WHEN GERMAINE AND ZADIE GOT IT WRONG

The next post will be on or before Saturday April 6th

WHEN GERMAINE AND ZADIE GOT IT WRONG

Few things are more entertaining, albeit also irritating and risible, than seeing brainbox literary critics, whether the UK or US variety, writing myopic and unbelievable drivel about certain overlauded books that come their way. Here for example is Deirdre Donohue writing in USA Today about the 2000 novel Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (born 1962)

‘Lanchester possesses enormous stylistic gifts. Not one sentence is pedestrian…’

Are you sure, Deirdre? Or were you just possibly half-watching the telly, say Friends or the demanding Seinfeld while writing your panegyric to the blemishless maestro? Note that Lanchester is a lifelong Londoner (he is also on the editorial board of the London Review of Books) and here he is in Mr Phillips bringing metropolitan architecture to life with some far from consummate vividness.

‘The houses in the Crescent are low-squatting semi-detached Edwardian villas…They look more cramped than they are, with decent space at the back and sometimes an attic too, as well as three upstairs bedrooms.’

This reads to me like a cross between an estate agent with incipient dementia and the late Ivor Cutler, Scottish poet and humourist (1923-2006) doing his deadpan riffs on witless overstatement. But just in case you think I am cruelly plucking out a sole and anomalous authorial lapse, here is some more tickertape prose where the hero Mr Phillips is caught up in a bank robbery. He is looking at Clarissa Colingford, a TV celebrity who is the object of his regular erotic fantasies, and who by coincidence is also caught up in the terrifying heist.

‘Her thin pale-brown shirt looks as if it was made out of chamois leather and her thin-looking cream trousers unfortunately seem likely to pick up all kinds of dirts and smears from the Barclays carpet’

Do you, intelligent reader, need me to point out the quantity of ungainly hyphenated adjectives in these two samples, one of which is both a repetition of ‘thin’ and also a weakening item of pallid description as he says it is ‘thin-looking’. The point is that Lanchester who is capable of great things as in his debut prizewinning novel written in the first person The Debt to Pleasure (1996) once he moves to the third person as in Mr Phillips, would seem to find himself much of the time completely at sea. The novel is about a day in the life of a London accountant aged 50, recently made redundant and afraid to tell his wife, who even though she is a gifted music teacher, appears more of a blurred cipher than a credible character throughout the novel, where she is invariably called Mrs Phillips. They have 2 young sons called Martin and Thomas who indulge in amiable and predictable anthropological quirks like sleeping all day at the weekend and putting signs on their bedroom doors saying No Entry, but that said none of the four Phillips could be accused of coming to life in the radical novelistic sense of being vivid and credible on the page. As I’ve been telling all my creative writing students for the last 30 years, when trying to produce compelling literary fiction, there are 3 principal ways of making a character vivid. You have the option of telling us the readers, one or all of the following:

-how precisely they look (Dickens, Mollie Keane, George Eliot)

-how precisely they do things (Chekov, Eudora Welty)

-how precisely they speak (Graham Greene, Ivy Compton Burnett)

Sadly, employing the third person and with the distancing device of the ‘Mr’ for his hero, Lanchester’s descriptive powers tend to the formulaic, and his characters, especially the women who set Phillips’ sex-obsessed mind going, tend to be presented as police identikit summaries rather than 3 dimensional human beings. Hence, when we turn to a woman beggar who Phillips chances across during his day at large, his cameo of her down-and-out appearance would barely pass muster in an essay written by a callow and unheeding 11-year-old.

‘…sitting half rolled-up in too many clothes for the weather – heavy trousers, two or three shirts, a coat, a bobble hat, with a couple of plastic bags strewn around her’

Chekov or Dickens or Mollie Keane could have made the same beggar alive for ever by going to town on the precise nature of the trousers, the shirts and the hat, whereas all Mr P can do is subsequently offer a weary and unoriginal John  Lanchester riff on how beggars embarrass you whether you give them money or not. And note that there is not only US Deirdre telling us that inter alia Proustian/ Joycean Lanchester is incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence. We also have Germaine Greer no less (born 1939) with her colossal and original and as a rule fearless brain, saying, ‘I think it is a masterpiece’ plus the  gifted novelist Zadie Smith (born 1975) of all people declaring, ‘Absolute blinder of a book, hysterically funny, very moving, sooo (sic) elegantly done. Rather wish I’d written it meself (sic)’. Perhaps Zadie’s folksy Our Lass Next Door colloquialisms give a clue to both the ambient weakness of British critical insight, and the bizarre astigmatism whereby declared and prominent feminists are praising a book that is at times repellently misogynistic.

