who had no regrets […], but wouldn’t she have wanted to be a tiny bit taller?” He gets his way too with pedantic attention to the symbols of language (so he writes coördination and homœopathy) and revels in medical words (“there’s nothing like a technical vocabulary for conferring the illusion of control”). John’s control over facts has to stand in place of his control over events. He is marginalised by doctors (though perhaps no more than any patient in the deferential 1960s):
Luckily my [bones] didn’t hurt. I thought they did, but I was wrong. One of Ansell’s deputies explained that since the knee joint was fully fused and had no moving parts, there could be no pain. In those days it was up to the doctor to decide whether the patient was in pain or not.
Other than occasional bursts into Technicolor life (such as the excruciating description of the pain after his hip operations), John’s wry tone is more or less consistent throughout. This presents certain challenges for a book which is already a masterpiece of contrasts in scale: epic in length, trivial in particulars, a life both exceptional and unexceptional, described in paragraphs fat on detail but rich in entertainment. To criticise it in all its extravagant tedium is almost futile: it is what it is. “Getting into the room is the scene,” said Mars-Jones in an interview on Pilcrow: John’s is “a life without shortcuts.” This slowness, this step-by-step approach are important because they reflect the character’s difficulty in the ordinary business of life. Despite his belief in his own charm, John’s determination to live a close to normal life on his own terms means others can find him “difficult to deal with. Impossible to satisfy.”
He quietly rebels against the assumption that he must sit in his Tan-Sad quietly and wait to die. His life continues to take place in a series of institutions: school, hospital, ultimately Cambridge University. However, if Pilcrow saw him largely static and subject to others’ well-meaning whims, Cedilla is an account of his struggles toward independence. “If I let the waters of home close over my head I would never be heard from again. No door would close behind me with any finality, but no new door would open ever.” He struggles to match his own desire to be a part of the world (even at the edge of it) with the restrictions society places on him.
A foul mouth isn’t ladylike, and it isn’t disabledlike either. […] Swearing is dirty, and we’re above it. That may be the mechanism. Swearing is powerful. We’re not entitled. Perhaps the two notions converge in some way I don’t see.
Being of limited ability to make physical journeys, John embarks on spiritual travels instead. After developing form of “home-grown meditation” (“instead of the pain going away, I went away from the pain”), he proceeds to explore eastern faiths, even seeking a guru of his own, thousands of miles away. “The text changes your life not by virtue of being true but because you are ready for the transformation it announces.” For someone with John’s difficulties, becoming part of a religious tradition which regards pain as unreal is a perfectly logical response. It also provides him with a label with which to identify himself, a better one than that assigned to him by circumstances. “Special treatment was exactly what I didn’t want, not noticing that it can sometimes be the product of ordinary kindness.” When he goes to university, the pleasure of “fairytale privileges,” such as a lock on his door, bolsters his sense of independence, which comes to an affecting climax at the end of the book.
Cedilla, like Pilcrow, is often funny about John’s disability without belittling it. One comic highlight is a scene involving Astral Weeks, a Mars bar, and “the signed confession of my self-abuse.” He does his damnedest to explore his sexuality, and offers false modesty on his lack of descriptive powers: “Why should I sift through the various individuating traits to convey a vivid impression when all anyone needs to say to pick me out, apparently, is ‘John’ and then, ‘You know, John in a wheelchair.'” Nor is he wholly sympathetic, being a terrible snob, though at least self-aware about it:
We watched [ITV] ‘just to see how awful it is’, to be amazed at what lower people found entertaining. Our pleasures lay some distance from our principles, and often the things we said we liked did nothing for us.
One of the most appealing qualities of Cedilla is its verisimilitude – at times it feels as though the book should have an index – which Mars-Jones achieves by dedicated reference to unexpected but realistic details. As well as obscure but real books on homœopathy and gardening, there are comic subplots about celebrities local to John’s home town of Bourne End: John’s mother becomes practically housebound for fear of bumping into the intimidatingly clever Tom Stoppard, while Michael Aspel runs other drivers off the road like a televisual Mr Toad. (No ‘I ♥ the 1970s’ clichés here, though Dymotape does make a late appearance.) These give the invented people and events which are tied in with them almost too much reality.
In everything I have written so far, I have dealt with only a scattering of details from Cedilla. It is a mammoth volume: part of an even greater one. The whole undertaking must lie somewhere between brilliance and madness. Its length inevitably becomes part of what the book is about. It is necessary to overlook this to get the most from it, otherwise the unvarying tone and foreknowledge of no ending – just a stopping – will wreck it. The way to approach it therefore is to imagine each section to be part of a very slim book which must be savoured; as a mountaineer dividing the ascent into single steps. Indeed, as one goes smaller and smaller in scale until reading it from page to page, then line to line – imagine! – the standard of writing comes into its own. Each sentence is a small jewel of exquisite design; a tiny Crunchie bar. Sympathetic, funny, heartfelt, true. When read this way, one would be happy for the book to go on forever – which is just as well, really.
