I write this a few hours after seeing Emily Fridlund appear at the Cheltenham Literature Festival’s annual Booker Prize shortlist event. She appeared alongside Fiona Mozley and Ali Smith, and, as the discussion began to shake loose of the rather strict sequence of author interviews preferred by the moderator, Gaby Wood, I began to understand a little better what she had been trying to do with History of Wolves, her rather patchy and unwieldy debut novel.
Next to Mozley, Fridlund’s reading was gentle and supple; where Elmet, the other debut on the shortlist, often strikes for plain and even bluff prose, History of Wolves shoots for that wistfully wise tone many American novels these days adopt, and which some see as an excrescence of all those creative writing courses. “It’s not that I never think about Paul,” her narrator begins, at the start of nearly three hundred pages which revolve around him. “He comes to me occasionally before I’m full awake, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him” [p. 3]. We’re already, of course, in the realm of the unreliable narrator, and History of Wolves indeed gives away its secrets slowly and in a muddle. Most importantly, however, we are reading a story told by an adult who doesn’t yet understand her childhood, and therefore herself.
Fridlund said this afternoon that she wanted to explore in this novel the slipperiness of the roles humans fill. Paul is a young child whose parents engage the narrator, Linda, as a babysitter. She is, in other words, his guardian; but she is also a child, his playmate. Paul’s parents, meanwhile – at first just the mother, Petra, and then also the father, Leo, who joins them at their cabin retreat across the Minnesota lake on which Linda’s family also lives – vacillate between being the care-givers we might expect and something else, powered by their own moral codes and belief systems. Meanwhile, at school, Linda is taught by an off-kilter History teacher, Mr Grierson, who proves to be in possession of child pornography, though he fights not to act further on his paedophiloc urges; Linda resolves to encourage him otherwise, keen to gain his attention at the expense of the class beauty, Lily. For her part, Lily eventually makes erroneous accusations against Grierson which everyone believes. The reader finds their instinctive sympathies sorely tested.
The problem with all this, as may be apparent, is that a lot of only tangentially connected events and characters are deployed throughout History of Wolves in an effort at thematic profundity … but never quite connect. The only thing that links Paul with Mr Grierson is Linda, and though Fridlund attempts, in some slightly vanilla sex scenes I think we are meant to find disturbing, to sketch the damage adult Linda exhibits as a result of all this bearing witness, it’s always a bit too obvious that we’re reading a novel, in which stuff like this must happen in order to make a point.
There’s a moment in Ali Smith’s Autumn in which one of the protagonists reflects that, were she appearing in a novel or a TV series, her next scene and its meaning would be predictable and conform to a set of tropes and conventions. There is a little of this in History of Wolves, even where it considers itself to be upending such cliches. This is a coming of age novel in which the protagonist does not learn – indeed, clings to the misconceptions and passions of her youth with little in the way of regret. Though Paul’s parents fail their child profoundly, and Linda is dragged into the wake of these events, she closes her narrative not with them but with Lily and Mr Grierson:
Even now, when those words move through my mind, like a curse or a wish, I become Lily. To happens just like that. I have to go through all t he preparations for it to work […] But by the time I […] see the look of recognition in [Mr Grierson’s] face […] I’m the one wanted more than anyone else. [p. 275]
Again, that slippage of role and persona – but, also again, that novelistic contrivance, just a little too transparent. Partly, this is a function of often beautiful writing which draws attention to itself – in particular, on the landscape and nascent sexualities – but more often it’s simply the over-insistence of many debut novels, cast into the unfairly harsh light of the Booker shortlist. “Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things,” Linda ruminates whilst appearing in a novel [p. 150]. “You know what Jung would say?” her dysfunctional boyfriend asks her in the course of her arrested adulthood. “The archetypal Fool is Pet-ah Pan” [p. 171]. I think we get it.
In another such sleight of hand, the novel takes its title from a presentation Linda is asked by Mr Grierson to give at History Odyssey, an inter-school competition in which Linda takes as her topic the lupine record. “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans,” she explains. “If they can help it, they avoid them” [p. 14]. Linda wins only the Originality Prize, a sort of wooden spoon, but her real tragedy is that she cannot avoid humans – “It was hard to explain how ingrained a habit it was to pretend I understood what was happening in other people’s lives before explanations were offered” [p. 118] – and that in this vexed confraternity she becomes entirely lost. Sadly, and despite the novel’s often deeply evocative scenes or moments, ultimately so too do her readers.