“You Can Imagine The Details For Yourself”: Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen”

Ottessa Moshfegh is one of those debut novelists whose first book in fact comes freighted with expectation. Beloved of The Paris Review, recipient of several awards, and, despite her much-heralded absence from social media, something already of a “personality” in literary circles, Moshfegh’s appearance on the 2016 Booker shortlist is not the surprise triumph of a rank outsider that it first appears to be.

That Eileen impresses despite all this is testament to the quality of its craft. Set in 1964 New England, and focusing on the eponymous protagonist during the week leading up to the Christmas of that year, the novel has all the claustrophobic intimacy of the short story – the form’s tart phrase-making, its taste for vivid imagery – and yet is expertly paced and packaged as a novel. Moshfegh leaps and bounds, then, over the hurdle which usually does for short story writers tackling their first novel-length project. This books works thoroughly as a novel, is a total formal success: it is both a compelling page-turner and an expansive conjuration of interiority.

Which brings us to character. Eileen has little time for any individuals beyond its titular anti-heroine – even the novel’s change-maker, the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca Saint John, is given a cliched, noir-ish treatment which renders her inaccessible as an individual. We experience her, and every other character – from Eileen’s alcoholic father to Randy, her oblivious crush at the young offendor’s institute where she works – through the filter of the narrator’s consciousness. It is a function of the extent to which Moshfegh conjures Eileen in her entirety that it therefore becomes almost impossible to read the other characters any more deeply than Eileen herself does.

This might be a flaw in another novel, but Eileen is ultimately a book about understanding and comprehension. Eileen is profoundly estranged from her own body. She abuses laxatives, is revolted by her own sexuality, and eats only compulsively (“I went in and bought a Boston cream, ate it in one gulp, as I was wont to do, and walked out immediately remorseful” [p. 56]). When she reflects at one point that “a friend is someone who helps you hide the body” [p. 97], she is not just teasing, as she does throughout, the crime she warns us from the off to expect. As a child, Eileen experienced no love from her parents – in one of the most memorable of the novel’s many flashbacks, Eileen recalls “a yellow rectangle of light” turning to blackness as her mother closed the door to the dangerously steep cellar stairs down which her daughter had just, unforgivably, fallen (p. 66). Her mother long dead and still stuck in her childhood home at 24, Eileen’s house-bound, raging father continues to abuse her and their relationship: “The worst crime I could commit in his eyes was to do anything for my own pleasure, anything outside of my daughter lay duties” (p. 158). There are intimations, too, of incest.

This twisted upbringing, which forms the sum total of her experience, has left Eileen unable, too, to understand others. She is filled with frustrated rage, is herself an alcoholic, and hates everyone and everything as the novel opens, imagining herself as a Joan of Arc accidentally born into the life of a nobody. “I was the only one whose pain was real,” she insists at one point (p. 118). She is thus unlikeable in almost every way, up to and including abusing others in her turn: in one darkly comic moment, her father drunkenly complains to the police that his daughter hides all his shoes from him to prevent him leaving the house; they discard his report as the ramblings of a crazy old man, but in fact his shoes are indeed locked permanently in the trunk of Eileen’s car. It is one of the novel’s quietly radical statements to render a female character so repellent: we are used, perhaps, to Holden Cauldfield and Patrick Bateman, both of whom Eileen resembles to one extent or another, but less so to Esther Greenwood; Eileen is a reminder that The Bell Jar was written fifty-three years ago (and published the year before the one in which Eileen is set) … and that we still haven’t got over the very expectations which so trap Eileen and the turnings of blind eyes which facilitate the abuse that has bent her so fully out of shape. “There are no prizes for good little girls,” she reminds us at several junctures (p. 73).

Eileen objectifies the men and women in her life, has no sympathy for the brutalised boys resident at her place of work, and even when apparently enraptured by someone can develop no empathy for or connection with them. That almost everyone else in the novel is similarly attenuated gives the novel a terrible bleakness that its narrative frame, set at a half-century’s remove from the main events and told from the point of a view of a much older Eileen, cannot entirely dispel. “It’s hard to imagine that this girl, so false, so irritable, so used, was me,” this older Eileen opines; but her references to repeated marriages, numerous empty flings, and her apparent continued lack of understanding of many of the drivers of her story’s plot, provide little redemptive material for the attentive reader.

In fact, at times I read Eileen as I do America Psycho: as the essentially deluded outpourings of a narrator so unreliable as to make them an outright liar. Indeed, the over-riding tone of the novel and its climactic events seem so generically and stylistically divorced that we seem positively encouraged towards this reading. Stylistically, the novel throughout is Eileen’s work rather than Moshfegh’s – though sentences and paragraphs are turned expertly, often diction and turn of phrase are naive (“It was 1964, so much on the horizon” [p. 17]) – but those scenes in which the crime at the novel’s centre and climax is revealed and explained seem in some ways to belong to a different, less interesting and conflicted, book. There’s nothing explicit in the novel that confirms Eileen as a novel of this sort; but there is a generic slippage, from literary to noir to gothic and back again, that doesn’t quite have the proper intonation. The rest of the novel is so well-crafted that it is hard to write this off as poor writing; it is surely a feature, not a bug.

