Clearly covers in bold white, black and red are in fashion this season – and obviously they work on me, as this is third I’ve read in a month after Exit Ghost and Miss Herbert. Rudolph Delson’s debut novel Maynard & Jennica is as textually playful as either of those books, but more of an out-and-out entertainment. And what entertainment!
One review compares this book to Annie Hall, and that’s valid enough in that it’s a intelligent Jewish-tinged romantic comedy set in New York – and more than that, a romantic comedy that might actually make you feel romantic, or like laughing. But significantly the comparison seems a shrewd one because above all Maynard & Jennica reads like one of those American TV series that we’re always being told are so much better than British ones.
If we’re sticking to Woody Allen though, a better reference would be Husbands and Wives, as the book is written as an oral biography, with the various players ‘talking to camera’ about Maynard Gogarty and Jennica Green: the two themselves, their families, their friends and innocent bystanders. Maynard Gogarty is a thirtysomething composer and filmmaker when the book opens, in late 2000, given to wearing boater hats and, of course, looking for love:
Love should not be the spoils of a deliberate campaign or the convenient alliance of a war of attrition. Love should be an instant and supernatural uproar in the soul. It should be the resounding of a bell.
The bell that signals Maynard’s discovery of love is the alarm in the subway, when he ends up trapped on a train with Jennica (“A shapely twist of a woman, dressed in black, with two beauty spots on her right cheek”). The next few minutes are told over forty pages, from the points of view of Maynard, Jennica, and other passengers (on Maynard: “He look like he just step in something nasty. … He got a face like something cold just touch his balls”). It’s at this point we realise that Delson can make a funny and gripping narrative out of nothing happening in a static subway train. Watch out.
Eventually “the train leaves the station like a dog on a leash – lingering behind to sniff the stains on the platform, then jolting ahead, down the tunnel, already smelling the urine of Grand Central.” And Maynard and Jennica circle around one another and around New York (“the cosmic filth; the ceaseless noise, the heedless noise; the decades of bad coffee; the decades of bad plumbing; the appalling poor, wailing at you on the subway; the appalling wealthy, kneeing you in the shops”), and the narrative goes back and forward and from hand to hand, and dog similes change to expensive pedigree cat stories, and to a great set piece about the naming of a new pet.
Delson maintains distinct voices for Maynard and Jennica, though he sometimes relies too much on tics such as Maynard’s tendency to leave – pauses between words, or Jennica’s, like, scatterbrain syntax, which, I don’t know if you like that sort of thing or not. Maynard is deliberately a touch irritating, and Jennica wants an “illustrious” life – “Jennica can’t live in California,” her brother tells us, “because she thinks only successful people live in New York.” Jennica finds herself fretting about love, “but I don’t think my life is as sad as, like, Wuthering Heights, or Love in the Time of Cholera, or Dave Eggers, or whatever.”
As well as giving us a romance which is truly fun to read, Delson’s story also deals in family and cultural pressures, and surprises us in its second half by offering a new fictional take on September 11, 2001, where Maynard rails against the manipulation of sentiment by the media in the days that follow, with one newspaper publishing obituaries of every victim which it calls “Portraits of Grief”:
One hundred and fifty words, two hundred words, proclaiming in the most dire platitudes available the hallowed uniqueness of every one of these stockbrokers, stock traders, stock characters. This one was unique because he was – a doting father! We must never forget this – doting father! This one was unique because she – always made people laugh! We must never forget this – funny, funny gal! They’re all dead, and it’s so sad! It’s so sad that – this man whose most unique and noteworthy characteristic was that he loved to have a good time and hang out with his buddies is now lost to Western civilisation.
Even now, this seems like a bold viewpoint to place even in the mouth of a fictional character. The anger and humour keeps the book flowing, though it could plausibly have been a little shorter in the end, and what it lacks in superficial plot (though there’s enough of that, from hidden wives to Dickensian coincidences) it more than makes up for in liveliness and character.
I can imagine this book becoming a cult hit, and spawning in the years to come a flood of little Jennicas – though hopefully not too many Maynards. And overall, I can’t imagine anyone not being charmed silly by Maynard & Jennica. But please don’t take that as a challenge.