Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow

Adam Mars-Jones is such a tease. First he made us wait ten years after being named one of the best young British novelists before actually publishing his superb first novel, The Waters of Thirst, in 1993. Then his next book of fiction, twin novellas under the title Hypo Vanilla, has been coming and going from Faber’s catalogue since 1995, without ever actually appearing (Amazon presently has it listed as published in June 2007, but ‘currently unavailable’). So, Mr Mars-Jones, with this 500-page novel springing unexpectedly up after all this time, you are really spoiling us: at last.

Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow

A pilcrow is a punctuation symbol – ¶ – used to indicate a paragraph break. The hero of Pilcrow, John Cromer, identifies himself with it because

I’m not sure I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet… I’m more like an optional accent or specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to track down on the keyboard of computer or typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn’t perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.

In fact John Cromer doesn’t stand on his own; he doesn’t stand at all really, or sit very well either, due to a childhood disease which has left most of his bones fused. As a result he spends most of his childhood in bed, and Mars-Jones’s achievement is to make these opening hundred-odd pages of immobility among the most interesting the book. We spend all our time in John’s head, but his parents are generously painted, if not flatteringly: his mother carries down a hysterical caution (particularly with regard to John’s health) from her relationship with her own mother, and his father is a traditional type (“in the 1950s, men didn’t touch their children except to smack them, ruffle their hair or carry them from burning buildings”). Their relationship has ghosts of its own:

There were no bad marriages in those days, none so bad they couldn’t be endured. … Marriage was the rest-cure then, for relationships between men and women. Marriage was bed rest for couples. Lie down as man and wife and wait to feel better. If after a while it doesn’t seem to be working, then keep trying for another few years. As long as it takes, in fact.

Pilcrow is an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways, because it eschews the pared-down, pixel-perfection of The Waters of Thirst and instead leaves nothing out for the period it covers: John’s childhood up to the age of about sixteen. The prose is less highly evolved, and at times I would have liked more Adam Mars-Jones in the narrative and not so much John Cromer. Yet there are peaks of brilliant wit, such as a tour de force scene where John’s mother explains the facts of life to him while he is still a young child, and using family euphemisms:

‘But that’s rude. Why do mummies and daddies have to be rude to make a baby?’

‘Well when they do it, it’s nice. So if it’s nice, it’s not rude.’

‘Nice? Nice? What’s nice about putting your taily in a hole between a lady’s legs? I bet it hurts!’

‘No, it doesn’t. The lady likes it.’

I DIDN’T MEAN THE LADY! I meant, I bet it hurts the man!’ My concern was all for him, in this desperate transaction. The poor man! ‘He must love the baby terribly to do that with his taily.’

‘Oh no, the man likes it!’

‘How do you know? You’re not a man!’

‘No, but I told you – Daddy says it’s nice.’

This was where her lying was blatant and I became incredulous with anger. ‘Daddy would never say it was nice to stick his taily in a hole between a lady’s legs.’

‘He says it’s nice.’

‘Bring him here. I have to hear him say it.’ I was almost in tears. ‘He won’t say it, he can’t say it because it’s not true. You’re fibbing.’

This raises the same objections of unrealistic precociousness in childhood dialogue that Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk did, but telling his own version of the truth is the prerogative of the first person narrator. There are other curious elements in Pilcrow which made me doubt the whole-truthness of John’s account. On the opening page he tells us that the first car he drove was a 1960s Mini, a curious choice for a young man whose hips are fused straight so he can’t even sit properly in a chair: how could he drive at all? Could John’s story, unremarkable in many elements even as it is, in fact be the fantasies of a completely immobile man, trapped in his own head? (“I was told not to move, and I was a good boy. I had to move something, and if it wasn’t my body then it would have to be my mind.”)

In time John goes to school – or almost. “I would be going to a hospital, and the school was tucked away somewhere inside it. The hospital would be there all the time. The school would put in an appearance now and then, as and when.” His two schools take up the last two-thirds of the book, which is most interesting in its convincing and heartfelt depiction of a disabled gay boy’s exploration of his sexuality: when all your physical activities are desperate fumbles, then sexual expression becomes particularly hazardous.

At the same time there are holes in John’s story: he makes references throughout his memoir of his spiritual explorations – Hinduism seems to be his path of choice – but we get nothing of this in the main story. Is this a pointer that the things which loom largest in our lives are those which we deal with subconsciously, and sweep under the surface? Or is it evidence of an unreliable narrator, along with little comments like “I’m not interested in family history, not really believing in either family or history,” or reminders of how, at school, John was especially gifted at “story-telling”?

The alternative is that Pilcrow is not a complete story at all: it stops rather than ends, and later volumes might fill us in on the elements hinted at but not detailed here (when so very many things are detailed here). Indeed, one website describes Pilcrow as “the first book in the John Cromer series.” That would explain a lot. Oh Mr Mars-Jones! I told you he was a tease.


  1. I must have missed something here. How could he be named best young novelist ten years before he published his first novel? Were the publishers just holding onto it? Is this a British thing?

  2. Isabel, good question! I was so surprised that this book was so different to anything else I’d read by him, that I kept looking online for other responses to it – in vain, as it isn’t published until April (I had a preview copy). I am certainly looking forward to seeing what others make of it.

    Candy, it is peculiar, isn’t it? He was named one of 20 Best Young British Novelists in 1983; at that time he had published one collection of stories, Lantern Lecture. He was named again in the 1993 list, and only then did his debut novel come out. Helen Simpson is another writer who has been named on this list without ever publishing a novel: she has published four collections of stories.

    Matthew, if you read Pilcrow when it comes out, then I look forward to seeing what you think of it. Meanwhile if you can get a copy of his first novel The Waters of Thirst (see link above), I think you might like it.

  3. Well I have the Waters of Thirst now and am learning to speed read. It seems the only recourse if I am to continue reading you and DoveGrey. Since I am starting at 970 wpm I should be able to get up to about 3000. Am starting Gilbert Adair today. I am awaiting The Poison That Fascinates.

  4. Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian blog today gives some background on Pilcrow:

    One fictional piece, Everything is Different in Your House, which appeared in Granta in 2001, touched on the amused, sensuous experiences of John Cromer, a gay man afflicted by an aggressive form or arthritis called Still’s Disease, and who becomes a magnet for respect and curiosity in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu (“Here I am understood without being known, without needing to be known”).

    Will have to look it out.

  5. I see that he is going to be talking about this book to Margaret Drabble at The Oxford Literary Festival (sometime after the Dovegreyreader groupies have departed)

  6. A piece in the Daily Telegraph appears to confirm my suspicion above that Pilcrow is the first part of a larger work.

    [Pilcrow] is merely the first volume of a three-part novel, which currently runs to around 600,000 words.

    Can we trust this? Probably, even though the writer wrongly says that this is AMJ’s first novel, which of course it isn’t.

  7. James Wood again confirms your suspicion in the current LRB: “The story feels incomplete, as is. There is talk of two more volumes.” Did all American publishers reject Pilcrow? The novel is still not listed on our book sites, so we’ll have to order it from

  8. Hard to say, BoT – was any of Mars-Jones’s earlier work published in the US? The good news is that you won’t regret getting the UK edition, which is as handsome a volume as I’ve seen in some time. I read it in a proof copy, but was almost tempted to buy the hardback when I saw in the shops last week.

    Thanks for letting me know about the Wood piece – will have to look it out. Are his impressions, incompleteness aside, generally favourable?

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