All that said, and for all its scatological content and bold approach to gender and issues of abuse, Eileen also feels curiously old-fashioned. Its 1960s setting renders it a little safely distant, and its relatively straight-forward first-person voice adds few wrinkles to the usual template of the unreliable, unlikeable narrator. It is part of its success, perhaps, that the novel reads like a period piece – like Patricia Highsmith for the Vice generation. That it reads already like a rediscovered classic is one of the reasons, I am sure, it has been shortlisted for the Booker – and a very good reason, I suspect, why it should be considered a favourite. But the canonical air belies the novel’s decidedly more violent, and more vituperative, heart. Eileen is a novel that persuades us to gulp down an awful lot of nasty stuff, and experience it as a pleasure; its familiarity may be part of its spell. But familiar it sometimes feels regardless.

“People Don’t Change”: Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara-A Little LifeI’m not sure I can recall off-hand a reading experience quite so odd as the one I had whilst making my way through Hanya Yanagahira’s A Little Life. The last of 2015’s Booker-shortlisted novels I had to read, in many ways this novel is, excepting Marlon James’s winner, the most memorable: 720 pages long, it is a bizarre mix of bildungsroman, misery memoir, Franzen-ish lit, and family saga. It begins with four friends in college, and makes its way to their 50s and 60s in simultaneously dilatory and episodic fashion, slowly writing each of them out of their own story until the last word is given to a character who has always been on the outside of their cohort. It is a novel with often unreadably detailed descriptions of self-harm and sex abuse, which in reality spends a much larger part of its time on pure math and modern art. It should be a thorough mess, and yet it is entirely immersive. I’m not at all sure it works, but I was never bored by it.

This discombobulation is, for the novel’s most vocal cheerleaders, its point:

To understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera. The book is scaled to the intensity of Jude’s inner life, and for long passages it forces the reader to experience a world that’s brutally warped by suffering.

Jude is the novel’s central character, the member of that opening quartet who is, at first, the quietest and most mysterious – but whose story soon comes to dominate the others’. Indeed, ‘dominate’ is the only possible word: such is the extent of Jude’s suffering that its devastating effects both on his body and his psyche come to make greater and greater demands upon those closest to him. Found, abandoned a baby, by a group of monks, Jude is sexually abused at their school for boys before escaping with Brother Luke, the only member of the fraternity who has shown his kindness; Luke proceeds to pimp Jude out to other men, ultimately also taking the nine-year-old boy as his own lover; years later, Luke hangs himself in a hotel bathroom adjacent to Jude’s bed when the police finally make their raid. After further abuse by the counsellors and care home staff charged with his safe-keeping, Jude breaks out on his own and becomes a male prostitute; one night he is found by Dr Traylor, who promptly locks Jude in his basement for months on end and subjects him to sexualised beatings; when Traylor finally lets Jude free, it is only to chase him down the road in a car and repeatedly run over him, breaking Jude’s back.

The point of A Little Life is that it is impossible – utterly and entirely – to get over that sort of abuse. The likelihood of that sort of abuse actually happening is not addressed. In this, it short-circuits the routinely redemptive, and mostly mimetic, promise of the novel as a form, which insists people can change and grow over an allotted time, defeating their personal demons and growing stronger through trauma. This happens to no one in Yanagahira’s book – everything more or less stays the same. So, too, does the setting: from the day Jude meets his new college buddies (the angelic social worker who takes charge of Jude’s case following the Traylor incident manages to encourage Jude to apply to university right before dying of a terrible cancer), it is impossible to locate the novel’s events in time. We appear to be in an eternal present, where everyone always has a cellphone and no one ever discusses politics. This, more or less, is the reason A Little Life fails to impress its detractors:

In proper melodramatic manner, Jude goes from the pits straight to, if not the top, the upper middle class. The ghastly litany of his childhood sufferings is at least coherent. Jude, an adult player in a melodramatic lifestyle novel, in which the point is to observe the way the passing of time affects the cast of characters, is static.

That’s from Christopher Lorentzen’s entertainingly vicious review of the novel in the London Review of Books. He also cites the review from which my first quotation was taken, Garth Greenwell’s in The Atlantic. Their readings are two sides of the same coin: Greenwell supposes that Yanagihara’s project is to queer the Great American Novel; Lorentzen that this may well be the case but that you can’t ignore the demands of the form in which you choose to write. I think Lorentzen over-emphasises the novel’s focus on the abuse and self-harm – it takes up but a fraction, albeit an indelible one, of the whole novel. But I also think that Greenwell forgives the novel’s trespasses in an attempt to prove his theory: that, in his words, Yanagihara’s “characters suffer relatively little anxiety about the public reception of their sexual identities” may help him prove his point, but is very much part of the novel’s strange weightlessness, its sense of unreality.

