Friday, February 27, 2009

Characters as friends

This from Zoe Heller, quoted in a New York Times profile to coincide with the launch of her new book, The Believers:

Ms. Heller was a bit dismayed to learn that some readers found “there were no sympathetic characters,” that “they didn’t want to spend time with them,” or that they “were not inspiring in any way.”

...

“I don’t write books for people to be friends with the characters,” Ms. Heller said as she tucked into a spartan brunch of a boiled egg and seven-grain toast. “If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party.”

It's an interesting one that. One of the most common comments you will find from amateur critters of stories is that "I couldn't like any of the characters". To which the reply should be, "So what?"

I think this is part of the readers' group phenomenon, this fetish for liking characters; that, and a general trend in society for everyone to be "mates". Personally, I find nothing so cringeworthy as parents saying that their children are their "best mates". They're not, they're your children. But everything seems to have to be conducted on the basis of informal, casual, easy friendship.

So I'm with Ms Heller all the way. As long as your characters are believable, and you are interested in what happens to them, there is no compunction to make them - any of them - likeable.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Confederacy of dunces by John Kennedy Toole


John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a novel, like Catch-22 or the works of Kurt Vonnegut, that is best read when young. It was published in 1980 (eleven years after the suicide of the author and approximately thirteen years after it was written), and had I read it then, aged sixteen, I would have thought it one of the best pieces of literature ever produced. Coming to it now, as a gnarled forty-something, I still think it’s pretty damned good.

Its central character, Ignatius J Reilly, is one of the finest (and funniest) anti-heroes you are likely to come across, a Southern Gothic white-trash freak crossed with Tony Hancock or Basil Fawlty, suffused with the questing spirit of Don Quixote, with a malevolent streak as wide as his own enormous girth and a reactionary nature that makes old-school Tories look like rabid revolutionaries. And it is this latter point that makes the book so interesting. Written in the sixties, in a time of revolutionary fervour and – apparently, seemingly – enormous change, Ignatius’s spirit would seem to be, on first reading, completely out of step with the times. Indeed, he prides himself on his contempt for modern culture. He watches pap television precisely in order to be offended by it, fulminating at its inanity, it stupidity, its predictableness. Likewise, he goes to the cinema and offers, to the irritation and disgust of all around, running commentaries on precisely why the film is so pitiably awful. Progress, he is saying, is a curse.

In this, of course, we can see echoes of the Southern Gothic tradition from which Toole emerges and which he so merrily lampoons. Ignatius could easily, with an injection of morbid religiosity, be transformed into a character out of Flannery O’Connor. Or he could happily sit by the roadside with a late-Faulknerian construct and lament the passing of the old, good ways.

What makes Ignatius such an extraordinary character is that everything about him is grotesque. He is uniquely dislikeable, which is why Toole’s writing is so brilliant: he deliberately creates a horrific character and yet, somehow, the reader falls under his spell. Yes, he’s repulsive, we say; yes, he’s a monster, but he’s our monster. He’s fat, narcissistic, selfish, greedy, a hypochondriac, a misanthrope, cruel, manipulative, offensive, even criminal. He treats his mother abominably. He behaves inexcusably towards his employers (one is subjected to a massive law suit because of his actions). What friends and acquaintances he has are buried beneath an avalanche of Ignatius’s self-interest. He detests a modernity which he thinks is rank and depraved, and has done his best in his thirty-year existence to shun it. Thus, it is that the novel’s core comes from the enforced, hilarious collision of a reluctantly job-seeking Ignatius and a society which is ill-equipped to manage this human gargoyle.

But for all his hatred of modernity, Ignatius is more modern than he (and the reader) realises, and his reactionary nature is complex. For example, some of his thoughts emerge in letters to his old college friend, Myrna Minkoff, with whom he waged a battle against the conformity of his teachers and whose approval, though many years later and separated from him by hundreds of miles, he still appears, in a typically contrary way, to covet. She is modern, he is traditional; she is sex-obsessed, he is sex-appalled. Each tries, on the face of it, to persuade the other. Each, in a way, is pursuing the other. Each, clearly, wants the other. Opposites, but, in the end, so much the same. And yet, whatever attraction there may be is, once more, buried beneath the monstrous self-interest of this monstrous man.

