Month: February 2010

Joshua Ferris: The Unnamed

I disliked Joshua Ferris’s debut novel Then We Came to the End, though surprisingly, the withholding of my approval didn’t seem to harm its global success.  I decided to read his next book anyway, partly because I began to wonder if everyone else was right and I was wrong last time, and also because Ferris’s interest in fiction about work chimes with my own.  (A foolish motive, like buying a book because it’s been praised by a writer you like: and I’ve done plenty of that too.)  Plus, I got a free copy, and read it during my blog sabbatical last autumn.

The Unnamed is blurbed as a sort of middle-class malaise novel: “Tim Farnsworth is a handsome, healthy man, ageing with the grace of a matinée idol. He loves his work.  He loves his family.  He loves his kitchen.  And then one day he stands up and walks out on all of it.”  So far so Revolutionary Road, so ‘Poetry of Departures’.  But the conceit in fact is a lot more interesting – and eccentric – than expected.  In fact Tim (I can’t bear to call him Farnsworth, a name no Futurama fan can take seriously) keeps on walking because he literally cannot stop.  He suffers from what we might call the paramilitary wing of Restless Legs Syndrome.   Not only that, he has no control over where he walks, so his wife has become used to prepping him with flasks of tea and Kendal Mint Cake (or US equivalent), and picking him up from faraway highways and forests, when his body finally tires and he drops. No doctor has been able to diagnose his condition (the closest they get is the reflexive “benign idiopathic perambulation,” which doesn’t explain it so much as just describe it) and, not surprisingly, investigations have tended toward the psychiatric rather than the physical.  Even his teenage daughter thinks “he’s mental.”

(The premise is loosely similar to that of Alan Lightman’s 2000 novel The Diagnosis – prosperous middle-aged man suffers mysterious ailment which seems an analogue for existential angst and social dislocation.  I haven’t read Lightman’s book; can anyone comment further on the parallels?)

Ferris’s approach, to settle a seemingly allegorical story in a grounded reality, makes for a strange and uneven book.  He spends a good deal of time dealing with the implausibility of Tim’s condition, addressing presumed reader FAQs like why he doesn’t handcuff himself to the bed, or hire a bodyguard, filling and filling and filling in background like pouring sand into a jar of rocks, when the oddness of the premise should, in my view, have been celebrated and embraced and not explained away.  I felt that Paul Auster or Magnus Mills would have been braver with the material.

Then I began to recognise that Ferris’s angle has a bravery of its own.  By insisting on the details of Tim’s work, family, and history, he humanises the story and makes the bold progression of the narrative increasingly troubling and moving.  (A fellow blogger’s succinct comment on The Unnamed was “Jesus that is one brutal book”.)  Each of the four parts of the book has a title from Emily Dickinson’s poem about the effects of grief:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

I did wonder however whether Ferris intended the book to explore the issues of the poem, or whether he merely liked the phrase “The Feet, mechanical” (the title of part one) and built the entire book around that.  I had other moments of doubt too: The Unnamed is littered with what can only be deliberate examples of bad TV dialogue (“‘You stupid bastard!’ she cried between clenched teeth.  Angry tears came from her eyes like stubborn nails jerked out of brickwork.  ‘You don’t fucking tell me that?'”) and descriptive prose (“Overcast was riveted to the sky as grey to a battleship”; “Futility made off with his heart”) that had me scratching my head at their intent.

I didn’t really know what I thought of this book until after I’d finished it.  Eventually, it was Ferris’s willingness to give it to his characters (and readers) with both barrels that won me over.  It is its harshness, as much as its high-concept premise, that makes The Unnamed memorable.  As an allegory for our lack of control in our own lives, and the futility of our endeavours (well, the title does bring Beckett to mind) – and of ‘the only end of days’ – it is provocative and impressive.  “The author has made a darkly affecting book out of what appears to be unpromising material.”  That was Publishers’ Weekly on Lightman’s The Diagnosis.  I’d say it holds good for The Unnamed too.

Julian Gough: Jude: Level 1

Comedy is hard to do, or hard to do well.  A dramatic story, or a thriller, that doesn’t quite work is just dull or frustrating.  But comic writing that’s just a few degrees off is an embarrassment, an abomination, a horrible negative image of what it purports to be.  I knew from my student days that Julian Gough could turn an amusing lyric with his pop band Toasted Heretic, but had been frankly put off his novel Jude: Level 1 by the quote on the front which promised “a cross between Flann O’Brien, Father Ted and Morrissey.”

