Jan 17, 2011


"In Pilcrow we followed our narrator John Cromer from early infancy and the crippling onset of Still's disease through various formative experiences, some intellectual, some gastronomic and some sexual, and came to admire his courageous tenacity.... Cedilla is even longer and stranger than its predecessor, Pilcrow, and it is just as unsettling, disarming, and compellingly readable.... On what grounds can you reproach or disbelieve such a storyteller? You cannot mug a boy in a wheelchair."— Margaret Drabble, The Gaurdian

One what grounds? How about: On the grounds that he's told a bad story? In theory at least it ought to be as possible to reproach or desbelieve a storyteller who hails from any walk of life — fat stockbrokers, pale-faced serial killers, whimsical cripples — although the news that The Guardian gives an immediate free pass to all narrators who happen to be sat in a wheelchair is encouraging news. I have hereby decided to populate my second novel entirely with double-amputees, all of them engaged in a charitable sporting activity of some sort, possibly a Polo match, their thrilling rise to the top of the Argentinian first division narrated by a lightly-fictionalised Stephen Hawking. That way, my reviews are bound to be glowing, at least in the Guardian. Drabble appears to have confused two things: 1) delivering an opinion of a novel about someone in a wheelchair and 2) delivering an actual opinion of a person in a wheeelchair sat opposite you, their hopeful face ready to dissolve in tears at the slightest harsh word. Who knows, maybe Adam Mars-Jones book is so blindingly good it's difficult to tell the difference, although Iif I think of some of the best novels I've ever read — Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, Lolita — I can't recall ever having actually mistaken their protagonists for actual people whose feelings I might hurt if I don't happen to like the novels they're in. And those writers were writing at a level of literary endeavour a shade or two above Mars-Jones, I'm going to take the liberty of assuming. But even assuming Cedilla is as good as War & Peace, it would surely help its cause with readers to know that a bad book on the subject of wheelchairs were even possible? There does exist the unfortunate prejudice that a novel about someone confined to a wheelchair might be as confining, aesthetically, as being sat in a wheelchair yourself. For Drabble, that is exactly as things should be:—

"We are also taken through pages of painful surgery to adapt John's body for the adapted Mini, to create the functional Adlerian synthesis. Mars-Jones puts us through a great deal of pain, and at times one must wonder if there is a gratuitous or sadistic pleasure in inflicting it upon us. But somehow the question seems presumptuous. John had to put up with it, and so must we."

Must we? Some might argue with the idea that a description of a painful surgical procedure ought to be as actually painful as the procedure itself on the grounds that it would result in a sharp decline in book sales as people learnt to stay away from any book about the birth of a child, a liver transplant, an untimely death by electrocution, a war scene or even any scene involving a mild grazing during a polo match (there goes my second novel) on the not unreasonable grounds that people don't read novels to be put through actual physical or mental suffering if they can avoid it. Now I know that this is not an uncontrovertible opinion and that there exist small swathes of the reading public who are gluttons for punishment — Paul Auster readers, Anita Shreve fans, the first-response reading teams who supply the Nobel prize committee with contenders — but most of them would baulk, I think, at a description of cataract surgery that filled them with the sensation of someone slicing off the top of their eyeball and poking around in there with a scalpel (is that how cataract surgery is performed? Must research this in time for my second novel, the world of Argentinian polo having made way for the cloak-and-dagger world of Nicaraguan cataract surgeons). Drabble's criteria for literary amnesty is decidedly spotty, one can't help but feel, especially when it comes to the book's conclusion,

" a gripping and perilous scene on a sacred Indian mountain featuring a holy cow. In literary terms, it is impossible for this scene to succeed, particularly for a reader uninterested in Hindu thought and the concept of the Dark Age of the 432,000 years of the Kali Yuga, in which, apparently, we live. It cannot work, but it does. I give up."
That much was clear from the start. The Guardian books pages seem to be doing for the world of letters what Time Out did for film reviewing in the 1990s: creating a inverted Bizarro-world simulacrum of the world of letters, such that were you to take any one of their reviews, hold it upside down, read it back to front and and then take it as gospel, your book shelves would spill over with nothing but great literature all year round. No sooner have we wept hot tears of relief to have spared Cedilla, on the grounds that 1) the reviwer believes it is actually, physically impossible to write a bad book about someone in a wheelchair and 2) Mars-Jones book ends with " a gripping and perilous scene on a sacred Indian mountain featuring a holy cow". That pit of possible turgidity safely sidestepped, we now read, in the very same week's book section, of a second novel from Carol Topolski. To recap, for those unfamiliar with The Grim Topolski's work:—
Monster Love, Carol Topolski's debut novel, shocked and impressed in equal measure. Longlisted for the Orange prize in 2008, it told the horrifying story of a couple who leave their daughter in a cage to die, exploring through a medley of voices what led them to infanticide.
How often have I risen from my downy pillow in the morning, thrown the bedcovers asunder and exclaimed, to my wife, or if she happens to have departed for work, to no-one in particular, "by God if the only thing the world needs more than a novel exploring infanticide is a novel exploring infanticide through a medley of voices, and I don't give a damn who knows it!" But hold it. If Lebowski's follow-up is as good as the Guardian says it is, I will henceforth have to amend my morning cry to include novels about gynaecologist who go out of their way to maim new mothers.
Virginia is a gynaecologist, committed, brilliant and respected, if a bit of an enigma. But squirming within her is a writhing mess of sickness and hatred, of hidden periods of gluttony followed by starvation, of self-mutilation and bondage, all the product of her extraordinarily unhappy childhood. This blossoms into bright, dangerous rage when she believes a woman does not deserve to be a mother. "Every time I hold a woman's womb in my hands, I struggle not to destroy it… I want to wrench it out of her. I want to smash it. I can. I have the power to kill it off and the skill to cover my tracks," she says.
Much as one loves an enigma, especially one in the gynaecological trade, capable of blossoming into a bright dangerous rage at the drop of a hat, the question nags: has Lebowski managed to explore this rich seam with her usual medley of voices, or has she gone solo, so to speak?

Motherhood, good and bad, lies at the heart of Do No Harm, and at the heart of the sickening death with which it starts and ends. Told, as was Monster Love, from a multitude of perspectives

Oh delight untramelled and joy unbounded!

The novel again sees Topolski – a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist – looking at the why behind the crimes. It's not a race-to-save-the-day sort of a thriller: we know from the second page that someone has been killed, that there's no saving her. Instead Topolski quotes Solzhenitsyn as her epigraph – "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" – and goes on to show how Virginia, repellent in many ways but struggling to be good, ends up on one side of the line.

Or, as Stevie Wonder once sang, "There's good and bad in everyone. We learn to live, we learn to give each other. What we need to survive. Together alive." Lebowski is free to use that as an epigraph for her third novel, a comedy of manners set in the world of basement abortionists, if she wants.

* An occasional column devoted to those books, movies and art exhibits which would, on balance, better serve us by remaining unread, unwatched and unvisited, based on the principle that the reactions we have to absent art works can be every bit as enriching as to those demanding our urgent personal attention

1 comment:

  1. "...it told the horrifying story of a couple who leave their daughter in a cage to die..."

    Sweet. Saint. Francis. Of. Assisi.

    Also, John 11:35.

    Well, this post counts as a public service. And January isn't even over.

    Perhaps later in 2011 you could consider an even more rigorous label for those who share my (very) high level of wussiness: "So Glad I Don't Have to Read a Detailed Plot Synopsis of..."