I read David Szalay’s second novel The Innocent last year and was impressed enough to keep an eye out for his next (though evidently not enough to blog about it). With his new book he has made a satisfying and stimulating experience out of unpromising subject matter, and marked himself out as a cert for Granta’s next Best of Young British Novelists list. (Incidentally, I’m told that the author’s surname is pronounced Zolloy and not, as I had been saying it, a sort of hard-edged chalet.)
Spring shows also that Szalay is a brave writer: if it takes guts to publish a book with a bold and challenging subject matter, then it takes even more to publish one with a hackneyed premise and still make it feel compelling. Contemporary England – the state of the nation – love, eh? Tch! – men and women, women and men … My proof copy actually has the cheek to call it “a love story unlike any you will have read.” Odder still, that’s right: here there is no why, and it’s a love story with no coup de foudre, boldly unconsoling, no happy ever after, no happy ever before, even.
Our lovers are James and Katherine, thirtysomethings. He was once a dotcom virtual millionaire, “in the vanguard of the new economy”, before the millennium bust, and now seeks “no more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay.” If James has let ambition slide, Katherine has never bothered with it to begin with, frittering her education on a job in a hotel lobby. This was where she met her ex, Fraser, a paparazzo. That relationship in itself may or may not be intended to mark Katherine down as a flawed character, but it’s clear that Szalay isn’t playing by the usual rules. His lovers aren’t especially ‘likeable’ – that undesirable desire – and their motives are hard to pin down.
They are, however, real: Katherine’s diffidence, James’s tenacity and maddening dedication to a doubtful cause, half terrier, half puppy. There is painful comedy – the comedy of recognition for many of us, I bet – when he extrapolates his worst fears from the tiniest clues during a brief telephone call with her. As for Katherine, her motto might be Abraham Maslow’s “It is not normal to know what you want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” She feels that “a sort of politeness” had led her into her relationship with James and its “fiasco”, its “episode of pure sexual misery”.
‘Will I see you this weekend?’ he said.
‘I don’t know. If you want to.’
‘I do want to.’ To that she said nothing. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘When?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. After the nightshift. Phone me.’
Spring makes the reader think of how we value things and why: the permanent, the temporary, the sure and the uncertain. Is happiness in the moment enough? Or must we always be looking to the next stage, as though seeing winter purely as a prelude to spring? Transformation is present in the macro scale too: the book is set just before the credit crunch got its jaws into us, with all the dramatic irony that implies for the subplots of horse racing ‘touches’, characters with 110% mortgages, and the notion that people in prosperous times are less happy. (Some of the state-of-the-nation stuff doesn’t quite gel, such as one character being a member of UKIP; this does however give us the novel trifle of seeing Nigel Farage and the word ‘statesmanlike’ in the same sentence.) Szalay’s juggling of personal and political shines brighter in his ability to handle the several aspects of a life – work, love, home, past – which is reminiscent of William Boyd when he was still good.
Impressive though it is, there are false notes scattered through Spring. What looks like a naughty bit of narrative sleight of hand (remember Andrew Sean Greer’s egregious Story of a Marriage?) appears when Szalay takes us into a character’s thoughts but then withholds the identity and words of someone they’re speaking to on the phone. (Other POV issues, more attributable to personal taste, irked me less.) A reiteration of the phrase “London light” throughout the text seems tacked on, and recalls Salter’s Light Years, a comparison from which Szalay inevitably does not emerge well (but who would?). Occasionally, fussy wording trips up the reader (James “made water in the dark” rather than urinating or pissing; he filled a “wire pannier” in M&S, not a basket). The last is a shame, but not fatal, because everywhere else Szalay’s writing is admirably clean and unaffected, driving the reader on with indecent haste and with just the occasional pause to admire the phrasemaking (“her heart seemed to hit a pothole,” or “toasted paninis that looked as if they had been flattened with a truck tyre”).
Spring frustrates the reader deliciously (“There was something very nice about watching the video when you knew you were going to win. If only life was like that”) while satisfying in an equal and opposite way. “Not knowing was what was hard,” one character observes, but when handled the right way, it can be the very quality that pleases most.