There is, of course, something appealing about such monstrosity. However much we deplore Ignatius’s behaviour, there is something liberating about such free-spirited refusal to conform to anything, even the prevailing sixties’ sense of non-conformity. Ignatius will not bow to any authority, but neither is he in thrall to notions of free-will or revolutionary spirit like the typical children of the sixties. He is a reactionary out of time. And that is why he is such an important character in modern literature. He is the other face of the sixties, perhaps the true face, the face that prevailed. For, after all, what happened to the children of the revolution? What are they now, these baby boomers, but reactionaries? What is the revisionism we see in relation to the 1960s but a reactionary attempt to turn back the tide? All revolutionaries become, in the end, reactionary. And, because nothing can stay the same, all reactionaries must effect change.

Thus, in A Confederacy of Dunces, the arch-reactionary, the hater of modernity, is at the same time the ultimate revolutionary. As the story nears its climax, Ignatius begins a crusade to turn all military personnel into homosexuals because that would be the best way of eliminating war. Not even the flower-power hippies of 1967 took their thinking to that level of profound insanity. The revolution is only a lunatic away. And thus, Ignatius J. Reilly is the sixties writ large. He is, indeed, a man out of time, a man who wanted only to reside in the past, who hated the prospect of progress. But here we are, in 2009, and he is still a man for our times. He is a man of the past with whom the future has caught up.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Fall by Albert Camus and Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground


I find it curious that so many commentators seem to compare Camus’s The Fall with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. That seems a quite false comparison to me. The Fall always leaves me, somehow, with a feeling of hope. Clamence is most certainly a deeply flawed individual, and his story of his fall is a painful one. However, he does not compare to the Underground Man in Notes from Underground, who is, it seems to me, almost a cartoon of nihilistic rage. I have no patience at all with Dostoevsky’s piece of propaganda and, although it is a wonderful piece of writing and it does throw some light on the character of the Underground Man, to my mind it singularly fails to convince as a piece of philosophy because the didacticism of Dostoevsky’s argument overwhelms everything else. There is none of that in The Fall. It is more real, and more human. Or perhaps I mean it is more human, and more real.

And, as Camus knew, the true banality of evil, and the cause of our Fall, is not so often the things that we do, but the things that we don’t do. Clamence’s inaction, his inability to help the suicidal woman, begins his Fall. It is inevitable, and it is real. It comes out of the disconnection that we all of us, sometimes, feel.

The Underground Man, on the other hand, is always reacting. He is trying to gain revenge on his old friends. He is trying to, first help, then humiliate Liza. Where Clamence’s troubles come from passivity, the Underground Man’s comes from activity. That is the difference, and that is why Clamence is a better judge (judge-penitent) of our human situation. Clamence stands for us all; the Underground Man, and his failures, are uniquely his own.

True disconnection does not come from failure, or anger, or pride, or any of the sins that Dostoevsky ladles on to the poor Underground Man. True disconnection is the state in itself: it is both cause and effect. That is what I take from The Fall.

And, because of that, it must also, ultimately be the cure. Just as antidotes to poisons are based on the introduction of tiny particles of that poison into the body in order to build resistance, so must the fallen learn and understand his disconnection, work with it, embrace it until, at last, it becomes a form of connection. That, as we leave The Fall, is what Clamence is attempting to do.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The seeds of fascism

It is very easy to view fascism as a mid-twentieth century aberration, a peculiar blending of circumstance and history, poverty, desperation, the opportunism of extreme nationalists. It was all of that, but it was much, much more. To an extent, there's no such thing as fascism - it is too tangled and confused to be easily isolated into a single, coherent doctrine. But what it is, most certainly, is the most anti-human of all political belief systems. It reduces the human to an element, a part of the system. This, of course, is deeply ironic since one of the triggers of fascism is a mistrust, bordering on hatred, of systems, the machine, the totality of modern living which has the effect of pushing people in a direction they don't like. But it is a sorry fact of life that revolutions against a state generally end up replicating that state: constant revolution is impossible, it will always retreat into reaction.