The novel’s less partisan reviewers have accepted this whilst arguing that its immersiveness, the intensity with which I, too, found the novel gripped me, allows it to go astray in other ways: “The novel is brilliantly redeemed by Yanahigara’s insistence on Jude’s right to suffer,” suggests Alex Preston at the end of a review in the Guardian which seems negative until its final moments; likewise, Jon Michaud is ambivalent in the New Yorker, arguing that, “Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” Why the need for this special pleading? Implicit in the need to argue for the novel is an acceptance that there is an awful lot of room for improvement in this young writer’s work -Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life was written in just eighteen months following the surprise success of her first. In a weird way, the reception of the book reminds of the rapture that greeted James Frey’s now much-maligned A Million Little Pieces: people sort of know it’s wrong, but it’s just so readable (Brigid Delaney offers excellent chattering-class evidence of this in the Guardian).

I also think, though, that it’s because the novel contains so much material. It is full of stuff – about gender and race and poverty and consumerism – and in its almost naive insistence that it can and should be able to talk about everything without having to pause to explain itself I think it makes a connection that is unusually personal with its reader. At one point, Jude – who understand how lucky he is to have been literally adopted by the upper middle class of an improbably liberal and wealthy enclave of New York City that is so detached from the world beyond, and so shocked when that world intrudes, that the novel’s society sometimes reads science fictionally – sighs that he is wasting his talent in corporate law, and perhaps should have remained a poorly-paid public attorney. We gasp that A Little Life has the chutzpah not just to short circuit the pleasures of the bildungsroman but court our frustration at its central character’s apparent lack of gratitude for his improperly fortunate lot in later life (at this stage, he has partnered off with the impossible good-looking Willem, a movie-star actor and a member of the opening quartet, which is rounded off by a lauded international artist and a star architect).

The novel can be seen to boil down simply to a parable about us all, about the impossibility of finding meaning: “He wants you to tell him that his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.” [p. 563]  It barely matters that Jude’s rags-to-riches story is implausible, his abuse improbable and his self-harm gratuitous; what matters is that, in experiencing both extremes, his remains ultimately “a little life”, rendered meaningful not by his suffering or his success, but by friendship. Near the end of the book, Willem – Jude’s only love, remember, and the only person with whom he can even come close to consummating an adult relationship – dies in a horrid car crash. Before he does, however, he opines: “‘I know my life’s meaningful because’ – and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued – ‘because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.'” [p. 688]  That’s it. 720 pages, and the novel has so apparently tiny an ambition for us all.

That Janus-faced quality – the huge girth for the bathetic moral, the graphic violence for the coy context – is both the novel’s project and its great frustration. This brings us back to Lorentezen and Greenwell, of course: so which of them is right? Is the novel a trainwreck or a masterpiece? I think, perhaps like Jude, it is neither one extreme nor the other, but something contingent and cobbled-together. I think it may well become a classic cult novel. I’m certainly still turning it over in my head, and it reveals new sides to itself each time – surely one sign of a rich text.

But, on that ever-present other hand, it’s also the sign of a confused one – and the prose style, rarely incompetent but regularly hammy and distended, doesn’t help. I keep worrying away at something: that Lorentzen and I share a favourite character from the novel in the shape of JB, the out-spoken artist of the quartet of friends who gives lone voice to any of the novel’s politics or contexts (he gives Jude the nickname ‘Postman’, because he is post-racial, post-sexual … post-everything). “He’s temporarily ushered out of the narrative,” writes Lorentzen, “after he says to Jude: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ JB’s also the one hooked on crystal meth. What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?” The person, perhaps, who is addicted instead to this faintly false, wilfully trippy, trance-like novel. And, ultimately, I’m not sure literature should act like meth.

 

“Just A Body Needing To Be Clothed and Fed”: Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”

The Year of the RunawaysVery late in Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, Avtar, a young Indian man whose preceding twelve months of illegal work and dodging immigration officials in England we have followed for more than four hundred pages, calls home.

He could see her frowning. “Anyway, what have you been up to? Anything fun?”

He opened his mouth but no words came out. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to her. (p. 436)

If it aims for anything, The Year of the Runaways intends to ensure that, were we on the other end of the telephone line to Avtar, he would be able to share – and we would be able to understand. It is as evocative, engaging, and convincing a depiction of the immigrant experience as I have read. By this, I mean it is not about second- or third-generation communities seeking fused identities, as in Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and that likewise it is not a piece of over-dramatised pedagogy like Rose Tremain’s worthy but thickly-egged The Road Home. It most reminds me of the sections in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in which its protagonist arrives and begins to build a life in America; but Sahota’s characters are adults, not children, and each of them is stressing not the need for assimilation but the temporary nature of their arrangements: stay a few years, earn a lot of money; marry an Indian man so he can gain a visa, and do good by sacrificing just a year of matrimony.

