Perhaps on this blog there should be some system to tell people immediately which books I’m really enthusiastic about, a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s technique in Galapagos, where he placed an asterisk before the name of any character who would shortly die. If I did, there would be one on this post, because Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004) is one of those rare books which leaves no regrets whatsoever: except that I didn’t read it sooner. In my defence, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year as big hitters like Colm Toibin, David Mitchell and Alan Hollinghurst: how was I to know that Woodward was a match for any of them?
I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is the middle book in a trilogy, but can be fully appreciated (at least I think I did) on its own. It brings us in full colour into the lives of the Jones family in north London from 1974 to 1979. It’s a saga squeezed into 440 pages, but the small type and the precise prose make it breathe as deeply as any epic.
The book opens with a funeral, where Janus Brian, the widower of the deceased, says:
You know, dear, all my life I have been scared of death, but since Mary died I have come to the conclusion that it is life that’s the really frightening thing. … Religion is supposed to make us cope with death, but we need something to make life bearable…
Janus Brian’s opium of choice, as for his brother Lesley (sic), his sister Colette and her son Janus, is alcohol. Colette, making progress from her days – presumably explored in the first Jones novel, August – as a glue-sniffer, favours a tipple of barley wine (“One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning”). Her son Janus is a beer man (“They would hear, from downstairs, the metallic retching of beer cans being opened. Four or five in quick succession”). Janus Brian himself will make alcohol when he cannot find it (“Cucumber Wine, Cauliflower Champagne, Brussel Sprout Whiskey. That was where all the fruit and vegetables from this extensive kitchen garden went – into the fermentation bins of Janus Brian’s home brewing kits”). Lesley we only see once in detail, and it’s a cruel, squirm-inducing portrait of the retired teacher among his former pupils:
Lesley leant back in his chair so far that he fell backwards onto the floor, arms outstretched, still singing, his mouth gaping with song. The locals poured Old Roger down Lesley’s gaping throat laughing as they did so, ‘Feed me till I want no more.’ They rejoined as Lesley ecstatically gargled and spumed on the cascading beer. The manner in which this event occurred suggested to Colette and Aldous that it was a regular occurrence on Lesley’s visits to the Bricklayers. The reason for his popularity here was his willingness, their former English master, to debase himself so abjectly on the floor of their pub.
They react to it differently too: Colette on the surface seems as functional and well-adjusted as her husband Aldous; Janus is violent; and Janus Brian likely to be found by Colette on a regular visit “semi-naked and semi-conscious on the bed.” Colette and Aldous’s other children, and their partners, must work their way through the behaviours that result.
Though steeped in ethanol, the story seems to be as much about the messiness that accompanies all family life, the unrequited love of parents for their children or “our sorrows that our children are slipping away from us,” and the fine line between cause and effect (“Janus, why couldn’t you just be a normal child, a normal man, why did you have to turn out like this?” “How could I be normal with a mother like you?”).
Woodward has a neat observation for every action, down to daily ablutions (“Aldous shaved, observing the familiar faces he made to make the process easier (the sceptical philosopher, the affronted duchess, the smirking connoisseur)”), but the pace builds as the book goes on, and by the last hundred pages – when the story has just about caught up with the back cover blurb – it’s practically a page-turner. He has a dispassionate, deadpan style which makes the moments of humour and tragedy all the more intense. He also has a Gordon Burn-style interest in the buildings and structure of cities and the relationship they have with the people who live in them.
I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is also rich in literary references, from the character names to the title, which comes from King Lear and suggests early death. One thing that Woodward shows in this magnificent, beautiful book is that if there’s one thing for a chronic alcoholic and their loved ones that’s worse than dying early, it’s continuing to live through it.