The consequence of this casual approach to fascism, however, is complacency. It happened then. It won't happen again.

Look around you. Fascism reacts against the 'system'. It is the reactionary made political. It hates reason, abjures argument. Its method is dogma - shouting from the rooftops, making slogans, creating scapegoats, raising the temperature. Anything that reduces debate and increases passion. In all of this it displays an antipathy to progress - 'it was better the way it used to be, before...'

Before. Before what?

'Before the immigrants came. Before the bankers and politicians stuck their noses in the trough. Before we got joined to Europe. Before all these black people/Muslims/terrorists starting coming here and changing our ways of life. Before kids were feral. Before our jobs were being lost in their thousands. Back when it was just us, and we were in control. The good old days. What we need now is a return to volkish tradition. Innerlichkeit'

Fascism was and is a reaction against enlightenment. It uses religion, that fundamental spirit that is inside all of us, some relic of our prehistoric forbears, to foment disaffection. It uses fear. It uses jealousy. It uses anger. It takes the concerns of the present and uses them as a way of suggesting the past - a mythical past - was better, and that the way to progress is to retreat.

We're in dangerous times. The seeds are there, ready to germinate. All they need is indifference. The casual way we are casting aside our civil liberties suggests to me that such indifference is already present.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Innocent by Madison Jones


As I was reading The Inncocent, I must say I was utterly gripped by it. Madison Jones is an author I confess I’d never even heard of until I came across a reference recently and decided to check him out, and as I was reading this I was asking myself ‘why isn’t this guy better known?’

However, in the three or four days since I finished it my opinion of it has lowered considerably. For sure, this is a terrificly well written novel, and the author’s grip of narrative is impressive indeed. Even although much of the plot is hackneyed, to say the least, it keeps you reading on. That’s very fine writing indeed.

But, in the end, the novel just doesn’t succeed. The total is considerably less than the sum of its parts. Those things which are especially good about it – and there are a few of those – do not, finally, mitigate the problems which obtain.

The novel confronts standard preoccupations of the south in the pre- and immediately post-war years (it was written in 1957 but is set in 1935), that of progress in a world that is becoming modern and, in so doing, is embracing evil. In that, it is classically Faulknerian. We have the progressive preacher, Garner, who talks of a new age and progressive communities and the triumph of the human spirit over the ‘thou shalt nots’ of the old religion; and squared against him we have Duncan, the educated young man who left his backwoods home to go to Chicago and get an education and find a vocation (as a journalist – a chronicler of progress) – only to return home “forever” and re-join the old, agrarian life. The novel is his story, charting his fall, and in so doing it follows a strict, Calvinist, typically southern fundamentalist approach. This is a man who is doomed to failure, and who can only succeed – that is, to gain redemption and achieve grace – by taking that failure to its logical conclusion and accepting the consequences thereof.

Although there is much to admire here, the novel fails on two counts. Firstly, while the characterisations of the mains are excellent, those of the supporting cast are considerably weaker. This is especially significant in this novel, and an especial flaw, because these characters, in particular, are the ones who should be giving the story its moral centre. These are bad men, men who hark back to the old, dark ways of the south, and they should resonate with evil. Instead, Patterk the horse owner is a cliché and a caricature, while Jordan is simply the archetypal, sneering bad guy. He should almost be wearing a black hat and bearing a scar across his cheek to indicate his malevolent nature because his treatment in the novel is so unsubtle he has “baddie” emblazoned across his every action.