Of course, these best laid plans go inevitably awry: the student finds it difficult to pass his exams, and thus retain his visa, whilst also working the two jobs he needs to barely pay off the loan sharks who funded his transit from India; the British-born wife realises all too quickly that “just a year” is time enough for everything to change; and still others, such as the high-caste Randeep, with whose sister Avtar is in love, have as the end-point of their endeavour residency in Britain – and the opportunity permanently to bring their families with them.

All this takes place in 2003, when marriage and student visas were easier to come by; but the variegated humanity of so-called “economic migrants” is of acute current interest. Randeep is mockingly referred to as “prince” by other denizens of the packed house he and Avtar share with nine other illegal workers at the novel’s opening; he will eventually become homeless, and be turned away from a gurdwara that might once have coveted his place in their congregation. Another of the house’s residents, Tochi, is of a low caste – whenever his attempts to hide his roots fail he is failingly ejected from Indian communities both immigrant and British-born – and yet makes far more money, is a cannier earner and saver, than the more middling – and more widely accepted – student, Avtar. In this way, the reader is shown how the immigrant experience can be flattening – it forces all who go through it into certain shapes, regardless of their past experiences or positions; but also, and most importantly, the novel stresses the characters’ continuity of personality and perception: that is, it teaches us to consider the immigrant’s individuality whilst also emphasising the degrading competition in which they are engaged. In a year in which the British press has dealt up dehumanising copy by the column-foot, this is a timely literary effort.

The novel’s key theme is duty. Very early on, Randeep and Avtar discuss what drove them to leave their native country:

“He said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Randeep turned to Avtar. “Do you think that’s true?”

“I think he’s a sentimental creep. We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.” (p. 7)

From Randeep’s duty to his family to Avtar’s to his creditors; from the religious piety of Narinder, Randeep’s visa wife to Tochi’s orphaned responsibility to himself, The Year of the Runaways breaks down each character’s set of obligations and forces upon each unpalatable choices. No individual emerges from the impossible dilemmas they are set, and even good intentions have little chance of turning out for the better – Narinder’s choice to marry Randeep is powered by a previous refusal to marry another Indian migrant, who was later found dead on the side of a Russian road, and yet things do not go well for either of them. The novel describes a series of practical challenges requiring utilitarian solutions – and doesn’t pretend that anything is perfect.

Indeed, The Year of the Runaways rather insists on the unsatisfactory nature of any response to the complex factors that drive migration and the black and grey economies which depend on it. It is the reader’s duty, indeed, to come to understand this – to empathise with and advocate for individuals simply trying to make a good fist of slim hands. This is a novel with modest hopes. “Happiness is a pretty precarious state, Randeep,” Narinder says in the perhaps too-neat epilogue. “I’m content. That’s more than enough. That’s more than most.” (p. 462)

If the national – indeed, international – conversation around migrants and migration were of a higher quality, we might not need a novel like this. As it is, a call to understand migrants on their own terms is a radical enough thing to do, and The Year of the Runaways – well researched, delicately written and humane – feels like an important novel. It has a breadth of emotional vision, an imagination, that lends it a calm wisdom. On the other hand, it is almost quaintly straight-forward – its twelve-month structure split into four seasonal parts, no less – and feels almost old-fashioned in its strict third person limited style, its linear narrative with its polite flashbacks, and its social realist perspective. Its interest arises from its complicated ethics and its refusal to talk down to its readers (there are no translations of its frequent Punjabi phrases, for example). But I can’t help but feel that its place on the Booker shortlist is as much an expression of how bad our novels and our nation have been at talking about the things this novel talks about as it is of its considerable, but often conventional, qualities.

“You Know My Methods”: Habit, Tradition, and Sherlock Holmes

The Strand, 1892“Don’t you get a bit sick of it?” This was the entirely understandable question posed to me by Anna’s brother, Joe, this Christmas Eve when conversation turned to my tradition of reading the same short story each and every year on this date. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, as I’ve written in previous years, is not without its faults; even if it is also one of the tightest and cleanest of the Sherlock Holmes canon, an annual reading of any tale this slight might understandably shade familiarity into contempt.

But Christmas is about tradition, and another word for tradition is ‘habit’. Good, bad, or indifferent, habits all share the characteristic of being immune to fatigue and, indeed, to good sense: one follows a tradition, and indulges a habit, because it’s what one does. Often, a habit is a nervous tic; other times, it’s simply something that makes you feel comfortable (the two kinds are of course related). For me, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ is a habit – and one whose virtue is almost multiplied by over-exposure. Why does it make me feel Christmassy? Because I always read it at Christmas. Such is the power – and the attraction- of a tradition.

