Adam Mars-Jones: The Waters of Thirst

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.

Adam Mars-Jones: The Waters of Thirst

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.


  1. Well I guess it is only to be expected if I keep reading literary blogs that my list at Amazon keeps growing. I just got my wish list down to a manageable 12. What was I thinking?

  2. Hi John,

    I remember reading this, gosh, 15+ years ago was it? I enjoyed it very much too at the time, so it is good to be both reminded of it again now and to know that you think that it still stands up so well.

    I’m also with you about shortish novels: there has to be a VERY good reason to get me to push past 200-odd pages these days!


  3. Yes Mark, I was thinking of compiling a list of overlooked sub-200 page marvels: I’d include this, and Dr Haggard’s Disease, and … er, I’ll have a think about it…

    I only hope when Pilcrow is published, that Faber will reissue this and some of Mars-Jones’s other fiction. I have fond memories too of Lantern Lecture, and last night ordered a (1p!) copy of his Aids-related story collection Monopolies of Loss.

    After enjoying The Waters of Thirst so much first time around, I kept an eye out for other new fiction from him. A pair of twin novellas under the title Hypo Vanilla first appeared in Faber’s catalogue in 1995, but kept getting put back year after year. I see it’s still listed on Amazon, as being published in June 2007 but ‘unavailable’. I wonder whether it will ever surface, or if perhaps parts of it have been filleted to create Pilcrow.

  4. Sadly I’m told that Faber will not be reissuing any of Mars-Jones’s earlier fiction to coincide with Pilcrow. That’s a shame, but perhaps if Pilcrow reaches any shortlists that might change!

  5. This sounds wonderful. Would you class it as a novella? I think the novella is very much overlooked these days, but I find myself attracted to them more and more, probably as a reaction against the brick-like novels that take so much time (that I don’t have) to read.

  6. Quite. Saul Bellow in the introduction to three of his late stories, says:

    Some of our greatest novels are very thick. Fiction is a loose popular art, and many of the classic novelists get their effects by heaping up masses of words. Decades ago, Somerset Maugham was inspired to publish pared-down versions of some of the very best. His experiment didn’t succeed. Something went out of the books when their bulk was reduced. It would be mad to edit a novel like Little Dorrit. That sea of words is a sea, a force of nature. We want it that way, ample, capable of breeding life. When its amplitude tires us we readily forgive it. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

    Yet we respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Oddly, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read – my own or other people’s works – it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. … At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.

    Which doesn’t explain The Adventures of Augie March

  7. Yes that was a stinker, wasn’t it! The review in the Observer – where Mars-Jones is regular fiction critic – was much more favourable. I’d certainly recommend The Waters of Thirst if you enjoyed Lantern Lecture … and Pilcrow as an act of completeness.

  8. Now I’m reading “Neighbours” , one of the episode in The Waters of Thrist
    so I want some critic paper or analysis about the theme , motivation etc..

    So. could someone please help me with this
    I’ll be appreciated

    I’m a Thai student and have to hand in the paper of this work to my professor

    Thank you

  9. Well Pinky, I probably shouldn’t do your paper for you, but as I recall the main theme of the ‘Neighbours’ section (which was printed in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists issue in 1993, just before the book itself was published) was hospitality: how we look after others and extend a welcome to them in our own home. It’s also about snobbery of course, and William and Terry’s motivation in inviting people is as much to do with proving their social status before their peers as it is to do with making people feel at home and part of a larger society. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ as we might say here, or even ‘one-up-manship’.

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