To start at the beginning. Mr Phillips who only once in the whole novel is referred to as Victor (it means Conqueror in Latin, but the nuance, if there is any, is so obscure, it is beside the point) is a 50 year old accountant with a 46 year old wife and 2 teenage boys. He has been bounced/made redundant from his job but we don’t discover that until well into the book, nor that his picaresque journey around London is intended to dupe his wife into thinking he is still working. Much of the notional energy of the novel is given up to Mr Phillips’ random third person ruminations, most of them about sex, and as he is an accountant he and his erstwhile Scottish colleague Monroe had often drily embarked on elaborate calculator computations re things like the frequency with which couples all over the UK might have sex. The essential paradox they both agree is that while everyone goes around thinking everyone else is always at it, the obvious statistical and commonsense reality is that the majority of folk are rarely or indeed never having sex. Phillips’ subconscious deals with his own middle- aged libidinal famine by regular erotic dreams, where despite their vividness (more vivid than any of the characters in the book for sure) he never actually penetrates the woman of his night-time fantasy. The vocabulary of his masculine fantasies is often expressed in a stark and mechanical manner with ample use of the words cock, dick, erection and the debatable word cunt (I know several far from prudish women of different generations who cannot bear to hear it uttered in any context). There is very rarely anything approaching a glancing tenderness or even authentic passion of any kind, as opposed to the phallocentric clinical, and there is an odd and strained passage about the hero and his wife where he manages to move from an incipient tender gentleness to a raw and repugnant conclusion

‘…the smell of her…her skin smelling of milk and sometimes cinnamon, her hair of leaves or sometimes, not unpleasantly, of London, a smell of distant gunsmoke…or of the floral aftermath of her previous day’s toilette, and of sweat metallic and musky, perhaps even of the farts which might have been democratically intermingling under the duvet, with an occasional whiff of authentic cunt smell wafting up as she shifts beside him…’

Aside from the lazy imprecision of that word ‘authentic’, it seems to me that both the hero and Lanchester are acutely uncomfortable when it comes to simple tenderness. So that although all is going well and movingly in the text till we get to the word ‘musky’, thereafter both author and protagonist cannot resist the yah boo schoolboy crudity of under the sheet farts. The same is rolled up in a kind of posh and ironic decorousness, which alas shoots itself in the foot by bringing in the sheer banality of that Terry and June suburbia word ‘duvet’. The writer and his hero then stamp on things decisively by dragging in the c-word just to show they ain’t frightened of anything, and aren’t really Terry and June lookalikes after all. The semantic clue to all this cheerily masculine infantilism seems clear at one stage, when Phillips muses that of all the words for sex, such as lovemaking, fucking etc, the one closest to his heart and inner reality is just ‘doing’ ‘it’. One ‘does’ the thing called sex, which seems to me at any rate a grim species of alienation, for he is definitely not talking about women with insensitive lovers lying back and making the lifeless motions. He is instead stating that when he Phillips copulates, in pure existential terms he ‘does’ ‘it’, the all-purpose auxiliary verb ‘to do’ being in my view a colourless and deeply estranged agency if ever there was.

That being the case, there is scant room here for real comedy if any, for how can you have comedy or any other kind of animated fiction, if the characters and descriptive indices are all 2 dimensional, the scene setting ditto (cue at one point a string of undescribed London tube stops by way of ‘movement’ and ‘colour’ in the novel). This book is hailed by numerous cognoscenti as a comic masterpiece, which surely means it needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dickens, HG Wells and Flann O’ Brien, but alas it fails at every level, as instead of being truly funny, it is measuredly and usually ornately facetious. Worse still, at times it doesn’t even manage that, and the ironies such as they are could have been culled from a Rotarian’s after dinner speech.

‘A jogger, a tall man wearing white shorts who has a curious prancing stride, lifting his knees high, passes Mr Phillips, and gives him a sidelong look as he bounces by. Presumably you don’t see many people in suits carrying briefcases in parks at this time of day’

I have read this extract six times trying to get some picture of the jogger and his hinted persona, but I see precisely nothing. He like the man who observes him is a facetious ghost, no more. You might well retort, but he is a minor incidental character, so what’s the problem, to which I would say, well why did Lanchester bring him into the novel in that case? By contrast note that in different ways Dickens and Wells and O’Brien, all took pains to animate their creations, including the monsters as well as the buffoons, by appropriate descriptive touches and as a rule subtly wrought if stylised dialogue. To that extent when Dickens is writing about appalling caricatural specimens like Gradgrind and Pecksniff and Murdstone and Mrs Joe, he invests an objective love in their creation by doing them the courtesy of rendering every last piously cruel sniff and snort and wheeze and hypocritical smile. More relevant perhaps is that Wells like Lanchester was also given to titling his comic heroes ‘Mr’ and we have those eponymous and uneven novels featuring Mr Britling, Mr Lewisham, Mr Blettsworthy, Mr Parham and best known of all, Mr Polly. The History of Mr Polly (1910) is by far the least whimsical and most funny of these works, and for all its caricatural contrivance, manages to squeeze piquant comedy out of Wells’ own appalling years as an apprentice draper in Kent, as witnessed also in his superior and perennially endearing 1905 novel Kipps. We all know about Dickens the child in the hideous blacking factory, and perhaps the reason why Lanchester cannot extract great comedy out of his character Phillips is because his creation has known nothing worse than being made redundant at the age of 50, having a marital sex life not quite exciting enough, and having for a time to live on only one income viz that of his wife, Mrs Phillips, with her, as he puts it in an altogether vain and vulgar stab to raise the fictional flashpoint, ‘authentic’ and intimate body odours.

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