Not coincidentally, this story being a festive one and Arthur Conan Doyle not being quite the amateur he is sometimes made out to be, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, a story in which a priceless gem is found in the crop of a seasonal goose, revolves around the theme of habit. When Watson calls upon Sherlock Holmes on the second morning after Christmas, he finds the great detective ensconced in his rooms in the way we might often imagine him: “lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a pipe-rack within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand.” Holmes himself is a creature of his own patterns – indeed, his understanding of, in some ways his enslavement to, systems is the means by which he makes the deductions which solve his cases.

Inevitably, the same is true here: Holmes deduces so much about Henry Baker, the man who loses his Christmas goose with such consequence, because the man’s hat gives away such a wealth of information about his habits (and part of the degradation that has led Baker to rely on a pub’s Christmas club is the result of another habit that Holmes infers – drink). In thus managing to make contact with Baker, Holmes proceeds to the marketstall from which the goose hailed. The poultry vendor is at first reluctant to provide further information; Holmes tricks him out of his story by playing on the gambling addiction from which the detective infers the retailer suffers. Habit smooths down the intricacies of human behaviour to predictable patterns – it makes the detective’s job easier.

When Holmes commutes his own sentence on the thief of the piece at the story’s close, he does so because to “send him to gaol now [… would be to] make him a gaol-bird for life” (that is, crime, too, can become a habit). But he also does so because the most important of Christmas traditions is forgiveness. In this way, traditions – habits – enable us to access the spirit of annual festivities. For those of us without the fate of would-be criminals in our Victorian hands, they provide the frameworks which remind us to relax, or the structures which provide us the opportunities – the excuses – to see old friends and family. They offer punctuation. And that, I suppose, is why I am as yet still not sick of this well-worn old story.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

 

“The Real Palpable Reach of Loss”: Chigozie Obioma’s “The Fishermen”

imageWhen Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen is good, it is arresting. In these moments, it’s not hard to see how this story of four Nigerian brothers in the 1990s put its nose ahead of the competition to become  the only debut on this year’s Booker shortlist: its carefully paced moments of sudden and irrevocable violence rip through an often temperate narrative, offering – and you’ll forgive the alliterative assonance – pungent punctuation to what increasingly reads like a fable, an allegory of lost opportunity and squandered hopes.

Early on, the boys experience an encounter with the man they know only as “MKO”, whom the reader may or may not know better as Moshood Abiola, the ill-fated Social Democratic candidate for president during Nigeria’s controversial 1993 general election, who ran on the slogan, “How To Make Nigeria A Better Place for All” – and whose presumed victory was never announced, the candidate instead eventually finding himself in prison. The great man gives the brothers a calendar which they keep from then on as a treasured possession – its trashing is a key episode in the slow decay of their relationships – and his career is imparted dimly but deliberately as he recedes from the daily life of the children and Nigeria slides, with consequence but almost invisibly in the narrative, towards the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha.

The storyteller’s priorities lie elsewhere. Our narrator, after all, is a child. More correctly, Ben, the youngest of the four central brothers, is  telling the story from a vantage point in the future, but his style is tricksily naive: there is very little hindsight inserted into his telling (thus the sketchy understanding of the political context of MKO’s career), and this more than anything else is what gives the novel its fable-like quality:

The winged insects, as small as the brown brush flies, would leap out of porous holes in the earth in a sudden invasion and converge wherever they saw light – it drew them magnetically. The people of Akure often rejoiced at the arrival of the locusts. For, rain healed the land after the dry seasons during which the inclement sun, aided by the Harmattan wind, tormented the land. […] But the rain would come down – usually on the day after the locust invasion – with a violent storm, plucking out roofs, destroying houses, drowning many and turning whole cities into strange rivers. (p. 134)

This sort of allusive style – almost showily eloquent whilst also oral and demotic – is dominant throughout. Each chapter, for instance, is named after an animal, with the creature assigned to a particular character or feature of the story (“Father was an eagle”, “Ikenna was a python”, “Hope was a tadpole”). This in particular becomes a little wearisome, and not a little pat for a story that stretches the boundaries of the parable form: despite the mythic resonances, there are no lessons to be learned here, no great moral victories are won. At the close of the novel, the characters having been ruthlessly punished for various transgressions, Ben is told by his father, “What you have done is great.” (p. 285)

Indeed, the boys’ father is in many ways the central tragic figure of the novel: an upwardly mobile member of the emerging middle class, he over-reaches his grasp by disastrously little; he punishes his boys brutally for failing to live up to his often arbitrary expectations; leaves the family for a big job in the city, returning only when it is too late to put events back on track; and, at the end, cannot see the ways in which his demands and dreams have both contributed to and been negated by the actions he endorses.