Secondly, and more importantly, the story’s central struggle, personified by the clash between Garner and Duncan, and representing that eternal American clash between tradition and progress, and, more importantly, between the Calvinist, guilt-soaked quest for redemption and a newer, more human-facing religion, is never fully realised. It promises something deep. The first exchange between these two characters simmers with repressed anger and suggests that, along the way, a great battle will be waged by them. But, somehow, it never quite unfolds. Garner is wheeled in occasionally, but the author’s heart is clearly not with him. He never becomes a rounded individual and we are left, intentionally, one supposes, to think him something of a fraud. In fact, he is the only person in the novel who offers any sustained and reasoned vision of progress and a more wholesome future, but that does not serve the author’s intentions, and so, in turn, the author ill-serves his character. Madison Jones, it seems, was trapped in this faux-Faulknerian southern world where the past was good and the future is bad and where progress is something to be demurred because it only ever offers further routes to damnation.

This is a fine piece of novel writing but it is not a fine novel. One might say it is very much of its time, but that may perhaps be too charitable. I suspect, although it may not have been apparent at the time because proximity to events tends to make them opaque, that when this novel was published it was already an anachronism.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How to tell a story (2) - avoiding a heap of words

Melvin J. Friedman, writing in 1977, contrasted quotes from two writers born in the same year of 1925. Firstly, John Hawkes:

I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.

In this, he is merely mimicking the French new wave, led by Robbe-Grillet, which was to hold such sway in American writing through the late fifties and into the sixties. There always feels something unconvincing about Americans spouting this sort of postmodernism, like they learned it in their lecture halls and have it memorised, ready to impress. Secondly, Friedman quotes William Styron pleading for narrative flow:

It’s when there is no narrative flow that I think fiction is copping out. I don’t mean to say it has to be a ‘cracking good yarn,’ but there has to be a story.

Friedman refers to their respective first novels, The Cannibal and Lie down in darkness, to pursue his discussion on the nature of American fiction in the fifties. I am currently half way through The Cannibal, but I have been for some weeks now and I keep finding reasons not to return to it. The writing is fine – quite gripping at times – but what the hell is it about? I read Lie down in darkness a while back and, while it was an intriguing story, it felt desperately long to me, and the attempts to weave symbolic, even allegorical meaning into it felt heavy-going. Friedman calls Styron an ‘old-fashioned rhetorician’, which seems about right, while of Hawkes he suggests that he has ‘forced his violence to retreat into the surreal and hallucinatory’, which again seems to sum up the (in)action very well.

It seems to me, though, that Friedman sets up a false dichotomy. My reaction to these two examples – which, I fancy, would be fairly representative of most modern readers – suggests that each goes too far in search of the literary and stylistic perfection its author was seeking. Hawkes’s lack of a comprehensible plot becomes challenging to the point that the reader stops reading; Styron’s insistence on building plot and character and narrative becomes, in the end, plodding.

Friedman expands his argument to suggest there were three strands of writing in American in the fifties – the academic novel, the Jewish novel and the Southern novel. (He reluctantly suggests a possible fourth, the Beat novel, but suggests it was not long-lived: I’m not sure subsequent literary history bears that out.) Of these, the southern novel is singled out by him as being one that has largely ‘avoided experimental temptations’ and Southern writers have had a tendency to restrict themselves to more traditional forms of narrative. He goes on:

Faulkner’s inheritors are almost all rather sober storytellers who consider plot, character, setting and theme (those four declared enemies of the novel, according to John Hawkes) before anything else.

He makes the observation that there is a numbing sameness about the thematic preoccupations of many of the southern writers, and a presumption as to the reader’s ‘patience for elaborately turned plots and other contrivances’.

This, it seems to me, gets closer to the original question of what is important for the novel. To talk in terms of experimentation or tradition is to miss the point. It’s what the experimentalist or traditionalist does with the material that matters. A conventionally written narrative that confounds the reader by making him or her consider a theme in a different way will have power, where yet another Flannery O’Connor story about redemption through violence and grace through submission is, however finely written, just another Flannery O’Connor story.