Jude: Level 1, Gough’s second novel, opens with a set piece which, published alone as ‘The Orphan and the Mob’, won the 2007 National Short Story Award.  It’s a frantic comic caper, narrated by eighteen-year-old orphan Jude from “the most desolate place in Ireland, and the last place God created”, as he shames his country by despoiling the prominent descendant of a national idol in the most embarrassing (and amusing) way imaginable.  Yet even here, amid liberal slapstick and an excess of Komic Kapitals, there are teeth: Gough pokes fun at the Irish tendency toward long memories of historic slights and anyone-but-the-English hero worship as a crowd responds to a rabble-rousing speech:

“It was in this place…” he said, with a generous gesture which incorporated much of Tipperary, “…that Eamonn DeValera…”

Everybody removed their hats.

“…hid heroically from the entire British army…”

Everybody scowled and put their hats back on.

“…during the War of Independence.  It was in this very boghole that Eamonn DeValera…”

Everybody removed their hats again.

“…had his Vision: A Vision of Irish Maidens dancing barefoot at the crossroads, and of Irish Manhood dying heroically while refusing to the last breath to buy English shoes…”

At the word English the crowd put their hats back on, though some took them off again when it turned out only to be shoes.  Others glared at them.  They put their hats back on again.

(Gough accused his Irish contemporaries of having long memories too, in a recent piece which attracted controversy: “what the FECK are writers in their 20s and 30s doing, copying the very great John McGahern, his style, his subject matter, in the 21st century?”)

There is also a nice dig at the Irish love-hate relationship with Europe: its fierce independence, tempered by the knowledge that its Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s (last seen retreating with its tail between its legs) was largely funded with European money.  “Grateful as we are to the Europeans,” roars the political speaker, “we should never forget that they are a shower of Foreign Bastards who would Murder us in our Beds given Half a Chance!”

All this makes for a cumulative tour de force, but after the orphan escapes the mob (sorry to spoil it for you), can Gough keep it up?  And do we want him to?  A little whimsy goes a long way, and there is a lot on show here.  Jude’s quest for his “Origins” takes him from “the Sodom of the West: Galway City” to “dear dirty Dublin” – and, after this book ends, beyond – and the journey is a riot of antic mayhem.  It takes in bikers, Leonardo diCaprio as an erectile Pinnochio, a case of mistaken identity with Stephen Hawking, and a sex scene on a camel, all delivered with considerable comic brilliance.  But brilliance can be exhausting, so fortunately, just as I was wondering if a 180-page novel can possibly be too long, the teeth return, sharper and bloodier, and Gough brings us back again and again to what’s wrong with Ireland.  We get portraits dripping with ridicule of, among others, Charles Haughey, the former Taoiseach who fell so far from grace that even before his death, he was practically unlibellable:

From the doorway of his palatial retirement mausoleum, former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey, the smoke curling from the barrel of  his rifle, trotted with dainty tread down the broad granite steps and across the gravel.  He was followed by the masked figure of Jimmy O’Bliss, and by Dan Bunne, the Supermarket Magnate and one of the great Political Donors of our Age.  Our greatest living Retailer, our greatest living Developer and our greatest living Politician!  We would have been naked, homeless and ideologically incoherent without them.  They had given us so much, no wonder they looked so Wrecked.

The vinegar dripping from Gough’s pen gets into full flood in the later sections of the book.  Modern Ireland, beneath its veneer of urbanity and multiculturalism, is as backward and parochial as ever.  “The Blacks get everything and we get fuck all!” cries one Dubliner, which surprises Jude:

“But you yourself,” I pointed out, “are a black man.”

“Dear God! Dear Jesus! The rumours were true!  My Dada a black man! My Mam a Nigger-Lover!  And I… a Nigger!  A Nigger!  In my house!  There will be no Nigger in my House!”

And with a great shout and his arms about his own shoulders he got his head in a headlock and threw himself out of his flat.

These serious (or seriocomic) underpinnings provide welcome ballast, some of which has even greater resonance today than when the book was first published in 2007: “Some priests were raped thousands of times, by hundreds of children, over a period of decades,” a Bishop tells Jude.  “Often a priest would move to another school to escape his tormentors, only to be set upon again.”

The closing scenes of the book surprise by bringing the reader to something like melancholy, and at this point I realised that Gough has turned an impressive trick.  He has written a very funny book where realism doesn’t get a look-in, but reality is ever-present.  It skirts the brink of outstaying its welcome and then, in the end, made me wish it had gone on longer.  As the subtitle suggests, I’m probably in luck.

Postscript: 7 Dec 2010
This post has had some more attention in the last day or two, ever since Julian Gough achieved the holy grail of literary promotion in our age: a tweet from Stephen Fry. He was linking to Gough’s article on the comic novel in Prospect, but what it made me realise was that Jude seems even more relevant now than it did ten months ago when I wrote the above. The wholesale financial humbling of Ireland which has been in the news in recent weeks, and the causes thereof, seem entirely apposite to a book in which one of the villains is a Fianna Fáil property developer.

