First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.

A Change of Heart

It just so happened that both Annabel and I had copies of Jill Dawson’s new novel, The Tell-Tale Heart, and by swiftness of reading and writing, Annabel’s was the review that made it into Shiny New Books. I’ve been saving up mine for the blog, though, as we both agreed it was one of the best books we read in the run-up to the magazine launch, and that Jill Dawson is an author who doesn’t get as much recognition as she deserves.

the tell tale heartThe Tell-Tale Heart is essentially the story of Patrick Robson, a 50-year-old professor of American Studies, ‘with one ex-wife and one ex-mistress and one daughter and one son I hardly ever see and one crappy job I no longer want and a case hanging over me and, God knows, nothing much to show for myself.’ He’s also been suffering from an advanced case of cardiomyopathy and given only six months to live. The story begins as he regains consciousness in his bed at Papworth Hospital outside Cambridge, only the third patient to have undergone the revolutionary ‘beating heart’ surgery in which the heart is kept artificially pumping as opposed to preserved in ice, a technique designed to improve the chance of a successful transplant. Marooned in his bed for the lengthy process of recovery, Patrick has plenty of time to reflect on his past, and to consider the changes he feels strangely compelled to make to his newly extended future.

In this he is ambivalently aided by Maureen, his somewhat scatty but well-meaning transplant co-ordinator. Maureen is pushing him to write to the donor family, and horrifying him with the example letter she shows him, that Patrick considers full of saccharine ‘Hallmark’ sentiment. As he begins to compose a draft in his mind, however, the best he can come up with is:

Dear Donor Family. I am finding it very difficult to know what to say to you. A terrible truth: your good son’s heart is probably wasted on a man like me.’

It’s certainly the case that in his thoughtless womanising, his selfish pursuit of lust with no concern for the havoc he wreaked, as well as in his advanced illness, Patrick’s old heart has been every possible kind of unhealthy. But in his post-operative state, he begins to find the stirrings of entirely new feelings, a surprising perspective opens up to him on his ex-wife and daughter, a tenderness for their loyalty. He also feels himself growing fonder of Maureen, though whether this is a resurgence of his old tail-chasing ways or of a new fledgling relationship he cannot tell. He’s also surprisingly thrilled at the thought of giving up his job (he’s already under a cloud because of a pending sexual harrassment charge) and trying something different. Maureen is keen to read these changes in the light of cellular memory, the transplant of not just the heart, but the characteristics and tendencies of its previous owner, something Patrick dismisses with scorn. But then after a local newpaper article reveals too much about his donor, Patrick finds himself thinking more and more about the boy, Drew Beamish, whose motorbike crash led to his chance at a second life.

The narrative opens up to a second strand, which we might describe as tracing the blood line of Patrick’s new heart through Drew Beamish’s ancestors. The time is 1816, on the eve of the Littleport riots, provoked by the awful disparity between the poor folk of the Fens and the few wealthy landowners. Willie Beamiss is a young lad who is ‘in the suds about Politics’ with a father who ‘had a talent for whipping up others, and when labour is back-breaking and stomachs growl empty you can rile the sleepiest and loyalist of farm labourers to sedition.’ Willie’s life is subject to two great forces – the growing insurrection of his folk and a newfound passion for local beauty, Susie Spencer. As their love develops and unfurls, so the harsher, darker passions of the labourers rise up in company with it, and after a night of violence and looting, Willie finds himself thrust in jail along with nineteen others, his father among them, all fearing for their lives.

The beauty of The Tell-Tale Heart is that nothing is thrust upon the reader. We might interpret the passionate history of the Beamish’s – with its resting point in young Drew’s doomed infatuation for his school teacher – as a good match for Patrick. The refusal to blindly submit to the rules becomes a point of similarity, but whereas Patrick has coupled his with laziness and indifference to the feelings of others, the Beamish heart has loved openly and fiercely, seeking justice, self-advancement, love for its own sake. Patrick remains dismissive of ghostly echoes, but is compelled to seek out his donor’s mother, and be warned, the scene between them will break your heart, unless it’s made of stone. It’s a tribute to the easy flexibility of Jill Dawson’s narrative, that the novel can encompass both comedy and tragedy, the 19th century and the present day, and technology so futuristic that it brings with it a trace of ancient superstition. The uncanny properties of the human heart tie everything together in a story that beats with the enduring power of love in many forms. Just wonderful.

 

On a different note, I just wanted to alert you to a new page in the menu bar – I’ve brought together all the posts I’ve written over the years on literary and cultural theorists and their theories in a Gallery of Theorists. I’ll be doing the same thing shortly for my chronic fatigue posts, too.

 

Three Disasters

1. I was sitting up in bed writing my diary about a week ago, when I heard Mr Litlove talking on the phone. Few people ring so late, so I was not surprised to hear he was talking to our son, and making many expressions of deep sympathy. I’ve been channelling Dorothy Parker for a while now, and I confess the phrase that sprang to mind was: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ Though as is the case when trouble hoves into view, I am always looking in the wrong direction. This is how you know what’s real: you could never have guessed it.