Similarly, an experimental novel which leaves its reader unmoved because it has forgotten, say, to develop any character with remotely sympathetic, or even human sensibilities, will not linger long in the memory. Much of the workaday output of Donald Barthelme could be considered to be of this type. But, occasionally, some spark of humanity erupts from those bizarre constructions of his and leaves the reader perplexed but moved. The Indian Uprising, for one, is as strange a story as you could imagine – almost meaningless on first reading. But it says more to me about human nature than Flannery O’Connor ever managed to weave into her claustrophobic and obsessively controlled novels or stories.

What I’m saying, I think, is that it’s not about process or technique. It’s about heart. Is the writer trying to say something that’s worth listening to, something that moves you, something that makes you think, even reconsider? If so, it will probably transcend its form. If not, it’s just a heap of words.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to tell a story

This is Hamish Henderson, in an article about Jeannie Robertson, writing about the Scots travellers' storytelling style:

What stood out a mile... was the creative joie de vivre of the Scots travellers... The lively traveller storytelling style, the exact opposite of deadpan delivery, was tehre in strength, just as Jeannie had described it: "He'd gae through a' the acts, like. He would show to you what they were like, and if it was eerie or oniething like that, his voice soundit eerie - his voice would change as he was telling the story. If it was comin' to the right desperate bit, he was get desperate too. And he's a' the bairns roon' the camp-fire jist a' listenin', and maybe feart.'

There is a tremendous liveliness about the style described here. I've heard recordings of it, and it's marvellous. I was put in mind of it while listening again to Flannery O'Connor's reading of one of her stories, which I've mentioned on here before. Both the Scots travellers and the American southern gothic traditions tended to recount the lives of poor, ordinary people, rural people, mostly outcasts from the rest of society. But while the Scots tales tended to be wide-ranging, perhaps a supernatural tale from Scotland, or a story from Ireland, or something heard and adapted from literature or from other countries, or about the past, or about the current day, the southern gothic tradition found itself stuck in the past. It ended up arguing against any prospect of change, because change allowed the prospect of evil entering their lives. There was a flatness about it all. That is reflected, I think, in the typical, laconic, drawled delivery of southern American storytellers. Joie de vivre is not the way one might describe the southern gothic. And yet the stories are coming out of communities with more in common than divides them.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy


McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, is probably his most obviously Southern novel. It celebrates the irascible independence of rural folks, their interconnectedness and yet their solitariness, the simple, rustic life, and it feeds off a low-level violence that always threatens to explode. In evoking the –even then – dying rural lifestyle, McCarthy is at his most Faulknerian – too much so, in fact, for Orville Prescott writing in the New York Times at the time of its publication in 1965: [there are] so many of Faulkner's literary devices and mannerisms that [McCarthy] half submerges his own talents beneath a flood of imitation.

The novel proceeds in a series of brief episodes, the focus or locus of which are not always explained, featuring three principal characters – John Wesley Rattner, a young boy whose father, a con man, has been murdered; Marion Sylder, a bootlegger, who murdered Rattner; and the boy’s uncle Ather, who, not knowing that it is Rattner, has been watching over his dead body after Sylder dumped it in his spray pit. The novel thus proceeds in a series of ironic interludes. Sylder and the boy become friends, neither realising the other’s connection with Rattner senior. They help each other, dangerously so when Sylder is running illicit liquor and being chased by Deputy Legwater, and the boy comes to idolise the man. ‘They ain’t no more heroes,’ Sylder tells him angrily when he comes to visit him in jail after his arrest. This effectively sums up the novel. Trouble rebounds around the three characters, amid escalating violence and the increasing threat of authority. In the process, McCarthy focuses on questions of loyalty and the ties that bind. As ever, the metaphysical is lurking in the background, presaged, in typically McCarthian style by references to the prehistoric life from which we evolved:

…the floor of the forest – littered with old mossbacked logs, peopled with toadstools strange and solemn among the ferns and creepers and leaning to show their delicate livercolored gills – has about it a primordial quality, some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep.

