Adam Mars-Jones’ last novel Pilcrow was one of the curiosities of 2008. I was impressed by the writing but befuddled by the overall conceit – a book of fictional minutiae which was seemingly endless (in both senses). However it matured in my memory sufficiently that it became one of my favourite books of that year, and I began eagerly to await the sequel. Three years later, here it is.
Cedilla begins with an advantage over Pilcrow. Back then, we were in the dark. Now we know that this is a multi-part story, that John Cromer is here for the long haul. And long is the operative word: Cedilla’s 733 pages dwarf Pilcrow’s 525, and apparently with these two volumes we are only halfway through Cromer’s tale. This knowledge is important (of which more anon), but it also makes it worthwhile for me to make a rare reference to the blurb of a book. How do you get a reader not only to read 1,250 pages of tightly-written prose with not an awful lot of dialogue or ‘action’, but to look forward to the next 1,250? The answer in this case is charm: Mars-Jones starts his charm offensive on the inside flap, with a beautifully judged blurb. After a brief overture, we get a refrain of the line from the blurb of Pilcrow: “John Cromer is the weakest hero in literature – unless he’s one of the strongest.” It’s hard to overstate how much this simple reiteration pleased me, and drove me into the book with the rare feeling that the text, and not just the reading experience, had begun before I’d even reached the first page. The charm continues further down the blurb, with the very Mars-Jones observation that, “None of the reviews of Pilcrow explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars, but that was the drift of opinion.”
Charm is how John Cromer gets his way too. He needs other people’s help, being so limited in his abilities. In Pilcrow we learned how he was treated for childhood Still’s Disease in precisely the wrong way, leaving him with fused joints and unable to walk, not to mention, at four feet nine inches, “just a little taller than Edith Piaf. She was the lady on the radio who had no regrets […], but wouldn’t she have wanted to be a tiny bit taller?” He gets his way too with pedantic attention to the symbols of language (so he writes coördination and homœopathy) and revels in medical words (“there’s nothing like a technical vocabulary for conferring the illusion of control”). John’s control over facts has to stand in place of his control over events. He is marginalised by doctors (though perhaps no more than any patient in the deferential 1960s):
Luckily my [bones] didn’t hurt. I thought they did, but I was wrong. One of Ansell’s deputies explained that since the knee joint was fully fused and had no moving parts, there could be no pain. In those days it was up to the doctor to decide whether the patient was in pain or not.
Other than occasional bursts into Technicolor life (such as the excruciating description of the pain after his hip operations), John’s wry tone is more or less consistent throughout. This presents certain challenges for a book which is already a masterpiece of contrasts in scale: epic in length, trivial in particulars, a life both exceptional and unexceptional, described in paragraphs fat on detail but rich in entertainment. To criticise it in all its extravagant tedium is almost futile: it is what it is. “Getting into the room is the scene,” said Mars-Jones in an interview on Pilcrow: John’s is “a life without shortcuts.” This slowness, this step-by-step approach are important because they reflect the character’s difficulty in the ordinary business of life. Despite his belief in his own charm, John’s determination to live a close to normal life on his own terms means others can find him “difficult to deal with. Impossible to satisfy.”
He quietly rebels against the assumption that he must sit in his Tan-Sad quietly and wait to die. His life continues to take place in a series of institutions: school, hospital, ultimately Cambridge University. However, if Pilcrow saw him largely static and subject to others’ well-meaning whims, Cedilla is an account of his struggles toward independence. “If I let the waters of home close over my head I would never be heard from again. No door would close behind me with any finality, but no new door would open ever.” He struggles to match his own desire to be a part of the world (even at the edge of it) with the restrictions society places on him.
A foul mouth isn’t ladylike, and it isn’t disabledlike either. […] Swearing is dirty, and we’re above it. That may be the mechanism. Swearing is powerful. We’re not entitled. Perhaps the two notions converge in some way I don’t see.
Being of limited ability to make physical journeys, John embarks on spiritual travels instead. After developing form of “home-grown meditation” (“instead of the pain going away, I went away from the pain”), he proceeds to explore eastern faiths, even seeking a guru of his own, thousands of miles away. “The text changes your life not by virtue of being true but because you are ready for the transformation it announces.” For someone with John’s difficulties, becoming part of a religious tradition which regards pain as unreal is a perfectly logical response. It also provides him with a label with which to identify himself, a better one than that assigned to him by circumstances. “Special treatment was exactly what I didn’t want, not noticing that it can sometimes be the product of ordinary kindness.” When he goes to university, the pleasure of “fairytale privileges,” such as a lock on his door, bolsters his sense of independence, which comes to an affecting climax at the end of the book.
Cedilla, like Pilcrow, is often funny about John’s disability without belittling it. One comic highlight is a scene involving Astral Weeks, a Mars bar, and “the signed confession of my self-abuse.” He does his damnedest to explore his sexuality, and offers false modesty on his lack of descriptive powers: “Why should I sift through the various individuating traits to convey a vivid impression when all anyone needs to say to pick me out, apparently, is ‘John’ and then, ‘You know, John in a wheelchair.'” Nor is he wholly sympathetic, being a terrible snob, though at least self-aware about it:
We watched [ITV] ‘just to see how awful it is’, to be amazed at what lower people found entertaining. Our pleasures lay some distance from our principles, and often the things we said we liked did nothing for us.
One of the most appealing qualities of Cedilla is its verisimilitude – at times it feels as though the book should have an index – which Mars-Jones achieves by dedicated reference to unexpected but realistic details. As well as obscure but real books on homœopathy and gardening, there are comic subplots about celebrities local to John’s home town of Bourne End: John’s mother becomes practically housebound for fear of bumping into the intimidatingly clever Tom Stoppard, while Michael Aspel runs other drivers off the road like a televisual Mr Toad. (No ‘I ♥ the 1970s’ clichés here, though Dymotape does make a late appearance.) These give the invented people and events which are tied in with them almost too much reality.
In everything I have written so far, I have dealt with only a scattering of details from Cedilla. It is a mammoth volume: part of an even greater one. The whole undertaking must lie somewhere between brilliance and madness. Its length inevitably becomes part of what the book is about. It is necessary to overlook this to get the most from it, otherwise the unvarying tone and foreknowledge of no ending – just a stopping – will wreck it. The way to approach it therefore is to imagine each section to be part of a very slim book which must be savoured; as a mountaineer dividing the ascent into single steps. Indeed, as one goes smaller and smaller in scale until reading it from page to page, then line to line – imagine! – the standard of writing comes into its own. Each sentence is a small jewel of exquisite design; a tiny Crunchie bar. Sympathetic, funny, heartfelt, true. When read this way, one would be happy for the book to go on forever – which is just as well, really.