December 1, 2008
This completes a hat trick of books I’ve read inspired by topical events. After Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, I was reminded recently that today is World Aids Day, which seemed a good opportunity to complete my reading of Adam Mars-Jones’s fiction. A dozen or more years ago, when I was enthused by his debut novel The Waters of Thirst, I picked up his first collection of stories Lantern Lecture and enjoyed it, but shied away from Monopolies of Loss. What, I thought, could this collection of gay stories about Aids have for me? Now, wiser than that, the only barrier that remains is the frankly creepy cover, a Pierre le Tan illustration of the author photo. Whichever way you leave the book lying, he’s there looking at you.
It’s a tribute to the success of antiretroviral drug treatments that Aids has become less newsworthy in the developed world of late. Mars-Jones’s stories date from a time when it was still headline news, and as such the ubiquity of the subject here risks dating the book, as with Martin Amis’s 1987 collection themed on nuclear armageddon, Einstein’s Monsters. All this calls into question the ability of literature to deal with news that doesn’t stay news, to address our contemporary issues and remain relevant decades later.
This collection was put together in 1992, from stories previously collected in The Darker Proof, a collaboration with Edmund White, and Mars-Jones provides an illuminating and entertaining introduction. After agreeing a cover design for the earlier volume (“my instinct being solidly for commercial suicide, I suggested a non-pictorial cover”), he tells us that
[t]he title was more of a problem. The usual solution with a collection is to choose the title of one of the constituent stories, but that wouldn’t work when there were two authors. Eventually we settled on a phrase from the first volume of Cocteau’s diaries, which both of us, tireless interveners in the marketplace, had recently reviewed. … Edmund and I were ready with a cod-Shakespearean quotation to explain the title – ‘Friends in affliction make the darker proof of love’, or something of the sort, supposedly from Measure for Measure – but nobody asked. Perhaps people already assumed it was from a Shakespeare play that they weren’t familiar with.
The reviews were generally kind. By then, it took a certain amount of effort to disparage a book with such liberal credentials, to attack its achievement without denigrating its intentions.
Quite. I am able to extend that custom by saying with a straight face that the first four stories in Monopolies of Loss, which are the ones first published in The Darker Proof, are excellent. In them, Mars-Jones refrains from using the words Aids or HIV, and he explains in the introduction that his aim was “to look at Aids directly and then to edge it into the background. I wanted to crown HIV with attention and then work to dethrone it.”
So he begins with ‘Slim’, named after an African name for Aids, where the narrator talks directly about his condition – “being exiled from the young, the well, the real” – his limited lifespan, and his relationship with his Aids ‘buddy’:
Buddy may not be qualified, but he’s had his little bit of training. I remember him telling me, early on, that to understand what was happening to me perhaps I should think of having fifty years added to my age, or suddenly having Third World expectations instead of First. I suppose I’ve tried thinking that way. But now whenever I see those charity ads in the papers, the ones that tell you how for a few pounds you could adopt someone in India or the Philippines, I think that maybe I’ve been adopted by an African family, that – poor as they are – they are sending me what they can spare from their tainted food, their poisoned water, their little lifespans.
The remaining stories from the first half of the book – big bruisers, averaging 40-50 pages each – move back and forward from this moment on the brink. ‘An Executor’ deals with the aftermath of an Aids death, and how friends and family, rarely close bedfellows, can become decisively estranged in circumstances like these. Mars-Jones gets it just right when capturing reduced lives through a particular image, such as noting that “the washing-up … only amounted, these days, to a couple of cups and small plates.” In ‘A Small Spade’, there is a beautifully judged scene of tension and intimate horror when an HIV-positive man gets a splinter in his finger at a café:
Blood in general, and blood like Neil’s in particular, had acquired a demonic status over the few previous years. Before that time, blood seemed largely a symbolic substance, and people’s attitudes towards it signs of something else. Being a blood donor involved only a symbolic courage, and squeamishness about blood was an odd though perhaps significant little cowardice. Now blood had taken back its seriousness as a stuff.
Mars-Jones specialises in these “signs of something else”, and by centreing on the minutiae of life with – and after – HIV, he deals it an ironic blow of belittlement. Even the stereotypes of gay life outside Aids get a witty rejoinder, as when at the gym with the muscle fetish set: “‘Reps’ for repetitions, ‘lats’ for latissimus dorsi, ‘pecs’ for pectorals. Blood that normally went towards finishing words seemed to be redirected to rebuild muscle tissue.”
Yet it is also this epigrammatic neatness which hampers the collection, particularly in the later (in both senses) stories. Mars-Jones’s narrators are urbane, knowing, and even sanguine to a man: so keen is he not to allow Aids to overwhelm that it can risk seeming less important than it warrants. Then again, it could just be his given mode of expression: William from The Waters of Thirst and John Cromer from Pilcrow were similarly cool around the most emotionally heightened subjects. Monopolies of Loss’s weakness is perhaps that messiness and death require more than cleverness and neatness as a response, even when emotionally true and intellectually satisfying. Nonetheless it remains a timely read, as Aids continues to devastate entire populations in Africa; even if Mars-Jones never gets further south than Brighton.