McCarthy will use this device again and again in his fiction, most notably in The Road, where it forms the essential bookends to his dystopia. Remember where we came from, he is telling us; remember we are nothing but the creation of the Almighty and our intelligence and our independence mean nothing against his power. Mildred Rattner, the boy’s mother and Rattner’s wife, spells it out:

Mildred Rattner pinched from loaf to loaf across the bread rack. When them as wallers in sin thinks they’s getting by with it, she said, that’s when He strikes em in His holy wrath. He jest bides His time.

This begins to lead us into familiar territory. We are dealing with humanity and human weakness. Thre is evil here. Before he murders Rattner, we are told: ‘It was not presentiment that warned Sylder to get shed of his guest but a profound and unshakable knowledge of the presence of evil.’ That sentence could have come straight from Flannery O’Connor. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965 but it was written in 1962, two years before the death of O’Connor. Although their writing styles are dissimilar – McCarthy’s verbal flourishes would be out of place amid the cloistered violence of O’Connor, while her writing is invested with a humour that is largely absent in McCarthy – there is no mistaking the similarities in the treatment of theme and, in particular, the delineation of freak characters. The Orchard Keeper is a curious novel. It is hard to like because McCarthy goes to such length to keep his characters distant from the reader, and yet it lingers in the memory.

Sideways


Watched the film Sideways at the weekend. It was very good, most enjoyable, very funny, great performances.

But in terms of the writing craft one scene really stood out as quite wrong. Early in the film, as they are starting out on their week-long trip, they stop off at Miles's mother's house. There, we see him steal a wad of money from her secret hiding place. This suggest he has done it before. In the next scene, his mother offers him money, so it is clear he didn't need to steal from her. Therefore, it seems to me that the viewer is being clearly told that this is significant, that the character is no-good (stealing from your mother? What a sin!) and that, surely, he would get his comeuppance later.

But it is never referred to again, and in the course of the film it is evident that Miles is actually, beneath his depression and unhappiness, a decent guy. So what was the purpose of that scene? It doesn't seem to fit the rest of the film. Worse, it actually gives a completely wrong impression. It feels like a clunky piece of writing. I'm very curious as to what the writer intended by it.

Monday, February 02, 2009

gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson


gods in alabama is a funny, fast, furious, thunderously entertaining novel. It takes the southern gothic tradition and turns it into something different: just as odd, just as dangerous, but somehow less malevolent. There are freaks here, for sure, and dirty deeds and disagreeable thoughts, and beneath it all is that fundamentalist, unbreakable, entirely contradictory southern spirit, religiously imbued, reactionary-centred. But there is also a lightness of tone which, despite the subject matter, works in a refreshing and even illuminating way.

The focus of the story is Arlene Fleet, our narrator and main protagonist. A lecturer in the north of America, she is in a passionate but platonic relationship with Burr, and African-American lawyer. We find out that she never lies – not ever – and goes to elaborate lengths to ensure that she won’t. For example, in order to tell her aunt she has no money, she buys the most expensive computer she can find. It will be returned to the store the next day and her money refunded, but, just then, in that particular conversation, she could truthfully say she was broke.
Why? Families, families. Arlene has not returned home in ten years and vows that she won’t, even when Burr issues an ultimatum that she must introduce him to her family or they will split up. Clearly, there is some dark secret here.

And, in the course of the novel, that secret begins to emerge. Of course, Arlene and Burr do make the trip back south to meet the folks in Alabama. And it goes as badly as Arlene anticipates. Her family is as freakish a concoction of southern gargoyles as anything from the imagination of Flannery O’Connor, especially the terrifying Aunt Florence and Arlene’s drug-addled, mentally ill mother. Arlene and Burr encounter deep-seated racism and small-town bigotry. Aunt Florence makes it sinisterly plain that she and Arlene ‘have things to discuss’, and things threaten to get out of hand. Gradually, Arlene’s past unfolds, and it is a story of murder and revenge, one which threatens now to overwhelm her.