If anything, his wife is even more carefully characterised: a woman of huge heart and discipline, she tries her very best – and far harder than her would-be grander husband – to ensure a harmonious family. When she inevitably, unsupported, fails, she is more viscerally affected than anyone, and yet never loses her moral compass (the father does not congratulate his son in her earshot). “She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in the forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm,” Ben tells us in one of the novels many supple and apposite expressions of the bonds of family. (p. 103)

If I’m being cagey about the precise nature of that storm, it’s because those explosive moments of violence are best experienced without foreknowledge – they need to arrive with the same unsurprised shock that a sailor will experience the first thunderclap he half-expected. The trouble begins, however, early on, in the sort of encounter one finds in the Bible or Aesop: on one of the boys’ clandestine fishing trips (“I sweat and suyffer to send you to school to receive a Western education as civilized men,” their father rants, “but you chose instead to be […] Fish-a-men!” [p. 39), a madman tells the eldest brother, Ikenna, that he will be murdered by one of his fellow fishermen – in other words, by a sibling. This seed slowly germinates throughout the novel, needlessly but inevitably bearing bitter fruit. The senselessness of this cause only emphasises the fatalism of its effect: “we cannot flip precedence,” sighs the third of the brothers in age, Obembe. “We cannot bring forward what is behind, nor can we bring what is forward back.” (p. 197)

In this way, and despite being occasionally if only faintly over-worked, The Fishermen becomes an anti-fable, a story with all the grace notes and chord structures of a parable, but none of its codas – and certainly nothing approaching the moral certainty of its plagal cadences. The novel would be an elegy for lost hope if, figured as a tragedy from the start, it had any to begin with; as it is, it’s a valuable lesson in how unnecessarily self-defeating human beings can be, and how sad it is to watch them be so. I can quite see how this novel, which closes by calling on young Nigerians to become one of the “wool-white birds that appear in flocks after a storm”, would have been the one to give Marlon James a run for his money.

 

“It Happens All The Time”: Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread”

Anne Tyler-A Spool of Blue ThreadWhilst reviewing the Women’s Prize shortlist earlier this year, I never made it to what is reputed to be Anne Tyler’s final novel (bar an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series). I did, though, wonder about its reception in my review of Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests:

The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.”

I went on to consider Waters’s current reputation, so stratospheric that she doesn’t require defenders. But of course upon reading A Spool of Blue Thread as part of my belated Booker catch-up, I thought back to the words of John Blades: “annoyingly synthetic”, “cockeyed humanism”, “deliberately ingratiating”. Reader, I confess: I find it hard to disagree with him on the evidence of this book (Tyler has otherwise escaped my reading).

A Spool of Blue Thread takes place in a sort of timeless 1950s, in which lugubrious gentlemen drive their Datsuns and Buicks to the train station to pick up the prodigal son, and women in cotton dresses disagree about how best to do the washing up; its characters, social workers and carpenters, build things and nurture them (I will leave you to guess which gender is assigned which role); should the Baltimore in which this novel is set resemble in any way the decaying American dystopia of David Simon, I can only assume that the characters are unaware. There are certainly refugees and homeless, and they are invited for dinner to the large home that forms the epicentre of this family saga; but we never follow them back to their own homes, where they are sent with the leftover dessert in a box, and are given the distinct sense that, even in the simple act of reaching out to Them (and they are absolutely Other), some sort of moral victory has been won.

I’m being a bit unfair: the social worker of Tyler’s Whitshank family, its matriarch Abby, is shown to be a woman whose children feel neglected by her in favour of her “orphans”; the novel doesn’t quite endorse her apparent belief that inviting people to a large meal at which they’re made to feel a bit uncomfortable is some sort of virtue; and, most brutally, the novel afflicts her with dementia, as if to emphasise the process of forgetting in which the entire family is explicitly engaged:

The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever. (p. 74)

Which is all well and good – the bizarre stasis bubble in which the novel takes place is part of the point. But that passage is also what is wrong with the novel, as well as explanation of it: that flattening of its contours inherent in the universalisation of what at first seems to be being held as an angular, problematic quality; that breezy tone which appears not to want to hover over or consider anything very deeply; and, of course, the deadening homespun insistence on telling you What The Moral Of The Story Is.

“An outsider might say that these weren’t stories at all,” we read at one point (p. 71), and the novel seems to have a direction – to make us care, but also to complicate the Whistshanks’ own self-obsession. If indeed any of this was imparted in that sort of arch ironic tone of Austen (and Tyler shares a lot else with her, in deceptive complexity of her structures and dogged insistence that the “domestic” isn’t somehow lesser material for the novel), then I’d be fine. But I’m not sure it is: Tyler’s novel has nuances, for sure, but they are details pushed into high relief. Take Denny, the black sheep of the Whitshanks, the only member of the family who lives away from Baltimore, keeping his private life exactly that and refusing to engage in their heartland conservatism of home and work. The novel begins and ends with him, even though he is absent for much of it (as a way, I think, of emphasising that life does exist beyond the Whitshanks’ home); and yet, of course, he is intensely interested in all the most important parts of the family’s life – he’s the guy who points at what we’re meant to notice.

“In my opinion,” Red said, “going to Florida for the winner is kind of like … not paying your dues. Not standing fast for the hard part.”