It turned out that it was one of my son’s best friends who was in need of assistance and a bed for the night. His girlfriend lives in our village, and he had gone to visit her, only to find that she and her family were out. He sat on the doorstep for a while and then, bored, had gone for a walk. Only to run into a bunch of youths who had assaulted him. Now he was injured, and the family still hadn’t returned, and it was nearly midnight.

I felt both enormously sorry for my son’s friend, and deeply exhausted at the thought of his arrival. I think I’m suffering from compassion fatigue, after all my son’s troubles of late. Plus it was the end of the week in which we had launched the magazine, and I’m still writing a book here and I was just tired. I’ve noticed, though, that when a situation calls for me to be more engaged and nurturing than I think I can manage, it arouses profound anxiety. The thought of this poor wounded child arriving (would he need to be taken to hospital?) nearly gave me a panic attack. Though in fact, when he came, he only had a small cut on his forehead (where he’d been headbutted) and wasn’t the traumatised boy I’d imagined.

We all went to bed, and in the stillness of the night I could hear him moving around in our son’s room. I was lying there, wide awake, trying to reconstruct his movements. I could hear him talking very quietly on the phone. Then more movement. Then he went downstairs and seemed to try the front door. I could feel Mr Litlove beside me, listening too. After another brief call, he went downstairs again and out of the door. Mr Litlove looked out the window and saw a car arrive and pick him up. Either this was the most willing kidnap in criminal history, or his family had come for him. In the morning we found a really sweet note that he’d left us, saying it was his girlfriend’s family who had finally returned and picked him up en route.

 

2. On Monday morning I was driving to work at the bookshop and sitting in the usual heavy traffic, when I saw my hairdresser pass by in his car on the other side of the road. I was so surprised to see him, as one is with people who belong so intrinsically to their environment. But we waved gaily at one another, and in turning around to do so, I stalled the car. And then, when I tried to start it again, the engine was completely dead.

I put my hazard warning lights on and wondered what on earth to do. I thought for one mad moment I should get out and push, before remembering you needed someone at the wheel to do that. I dug my phone out of my bag, though knew Mr Litlove was in a day-long strategy meeting and couldn’t help. All this time, traffic was pouring around me, white vans honking in protest, the buses squeezing through impatiently with millimetres to spare. And then a saviour appeared at my passenger window in the form of a man on a bike with a beard and ponytail. ‘Have you broken down?’ he asked. ‘I didn’t think you could just be sitting there.’ As he began to push, so the window cleaners from the shop materialised and, recognising me, came to help. I was at least now off the main road in a side street, though parked in a doctor’s space.

The window cleaner had a look at the engine and thought it was the battery. He asked me what had happened and I tried to explain my hairdresser’s surprise drive-by, a narrative he greeted with an expression of bewilderment mixed with indulgent contempt. He had packed off his apprentice – over whom he rules with a sort of benign despotism – to finish the job they’d been doing and said that, when they were ready to leave, he figured they could give me a push start and I could make it home. I don’t have any rescue cover, as Mr Litlove is fond of cancelling things that charge against chance; which is fine when he has the luck of the devil, but not fine for me who most certainly does not. I’d thought I needed to open the shop, so that was a complication, but luckily it turned out that someone was in. So I returned to my car to await my unlikely heroes.

‘I’ve never done this before,’ I said when they appeared. ‘So you’ll have to tell me exactly…’

‘Do you want to push?’

‘Yes.’

So I lined up with the apprentice, both of us grinning wryly at each other in acknowledgement of our lowly status, and we pushed and ran and pushed and the engine caught again.

 

3. So on Thursday night I was once again in bed, writing up my diary, when I became aware of a commotion coming from the bathroom. Mr Litlove was yelling for my help, an act that was unprecedented in our twenty years of marriage, and there was the ominous sound of water cascading. I sped over the landing, opened the bathroom door and saw a drenched Mr Litlove, his hands in the toilet cistern, attempting to stem a gushing fountain of water that would have graced Trafalgar Square. ‘Go and get me a screwdriver!’ he begged, and I shot off, not really liking to admit that I could probably only identify a screwdriver under conditions of complete calm and on receipt of a jolly good clue. In any case, as I hunted around our utility room, there didn’t seem to be any tools in evidence at all. I tore back, tripping up the stairs, with the whole (almost empty) toolbox in hand. ‘You’ll have to stop it while I look,’ Mr Litlove said. ‘Put your hand here and flush the loo when the water gets high enough.’