The story sweeps along at a great pace and proceeds to a clever, satisfying, unexpected conclusion. To be critical, you could argue it is too neatly plotted, and that there is something of the MFA about the way it all resolves so neatly and the characters come to a form of mutual redemption and understanding. But that would be unfair. The novel doesn’t set out to be profound, and yet it covers some emotive ground and makes acute observations about the way we treat one another and the way that our preconceptions can dominate our thinking. The characterisation, particularly of Arlene and Aunt Florence, who are more alike than either of them would ever wish to acknowledge, is extremely good. The dialogue is crisp, witty and convincing. This is a very funny, fast moving and exciting novel. Definitely worth a read.

This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes


In an attempt to break out of the misery which my current, enforced close-reading of Cormac McCarthy has induced, I thought I would turn my attention to AM Homes. A dangerous idea, you might imagine, given Homes’ reputation for challenging subject matter. I well remember the fuss that attended the publication of The End of Alice, a novel about a murdering paedophile: I was a stock librarian at the time and argued robustly – and successfully – with my management that librarians are not censors and we had a duty to buy the book, only to find that the first person to request it was a former national celebrity who was now living in rural obscurity after a high-profile paedophilia court case. That left a bit of a taste in my mouth, and I’ve never really been able to figure out how I feel about it.

But I was advised that This Book Will Save Your Life was something quite different. And so it is, an absolute treat of a book, very funny but profoundly moving at the same time. In some respects it operates in the same territory as McCarthy – people in extremis, the way we connect, the randomness of it all – but it comes to an entirely different, more satisfying and more credible conclusion: that is, human beings, despite their general and individual faults, are capable in the end of absolute decency. The title, This Book Will Save Your Life, is tongue-in-cheek, but there remains an element of truth about it: we all can change our lives, if we so choose, and individual choice and collective need do not necessarily have to conflict. Jock Tamson’s bairns can prevail.

Richard Novak is an outwardly successful man whose life begins to fall apart. We join him as he calls 911 following the onset of an unexplained and inexplicable illness. It might be a heart attack. It might be psychosomatic. It might be existential. Whichever, it sets in train a series of adventures that change his life. In quick succession he meets a coterie of odd, damaged, hopeful new acquaintances, each of them seeking only to live the way they want to live – the American dream, as it were, in all its scale, and its heights and depths of ambition. There is Anhil, the immigrant donut-shop owner who sees America as the promised land. There is Cynthia, who Richard meets while shopping and who breaks down over the grocery counter, before fleeing from her selfish and self-obsessed family in order to discover herself. There is his neighbour, the famous film star. There is his new neighbour, the reclusive Nic, who knows famous people (Bob Dylan pays a visit) and is finally revealed to be a very famous writer from the sixties. There is his doctor, a ‘psychological intern’, a strange and apparently wise man who is ultimately revealed as a fraud. And a nutritionist, a masseuse, a personal sports instructor, and so on…

And as well as these new acquaintances there are the regular features of Richard’s life, including his long-serving housekeeper, his ex-wife and, most importantly, but most elusively, his teenage son, Ben. This latter relationship becomes the pivotal point of the novel and, as it progresses, all the surreal, inventive humour is gradually and skilfully elided until we have a single focus on these two damaged, needy individuals and their quest for mutual redemption.

Along the way, Homes delivers an effective satire on modern LA life, that shallow and self-centred lifestyle that is – literally – sinking into ruin. At the same time as his mysterious attack, an unexplained hole appears outside his house, threatening to swallow it up. The hole becomes a symbol of the vacuity of their existence, of the emptiness of Richard’s life. It becomes a cause celebre when it swallows a stray horse, which is then rescued by Ricahrd and the enigmatic film-star neighbour. Richard is acclaimed a hero, a status which is reinforced later when he rescues a woman from the trunk of a car as she is being abducted. One mad event follows on from another. Be assured: nothing is normal in this novel, nothing is predictable.

