22 September 2012

Russian Dolls

I have just finished reading Ian McEwan's and Sebastian Faulks's new novels, Sweet Tooth and A Possible Life, respectively. I have enjoyed almost every Faulks novel I've read, even A Week in December, which irritated me in places. My track record with McEwan is more mixed: I liked Atonement, Enduring Love and The Cement Garden, was on the fence about Saturday and disliked On Chesil Beach and Black Dogs. As expected, A Possible Life was more my kind of novel than Sweet Tooth, but I did also like the latter, even if McEwan's attempts to be terribly meta and terribly clever for the sake of being clever sometimes grated. In fact, Serena Frome, the protagonist of Sweet Tooth, could almost have fitted in with the five other unusual lives depicted in the five linked but distinct stories that form A Possible Life. Both writers also use the "story within a story" or, in some cases, "song within a story" technique that makes you feel like you're cracking into a set of Russian dolls. Sweet Tooth is heavily autobiographical; parts of A Possible Life seem to be too. I've tried to avoid spoilers, but if you plan to read the books, don't read any further.

Serena Frome is a foxy, blonde vicar's daughter who wins a place to read maths at Cambridge in the 1970s. She turns out not to be as brilliant as she thought and drowns her sorrows in compulsive reading, political writing and an affair with an academic. Despite her mediocre degree, she is recruited by MI5, where, partly because of her looks, partly because of her love of literacha and partly for other reasons, she is tasked with signing up a promising young writer, Tom Haley (who has a lot in common with McEwan), for a programme where he will be paid a lot of money to write. He has been vetted and seems to be the kind of anti-commie writer the government needs, so they want to make sure he has the funds to continue writing rather than having to, say, teach. Inevitably, he and Serena fall for each other, but what about the deception? What about the lies? And (this is on the dust cover, but takes on a new meaning once you reach the end of the novel, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read the book fresh) "who is inventing whom?"

As I said before, Sweet Tooth is very meta and I was seriously concerned that I would get to the end and throw the book across the room in frustration, as I did with On Chesil Beach, but it hung together well, although the ending is a bit of a literary headtrip. Haley's short stories feature prominently within the text but there are no textual indications that Haley's words have taken over from Serena's first-person narrative; she will start describing the story and her words merge into the text of the story. As for the story, no it's not really about spying; it's all about literacha and love and identity and, mainly, McEwan showing how clever he is, which is fine as long as the novel works as a story too.

Sometimes, irritating characters are enough to put me off a book, but this wasn't the case with Sweet Tooth. Serena isn't particularly likeable and often comes across as a bit of a bimbo, a bit naive, and a bit self-involved, but the possible reasons for this portrayal may become clearer at the end. Besides, Haley is often condescending and hardly perfect himself. As Anya King, who appears in A Possible Life, says, "If you're going to draw on your own life, you need to be authentic."

Which brings me to A Possible Life, whose back blurb reads: "Every atom links us. Every feeling binds us. Every thought connects us." And Faulks explores this idea of connectivity in "a novel in five parts," or five linked stories, of varying lengths, set in various time periods (including the future) and in various countries. The stories can be read separately but minor characters, locations and themes, including religion and religiosity, love, loss, memory and family, recur throughout. An interesting concept, and one which reminds me of CafĂ© de Flore, but which could easily become The Tree of Life. Fortunately, Faulks doesn't try to drive anything home too hard. There is no concluding chapter that rams any deep and meaningful ending down the reader's throat; you can just enjoy the stories for what they are.

My two favourites were the first and the third story. The first, A Different Man, could easily fit in with Faulks's French Trilogy (Birdsong et al.): a young, cricket-loving schoolmaster goes off to join the war as a sort of interpreter-spy and the experiences he has there changes him and mean that he is "not the same man any more" (this phrase recurs in several stories). We find out what happens after he gets back from the war, even though nothing exciting happens; he just grows old and struggles to come to terms with the events of his past. The ageing process is present in all of the other stories too, even the short ones, like the one set in a Victorian workhouse, which I didn't enjoy. The stories all focus on a particular period in the protagonist's life but then go on to let us know what happened when he/she grew up and got old. Because, well, c'est la vie.

The middle story, Everything Can Be Explained, is set in Italy in 2029, during the Great Slump, when society has, in many ways, reverted to the way it was in the early 20th century. Elena, an only child, is lonely and her parents decide to adopt a boy, Bruno. They become very close and Bruno brings Elena out of her shell and gives her the courage to complete her degree and eventually become a successful neuroscientist who makes an important discovery about the brain, the mind and our sense of self. Her relationship with Bruno is not a happy one, though, and it's a classic Faulksian tale of missed opportunities and regret.

I also liked the last story, You Next Time, although it took me a while to get into it. It's set in the US in the 1970s when Jack, an ex-pat Brit, recovering from his rock band's failure, meets a talented and, of course, beautiful musician named Anya, who has un air de Joan Baez. Jack falls in love with her and she claims to love him too but you just know she's one of those creative types who can only truly love her art and you just know that when we skip 30 years into the future, they aren't going to be happily married. This story is narrated in the first person by Jack, but it's really a story about Anya. This tension is mirrored in Anya's song lyrics, some of which are in the first person and some in the third; it is only much later that Jack realises that the third-person lyrics were mostly about her too and that the choice of voice was just a distancing mechanism. As for the lyrics, they resonate throughout the story--it's easy to see why Anya's sad songs and her apparently beautiful, melancholy voice became so popular. Decades later, when Jack and Anya meet for the last time, Jack contemplates buying a flat in the former Hoxton workhouse in which story #2 was set. And so it goes...

I don't think Faulks is suggesting that these characters are literal reincarnations of one another (not least because some of them overlap), although on an FAQ on his website in 2008, he wrote: "I do believe in reincarnation, not in a literal sense, but in some sort of atomic sense at least."And in Everything Can Be Explained, as Elena watches a film she is "filled with memories of places she has never been," which happen to be the main locations of three of the other stories. This is reminiscent of Pynchon and even McEwan--and, as Faulks is suggesting, everything is connected and even the most tangential lives can be linked, on some level, and that the deep sense of pain and loss we experience is far from unique to us, but a sad universal truth. A Possible Life isn't perfect but it is well-written and convincing, if often sad, and even though I didn't like all five stories individually, I liked the novel as a whole.

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