“Are you calling Baltimore summers the easy part?” Merrick asked. Then, as if to prove her point, she said, “Whew!” and left off petting Heidi to bat a hand in front of her face. “Can somebody turn that fan up a notch?

Stem rose and gave the fan cord a pull.

can see why you might want two houses,” Denny spoke up. “Or even more than two. I get that. I bet sometimes when you wake in the morning you don’t know where you are for a moment, am I right? You’re completely disoriented. […] I love that feeling. […] You don’t know your place in the world; you’re not pegged; you’re not nailed into this one single same old never-ending spot.” (pp. 169-70)

Do you see?

There are a lot of names in the above, no? Red is the pater familias, the crotchety-but-good-hearted proprieter of the family construction firm; Stem is the favoured son, in fact adopted as a boy when his indigent father, a worker of Red’s, died unexpectedly. Merrick is the upwardly-mobile aunt. And so on. Few of these characters emerge from their sketches; they are pegged, as Denny is intended to show, in a family in which 22 is too young to marry if you’re male and too old not to be married if you’re female. And yet this conservatism is never indicated to be the problem, rather encoded into the novel as a whole: the Whitshanks, it holds, are “one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just … specialness” (p. 19, my emphasis, but not my adjective).

Much of the novel is imparted in flashback – to Red and Abby’s courtship, to the youths of their children and further back to when none of them were born but the house in which they have all spent their lives was being built by Red’s father, Junior, about whose past nothing is otherwise known (“Where he came from was never documented, but the general feeling was that he might have have hailed from the Appalachian Mountains” [p. 52] – of course he did!). The world in which Junior built that house – in 1936 – and fell in love with it, eventually conspiring to “convince” its owners to leave – in 1941 – is tonally identical to the one in which Denny pokes holes in his own dad’s pieties. The policemen are friendly and don’t dig too deeply into Junior’s machinations; the road on which the house is built, Bouton, plays host to family parties on the porch; downtown is a quick drive away, and there are clubs to join and stores to visit for upholstery. It all feels adrift, listless.

In the novel’s defence (see how it needs one?), part of its purpose is to undermine these family myths by in its first half having the family endlessly retell them and, in the second, imparting them in full flashback. And on the level of its sentences and paragraphs, indeed in long passages, it does so beautifully: Tyler writes so apparently effortlessly, so smoothly and wittily, with sensitivity and empathy and all of that, that reading her is a pleasure. But the writing goes nowhere, and the flashbacks aren’t in nearly as much disagreement with the rosy family hagiographies as they would need to be to cast light on that weird stasis the family – and their town – seem to be in. There’s a super example, if I do say so myself, towards the very end of the second half’s long flashback to a vaguely more complicated, and certainly more filled-in, Junior and his slow movement towards moving into that house. Having made all that complicating effort, Tyler reaches the same point that Red reached hundreds of pages before:

Under the shelter of the trees the front of the house didn’t get the morning sun, but that just made the deep, shady porch seem homier. And the honey-gold of the swing, visible now through the balustrade, gladdened Junior’s heart. He had to stop himself from saying to Linne, “See? See how right it looks?” (p. 438)

That is, the interest in A Spool of Blue Thread lies in its prose and its flashbacks; which is also precisely where what is wrong with it can be situated. In other words, it has itself pegged.

“These Queer Enthusiasms”: Sarah Waters’s “The Paying Guests”

51sqHh5h3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It is a Very Good Thing that Ali Smith last night won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: here is a British writer interested in serious innovation of form – something not always associated with the prose writers of these isles. That she does so demotically and entertainingly only makes her win all the more deserved. Smith re-energises the novel without making it inaccessible.

There is, of course, a pejorative usage of “accessible”: “a good read” is so often a euphemism for “a bit slight”. The only novel on the prize shortlist I’ve not yet read is Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, but others have already written “defences” of her more traditional style: “the question of whether Tyler’s work errs too heavily on the side of consolation has lingered, despite (or because of) her immense and loyal readership and high-profile fans such as Nick Hornby and John Updike.” In this context, it is interesting that the another of the shortlist’s more traditionalist authors, Sarah Waters, is conversely so widely fêted that the idea anyone might need to speak up on her behalf is absurd.

“Absolutely brilliant,” wrote Jacqueline Wilson of Waters’s novel, The Paying Guests. “Read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep,” applauds Charlotte Mendelson. “A joy in every respect,” intones Lionel Shriver. And yet Waters writes old-fashioned novels in many ways, with beginnings and ends and gripping plots, which read quickly despite their often vaguely Victorian girth. The Paying Guests is set in 1922, precisely because, Waters has said, her previous novels have focused on squarely on either the nineteenth century or the 1940s. That is, Waters is a British writer producing novels in a third person limited voice and set in eras not entirely under-served in British culture.