Indeed, it could all have descended into a picaresque mess, just one humorous setpiece after another, but Homes is too skilful a writer for that. It is the introduction of Ben, the deeply unhappy son, that acts as the catalyst for the reaffirmation of the human spirit which is at the root of this novel. Richard left his family while Ben was a toddler and in the intervening years has found ways not to get in touch. Father and son are, therefore, strangers, but each has a gnawing need for the other, one for the love of a father and the other for the love of a son, the depth of which gradually becomes increasingly obvious, so that not even these two damaged souls can any longer deny it. A furious, cathartic argument at Disneyland is followed by a shocking, angry, painful scene in Richard’s house when he returns unforgivably late after being out on a date. The truth is out, and truth can be a painful commodity. Richard, who has carefully fabricated an alternative world, is suddenly embroiled in reality, and there is no escape. Nor does he want to escape. Such, of course, is life, in all its unpredictable uncertainty.

Homes calls This Book Will Save Your Life her ‘post 9/11 novel.’ She asks: ‘how does one maintain hope in a time that is often not very hopeful?’ By setting the novel in LA, that city of dreams, she tries to answer her own question: connection, she says, only connect. And that is what Richard tries to do, in his own flawed way. He uses money in lieu of thanks, lavishing gifts on his housekeeper and son because it is easier to do so than to actually talk to them in any meaningful way. He has literally no memory of his childhood. He tries – repeatedly but abjectly – to connect with his parents, his brother, his ex-wife. It is ironic that the one person he does connect with, his reclusive but ultra-famous neighbour Nic, likes Richard so much precisely because Richard is so out of touch with reality he is probably the only person in the world who doesn’t know who he is.

All of the above may sound grim, but it is anything but. This book is tremendous fun. It has amazing zest and brio. Its cast of characters, even the flawed ones, are attractive human beings, and through the surreality of the manic plot there is a genuine warmth and tenderness. If one wants an antidote to the gross anti-humanism and misogyny of Cormac McCarthy, This Story Will Save Your Life is the perfect answer.

Stanley Spencer


I went to the Stanley Spencer exhibition in York yesterday. It’s quite a small exhibition, but well worth a trip if you happen to be in the vicinity.

He’s an odd artist. Normally, you can see some sort of progression in terms of technique, theme etc. It’s hard to see anything of that with Spencer, though. For example, there are a few landscapes in the exhibition, and each looks and feels quite different. Some are closely detailed, with intricate brushwork. One is almost impressionistic and, although in oils, has the looseness of a watercolour. Others start to adopt the curiously elongated shapes and forms which do come closest to defining a typical Spencer style.

One intriguing thing about Spencer is the way he sees the religious, and in particular revelation, in the most mundane, everyday things. It leads to very striking conflations of religious symbolism and prosaic scenes.

However, it was two self-portraits that most struck me. One was of the artist aged 23 or 24. This is a lovely image, presenting a man with a questing, hungry sort of demeanour. You can see very strongly a man at the start of his life, and you feel instinctively that this is a man with great ideals and ambitions.

Then there is a further portrait from 1959, a year or so before the artist’s death. He looks peaceful and happy, but there is a slight quizicality about his expression and one wonders whether this is a man who is wholly satisfied with the progress of his life. It is a poignant juxtaposition.

I’ve had John Updike on my mind in the past few days, more so than I would have expected. I think the reason for that is that recently I have been reading a lot of his early work – The Poorhouse Fair, The Centaur, Rabbit, Run and Pigeon Feathers. In my head, I have been thinking of Updike as a young man. I have been with him as he has been forging his ideas and establishing his priorities for life. The image I have, therefore, is akin to that first Spencer portrait, of the young man anticipating, not the old man reflecting. Therefore, it seems like a discord between my perception and the reality, that this was an old man. That makes his death feel out of time.