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s out of control water. It seems to symbolise the most powerful forces of nature able to destroy and wreck in blind chaos. I sloshed through the lake that was covering the bathroom floor and stuck my thumb in the dyke, as it were, my heart pounding and trying not to shiver in my thin nightdress. I could hear Mr Litlove running down the garden path to his shed, and then back to the house and up the stairs. When he had a screwdriver, he could turn off the isolator down by the cistern, and the fountain of water died instantly away. For a moment we neither said nor did anything, catching our breath.

‘Sorry about that,’ said Mr Litlove. He had been washing up downstairs when he heard water running down the windows, which he identified as coming from the overflow. Thinking he could effect a quick repair, he’d gone to take the troublesome part out of the cistern, and…I guess it didn’t go so well. We still don’t have a working toilet upstairs, which is okay, we have a cloakroom, but I’m always halfway up the stairs before I remember.

So it seems the lords of misrule are still aligned over the Fens and I am left wondering what will happen next? It doesn’t bear thinking about…

Old School

First, a brief questionnaire to assess your eligibility for this book:

1. Do you have a wickedly dry and deadpan sense of humour?

2. Do you appreciate gentle, even whimsical satire?

3. Are you fond of British novels from the 1930s?

If the answer to two or more of the above questions is yes, then congratulations, you may proceed to the review!

Because seriously, this is a novel that will only work with the right sense of humour. If you like to take your fiction at face value, if you enjoy melodrama and gutsy emotions, then you will be left bewildered and somewhat out of sorts. If, like me, you have a deep fondness for slightly daft, old-fashioned comedy set in grand educational insitutions, you will love it.

penelopeThe eponymous heroine of Rebecca Harrington’s debut novel is a freshman embarking on her Harvard career. She leaves behind her (as far behind as she can force her to go) a mother who is full of good advice about meeting people, being normal and eschewing her favourite topics, like confessing she used a car seat until fourth grade. For Penelope is an original, an awkward young woman who does not fit neatly into the ideology of the young, though she wishes fervently that she could. Penelope is committed to the path of least resistance, and it’s wishful thinking that leads her to believe it will eventually join up with the superhighway of life. She’s a nice person! She means no harm, ever! And yet she is disappointed to discover that ready agreement with everything that is said to her does not win her friends and influence people.

The people around her, however, are not exactly easy to win over. Her room mates are Emma, a rocket-fuelled over-achiever with a starry social life and a medal in emotional manipulation, and Lan, a genius misogenist who only likes her illegally-kept cat, Raymond (Penelope is allergic). Upstairs lives Ted, an eager to please young man with a disconcerting fringe that makes him look (not in a good way) like a Roman centurion. It’s clear that Ted does like Penelope, but that Penelope instinctually senses they are too alike as uncertain misfits ever to risk being a couple. Penelope’s desires all tend towards the enigmatic Gustav, a student whose worldliness and impeccable pedigree impress her as much as his three-piece suits and his complete indifference to his studies. This makes him stand out in a community where exams are the principle topic of conversation: ‘Homework was like a North Star that everything turned to.’

If you’ve ever been to a sightly hysterical institute of learning, and failed to make friends or fit in, then there is much that will be utterly familiar about this novel. Harrington gently pokes fun at the obsessive-compulsive traits of dedicated students and their grandiose ambitions and opinions, whilst at the same time tapping in to the insecurities of teenagers the world over – the flailing about in search of an identity that constitutes socialising at that age. Harvard is mercilessly satirised, with the constant refrain rising from its ranks that here’s where you’ll have ‘the best conversations of your life’, which are of course never in evidence, and its lacklustre traditions, like the Harvard-Yale football game: ‘The crowd was generally old and clad in fur coats. There were current students at the game too, but they seemed to be a constantly fluctuating, less vocal maroon number, like a small, sad, consumptive sister to the robust alumni of yore.’

Not a lot happens. Penelope scrapes through her classes, fails to make lasting friends, gets involved in a hilariously turgid drama production and does not find true love. But it ain’t what she does, it’s the say that she does it. The narrative is littered with wonderful observations, like Penelope’s experience of the ‘feeling in her stomach that occurs when you realise that your time enjoying composure is rapidly coming to a close’, or the description of the football stadium that was ‘a late Victorian replica of the Coliseum that was both imposing and wholly devoid of irony.’ And I would have loved the book for one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time, when Penelope turns an ardent Gustav away from her door: ‘Suddenly Penelope could not remember why exactly she had said good-bye to him at the door. It had something to do with fear, but she hoped it would be mistaken for strategy.’

I thought this was a delight, a charming romp with an ascerbic edge and a taste for the absurd, and if that sounds a bit heterogeneous, well you’re right. Penelope does bring together the old and the new, the funny and the dreadful, the ditzy and the sharp. And if that’s your sense of humour, sit back and enjoy.

And if you enjoyed this book, you might want to consider a couple of other possibilities from Shiny New Books:

The Following Girls by Louise Levene, a brilliant novel set in a girls’ school in the 70s

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson, in which a womanising professor is given a beating heart transplant with strange consequences. (I’ll be reviewing this myself in a few days time.)