So why is she, too, not tarred with the “accessible” brush? In large part, it’s because Waters’s project is far more subversive than her chosen form makes it appear (and this is part of the project): she queers these classic ages of British history, burrowing under her copious research to imagine the stories of marginalised groups, most particularly lesbian women. Even her novel The Little Stranger, which doesn’t feature an actual lesbian couple at all, is a novel about repression: its first-person narrator hides much from the reader, whilst Caroline, the young woman of the crumbling manor house with whom (which which?) he falls in love, is heavily implied to be closeted. That is, Waters writes terrific yarns which present familiar contexts in familar ways – and then peoples those settings with feelings, perspectives and experiences which are under-represented in the record and in fiction.

The Paying Guests, then, is told from the third-person-limited perspective of Frances, a twenty-five year-old woman eking out the disappointed, disappointing years following World War I in the suburban villa she shares with her mother. They are, like the rather grander country gentry of The Little Stranger thirty years later, struggling for money: her father dead, and economics changing, Frances persuades her mother to take in lodgers in order to supplement their meagre income. The couple who answer the advert, the Barbers, are from Peckham and Walworth rather than Champion Hill: vulgar and jejune to Frances and her mother’s eyes, they fill Mr Wray’s old room with dinky little Buddha statues, and share a little too much of themselves for the landladies, who tuck the weekly rent into their pockets “in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone […] could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality.” [p. 11]

Class and deceit come to be the guiding stars of the novel: throughout, Waters paints in understated but terrifically evocative ways the careful gradations of class struggling to reassert themselves in an England disrupted by war. Men resent the women who have taken their jobs; a clerk like Mr Barber looks down on mere manual workers, amongst whose numbers he would once have certainly sat; Mrs Barber’s clothes are a little too flighty; Mrs Wray’s friend from over the road clearly imagines herself one step above poor old struggling Frances. All of this is more or less unspoken, however, and the manner in which no one quite says what they mean comes to power not just the social whirl – from Walworth dances to Champion Hill soirées – which Waters depicts beautifully, but the scurrilous plot that bubbles underneath the surface.

That plot only really takes full hold of the novel in its final third, and yet the reader never feels played with. In part, this is down to, yes, readability: Waters writes so well that 600 pages simply speeds by. It’s also, however, because she peels back the novel’s layers at precisely the right pace. When we first meet Frances, she seems much older than she is, not a little stuck up and certainly rather grey. As we slowly learn that, during the war, she was a violent suffragette and had a romantic relationship with a fellow suburban bohemian, Christine, we are at first surprised; as her sexual repression becomes evident in her uncomfortable responses to Mr Barber’s proximity, we first think the novel might move one way; when her passion for Christine, and her misplaced fear of her mother become clear (when her new lady lodger cuts and crimps her hair in a contemporary style, Frances is shocked that her mother finds it smart), we are quickly plunged into a slow but compelling blossoming of a relationship with Lillian Barber herself.

Lillian is a good example of the novel’s strength in depth: she is in many ways unknowable. Apparently kind and straightforward, throughout the novel we with Frances worry that she may in fact not be all that she seems – that she may be manipulative or foolish, impetuous or selfish. Frances must learn to trust Lillian, as we must – as everyone who wishes to love must – and this process gives the novel a great deal of its shape prior to its final-third crisis. If anything, I rather preferred the involvingly plotless parts of the novel more: everything happens, and is then wrapped up, rather quickly, and the novel takes on the feeling of the 1920s melodramas which first inspired it. At one point, for example, the lawyer for a wrongly accused defendant announces to the court in which we know the true culprit sits, “the person or persons […] must certainly be looking at these proceedings with very mixed feelings indeed.” [p. 581]  Oh, the tension of irony!

What unites all this is a study of the effects of lies. “The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely,” sighs Frances [p. 302], having spent years denying herself – indeed, hiding even the fact that she has maintained a loose friendship with Christine. Frances goes back and forth between having the courage of this conviction and fearing its logical conclusion, and this terribly human inconsistency is, like everything else in this humane and careful novel, delicately depicted. She and Lillian endlessly debate who is braver, but in point of fact they are brave in different ways: Frances can imagine different ways of living, and Lillian, who lacks that capacity for the bigger picture, nevertheless often takes the action which make them possible. What develops between them, then, is a thoroughly believable – because riven with tension – love affair.

Ultimately, superb characterisation of this sort is a laudably old-fashioned virtue for a novel to exhibit. The Paying Guests is rather unfashionable in this respect: compared with Outline it is fervently traditionalist. That, as I was reading the novel, I could see an argument for it pipping How To Be Both to the Baileys post, says many things – as does the universal acclaim for Waters’s skills as a writer and a storyteller. Hers are novels of huge warmth and heart, but also skill and cunning. Smith’s victory is excellent news for the health of the British novel – but that’s because Smith understands, like Waters (who will surely have her year), that accessibility isn’t a dirty word. Read The Paying Guests, and then read it again … and again.