Worth noting too, is that Gough predicted the global financial crisis with alarming accuracy in February 2007, six months before the beginning of the credit crunch, and 18 months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

It is beginning to look from these aspects that Gough is a modern seer whose word should not be doubted and whose wrath should not be incurred. I’d buy the book and read it, just in case.

Paul Murray: Skippy Dies

One of the ways I find out about forthcoming books these days is via Twitter, where many publishers have an online presence: and where Penguin have several.  Last year some of their people were talking about a new novel from an Irish writer I hadn’t heard of.  What struck me, and made me want to read it, was its snazzy design – like the US edition of Bolaño’s 2666, or early editions of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, this is a novel published in separate volumes inside a slipcase.  But is this an enhancement to the content, or a gimmick to distract us?

Skippy Dies comes pre-proofed against spoilers.  Not only does it tell you in the title, but it’s the first scene in the book: Skippy dies.  The rest of the book leads us up to, and away from, his death.

‘Skippy’ is Daniel Juster, a pupil at Ireland’s Seabrook College (“the oldest Catholic boys’ school in the country”), and the novel deals in the lives of students and teachers alike, enabling Murray to take as much pleasure in schoolboy mockery (French teacher Father Green is popularly known by the translation Père Vert) as in excruciating adult punnery (supply teacher Aurelie McIntyre, rejecting the lustful advances of colleagues, is “not-to-be-taken Aurelie”).  The witty flourishes decorate a serious topic: how teenage excitement at the possibilities of discovery (of multiple universes, drug-altered consciousness, the girls of St Brigid’s) gives way to adult apathy.  Howard, the adult heart of the novel, feels himself to be stuck in a rut, his life “a grey tapestry of okayness,” his uncertainty a very human frailty:

If he could just be certain that this was the life he wanted, and not just the life he’d ended up with because he was afraid to go after the one he wanted.

He is a history teacher, marvelling at how the displays erected in a colleague’s Geography classroom are

like a shrine to the harmonious working of the world: a panoply of facts and processes, natural, scientific, agricultural, economic, all coexisting peacefully on its walls, while the human fallout from these interactions, the corollary of coercion, torture, enslavement that accompanies every dollar earned, every step towards alleged progress, is left for his class: History, the dark twin, the blood-shadow.

Nonetheless the first book, ‘Hopeland’, is primarily comic in tone, with oodles of charm and spark that had me giddy with delight.  What made a particular pleasure was Murray’s willingness to throw the reader into his characters’ worlds without explanation – recurring elements from the cultural (‘Bethani’ the jailbait pop star) to the personal (Carl’s broken home, or Skippy’s ‘game’ with his dad). It creates a satisfying flurry of thoroughly modern life, into which is sandwiched a tangle of plots (Skippy’s swimming trials, his friend Ruprecht’s pursuit of multiple universes, Howard’s pursuit of Aurelie, the school’s demolition and reinvention).

In such a soapy, fantastical mix there are implausibilities: when we learn the source of Howard ‘the Coward’s nickname, the fate of one character from his past seems particularly unlikely.  Similarly, the divisions between the three books of Skippy Dies seem aptly placed, because such great chasms separate the parts: after the dramatic end of ‘Hopeland’, it seems extraordinary that life at the school – for Howard especially – can continue more or less unaffected in the second book, ‘Heartland’.  And in Book 3, ‘Ghostland’, after Skippy dies (again), his best friend Ruprecht changes personality more even than grief would warrant, while another character, Lori, responds to trauma in a way that seems too drama-serially neat.

The frustrations and meanderings of the second half – I was reminded of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which also seemed to lose its way after much brilliance – should not detract from Murray’s command of his material.  The scenes near the end, with an attempt to make contact with the late Skippy, are affecting.  And Murray has a versatile voice, ventriloquising everything from business-speak and ad-land jargon to teenage angst and youthful brio. The messiness that results can be a strength as well as a weakness.  Howard, in his history class, tells his pupils that:

History, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth.  The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense.  Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit.  And often that is quite a lot.

Not much is left out of Skippy Dies – and there is so much energy that it explodes out in unexpected directions.  When thumbing the book to write this post (a couple of months after I finished reading it), I was dazzled again by how much is in there, and remembered what it was that made me rush out (well, rush online) and order a copy of Murray’s first novel An Evening of Long Goodbyes while I was reading Skippy Dies.  Murray is a writer to watch; but also one worth reading now.