Glenn Patterson: The Third Party

A small distinction which makes Glenn Patterson unique among contemporary novelists – and I’m not saying it’s something he’ll be putting on his CV – is that he lives round my way. Sadly I won’t be making money from Heat magazine for candid snaps anytime soon as Patterson hasn’t quite reached the same level of renown as his friend Robert McLiam Wilson, who was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003. Silence clearly impresses, as Wilson hasn’t published anything since 1996’s Eureka Street, whereas in the same time Patterson has published four novels and a collection of non-fiction. That’s the Protestant work ethic for you.

The Third Party invites immediate comparison with fashionable writers like David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami by being set in Japan, but the essence seems more Lost in Translation (which the book explicitly acknowledges at one point) than number9dream. Our unnamed narrator is a fortysomething executive for a plastics company which has developed an ‘exciting new storage solution’ – “clingfilm would soon be consigned to the pedal bin of history.” He is staying in a hotel in Hiroshima for a conference with clients.

And so the story progresses in a slow and elliptical fashion, as he meets various fellow travellers and visits tourist attractions both on and off the beaten track. Among the people he meets is a fellow Northern Irish writer, referred to as ‘Ike,’ and some of whose details may be catharsis on Patterson’s part (“Actually I’m a writer.”  “Anything I would have heard of?”  “Tell me the novels you’ve heard of and I’ll stop you when you get to one of mine”):

After our first meeting I had checked him out on Amazon: dot-co-dot-uk, not dot-com.  Two novels, ranked ninety- and a hundred-and-fifty-something thousand.  I read the publisher’s descriptions.  They sounded like the sort of thing I would normally run a mile from, ie they featured the words Northern and Ireland in close proximity. … There were six more titles, some of them listed more than once, none of them currently able to be offered.

Ninety- and a hundred-and-fifty-something thousand.  What was that?  Hopeless?  So-so?  Not half bad?

On his travels in Hiroshima, through culture shock and problems of scale (“To look up at the ribs of that roof was to see the whale from the plankton’s point of view”) our narrator also visits the A-Bomb Museum, where “it was impossible to pass through any part without your conscience or compassion snagging on something,” such as a video of a tethered dog when “that spot became precisely the worst place on earth. … The dog leapt and twisted in the nuclear-test wind.  If it could have reached the lead it would have bitten through it.  If it could have reached its own neck it would have bitten through that.”  The reasons for the narrator’s particular interest in evidence and expressions of holocaust-scale guilt are later apparent.

Although I normally share the narrator’s horror of novels about Northern Ireland, one of the strongest passages in the book is when ‘Ike’ is giving a reading from a new novel set back home:

She noticed every speck of dirt on the ground.  She was angry that they hadn’t had the decency to clean the street for him, neither the police nor the men who had decided that, due to a congruence of historical and political circumstance to which only they were privy, this was where his life would end, and who had hung around in the darkness – because they were reasonable like that, they didn’t mind waiting – to deliver the news.

And I was enjoying the curious and rootless journey so much that I was somewhat disappointed when the narrator’s past was explicitly revealed near the end; the mood of uncertainty and foreignness was so well judged that it almost seemed superfluous.  But it does tie together the strands of the story, and make it worth considering an early re-read, just so I can catch the significance of what I missed first time round: and have some questions ready for Patterson when I next see him.


  1. Hi John. Me likewise re horror of novels about NI, so many of them are so claustrophobically parochial. Or so it seems to me. I did read The International and Number 5 but was disappointed by both, they seemed a bit slight. But Third Party sounds more interesting and more wide-ranging. Another one for my To Buy list. Currently enjoying The Inheritance of Loss, by the way.

  2. Well this was my first Patterson but I am interested in his others (apart from Number 5 and That Which Was, which are in print with Penguin, three of his earlier novels are being reissued soon by Blackstaff Press, who also publish The Third Party).

    Congratulations on being the only person I know who is enjoying The Inheritance of Loss! In fact I don’t know anyone else who managed to finish it. I gave up early though mainly because something else came up which I fancied more, and I do intend to have another crack at it sometime.

  3. It’s certainly written in a very strange staccato style, John, with bizarre metaphors and descriptions, but I rather like that. Very atmospheric too, with the old judge mouldering away in his crumbling house and the young lad working in all those seedy, rat-infested eateries. But I can see why some people would lose patience with the way it’s written and give up.

  4. I always enjoy Patterson’s novels and sped through this one pretty quickly, it was funny, observant and tender with some neat little tricks with the language. On finishing it, though, it didn’t quite feel as complete as the previous few novels. You use the word ‘elliptical’ and I think you’re right, but the narrative felt frustratingly so in places, there’s nothing wrong with being a little bit explict at times. The main theme seems to be time, how people and places move on from events (the city, the ever-changing hotel) yet others stay stuck in one place (Ike reading the same passage from his book, the narrator unable to confront his role in the Sardinia affair). There’s stuff in there about absence and presence, about the fleeting nature of our experience, but other stuff didn’t quite gel. What was the point of the graffiti, the long passage from Ike’s book at the effect on the narrator, and what exactly was the relationhip between Ike, Tadao and Mami at the end? I do occasionally enjoy finishing a book and feeling confused, but there needs to be a sense of satisfaction to temper that, and I didn’t feel that with The Third Party.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Paddy. What you say all seems perfectly valid to me. I honestly didn’t mind the incomplete nature of some of the elements, but the very clear explanatory section about the narrator’s past involvement did seem to jar in comparison. Which of Patterson’s other novels would you recommend?

  6. I think The International, Number 5 and That Which was are wonderful, particularly Number 5 which covers so much history and has this wonderful, leap-frogging structure from decade to decade. His stuff is very humane and wise, with a seething anger below the surface.

    Still think MacLaverty is the best NI novelist, though.

  7. Yes, Moore is wonderful and I intend to read more of his. The last one I read was ‘I Am Mary Dunne’ which was just incredible, as good as Richard Yates or Fitzgerald.

  8. That’s high praise! Big fan of Yates here too. I read Mary Dunne many years ago and am delighted that it’s one of the next few in my Mooreathon as I work my way through his novels in date order… Look forward to it enormously.

  9. Got the third party for Christmas … it was good, though a different style to That Which Was and Number 5. The ending nearly seemed to be too much – an open ending might have been more satisfying. Good book though.

    Does that mean we’ve agreed for once!?

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