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.