January 18, 2008
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.
January 3, 2008
Adam Mars-Jones is best known these days as a critic, and a sometimes waspish one at that, reviewing fiction for the Observer (“There is more depth in Calvin Klein’s Obsession than in Paulo Coelho’s Zahir,” or how about his dismissal of Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert as “a monumentally annoying book”?). But he writes fiction too, and was in the odd position in 1983 of being crowned one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists without having published a novel. He repeated the feat in 1993, but clearly shamed by his status, later the same year his debut novel The Waters of Thirst came out. I loved it, and in anticipation of his second novel Pilcrow, due in April, I thought I would revisit it and see how it stands up.
Perfection in a novel is elusive, if not impossible, and if each new word is a potential blunder, then the best way to get close to completeness is to keep the numbers down. Mars-Jones did this, and at 182 pages of breathably-spaced text, The Waters of Thirst still seems to me to be a small masterpiece, as word perfect as one could wish for.
What I love about it is its ability to maintain wit, interest and even compassion in what is ostensibly a long monologue of largely domestic affairs. William’s narrative is uninterrupted even by scene breaks; it is, as the old punchline goes, all in one bit. Where this could be frustrating – we all like a place to pause reading so we know where to pick up again – it turns out to make it all the more compulsive, and the urge to read just one more page led me to finish the last hundred in a sitting.
William is a snobbish gay man, reflecting on the end of his relationship with his partner Terry. He watches Terry at the supermarket
unloading from his basket the convenience foods of self-pity, giving a tin of pears a maudlin caress. I see him placing the food in single file on the moving belt, advertising his solitude with a funeral procession of groceries
and sees him “thinking about me and about his life, and how they knitted together so well right up to the moment of unravelling.” Finding how the unravelling came about of course is the pleasure of the journey. The extract above is from the first paragraph, and in truth I could very easily continue quoting more or less to the end of the book with no dilution of effect (but some copyright issues). At the same time this makes The Waters of Thirst a difficult book to lift excerpts from, as each neatly quotable line fits so smoothly into what goes before and after.
This neatness and the smuggling of larger themes of love, relations between individuals and groups, and acceptance into a small scale work, reminded me of other short novels with a gay theme like J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You, and Gilbert Adair’s Buenas Noches Buenos Aires. Even in surface subject matter it’s wide-ranging, covering social hospitality, kidney disease, frank references to gay pornography (don’t say you weren’t warned), and William’s profession of acting:
When it comes right down to it most of what passes for acting is no more than text-based wheedling. … ‘Please believe in me,’ you’re saying. ‘See, I’ve even put on a little bit of an accent for you. What more could you want, really? Come on, start believing. You know you won’t enjoy yourself until you do. Why waste the price of your ticket? Shocking what they ask these days, isn’t it? And all down the drain unless you believe in me – please? – with my costume and my moves and my lines and my little bit of an accent.’
This being a novel from the early 90s featuring gay men, of course Aids has a guest role too:
Terry and I chose each other when there were only breezes blowing men like us together, or apart. After a few years there were high winds blowing every which way. Winds rattled every door, winds blew down every chimney and tested every window, and people were blown together and blown apart, blown away, without warning.
But rather than make it a central plank of the story, Mars-Jones uses Aids as an extension of the existing concerns in the book about fragility of health, of relationships, and of lives: “nothing affects one person only”. For a cool and clever book of witty prose, it doesn’t half get moving at times. Only occasionally does his sense of the mot juste let him down, or rather go too far, and bring out something like Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett on an off day (“Kids these days, with their Gore-Tex grafts and their high-flux machines. Two hours for dialysis! That’s not kidney failure. That’s a holiday”).
William, who needs a kidney transplant, is open with the reader about his baser instincts, amusing us even as he vents his frustrations:
I mean, every vehicle is a potential accident, I realise that, but motor cyclists really are organ donors-in-waiting. A dab of grease or a handful of gravel, and a motor bike just wants a good lie down. … As time went by, I found my eyes were drawn to the rear contours of bikers’ leather jackets. The handbook recommended wearing a jacket with an extra panel of padding at waist level. It was for kidney protection. My immediate reaction was, oh yes, protect those kidneys. We don’t want anything to happen to them.
The book even has an ending which, if not actually surprising, is nonetheless novel, and thus it has pretty much everything I could ask for. William’s thoughts on monogamy may not be entirely positive (“then finally you’ve worn a track through the days like a track on lino, and you’re continuously aware of each other without ever needing to think about it”), but this is a book I would happily pledge my exclusive allegiance to. Though I’ll reserve the right to keep shopping around for the next one.