Self-Effacers

John Lanchester

  • Chicago Loop by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 183 pp, £12.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 241 12949 4
  • Lies of Silence by Brian Moore
    Bloomsbury, 194 pp, £12.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0610 8
  • Amongst Women by John McGahern
    Faber, 184 pp, £12.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 571 14284 2
  • The Condition of Ice by Christopher Burns
    Secker, 170 pp, £12.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 436 19989 0

It’s sometimes easy to forget that good writing is not necessarily brilliant on the surface. There are talented novelists who eschew local flourishes in favour of a tonal evenness which they believe better serves the purposes of structure, characterisation and plot. Their prose seeks to be transparent rather than dazzling. If one could plot writers on a continuum which measured the extent to which a prose style forces its brilliance on our attention, the four novelists here under review would be clustered towards the self-effacing side of the spectrum, with colleagues such as Burgess, Nabokov and Amis fils huddling together for warmth at the far end.

Paul Theroux’s last novel, My Secret History, deployed a cool transparency of style to great effect in telling a story which appeared to be flagrantly autobiographical: that’s to say, its central character, ‘Andre Parent’, had lived in the same places and circumstances as Theroux, and had written the same books. My Secret History was about duality and secrecy, and their relationship to the business of writing; it was also about the ‘chip of ice’ that Graham Greene said exists in every writer’s heart. This chip is often talked about – and mentions of it on the part of writers are usually either a form of boasting or a plea for special treatment – but it isn’t often made to seem real.

The achievement of My Secret History was to sketch a believable connection between Andre Parent’s writing and the reptilian coldness of his egotism, and to do so without claiming that the one somehow excused the other. Theroux managed to avoid the usual confessional dialectic between self-accusation and self-exculpation – a dialectic which is involved in making a coded plea for the reader’s forgiveness – largely through the already mentioned coolness and lucidity of his style. A prose more intensely wrought would have injected an element of the energy which makes attractive fictional monsters as disparate as Richard III and John Self.

Chicago Loop (terrific title) is another book that has a cold, clear surface and a lurking nastiness underneath. Its central character, Parker Jagoda (terrific name), is a 37-year old architect-turned-developer who, unknown to his photographer’s-model wife Barbara, has been placing ads in the lonely hearts columns of the local papers. The book begins with Parker on the way to one of the ensuing dates. It rapidly becomes evident that all isn’t well with him: he has a sense of universal corruption and falsity; his jumpy thought-processes alternate between distraction and obsession; he keeps telling detailed lies about himself to strangers; he is going off his head. Just how off his head becomes apparent when he takes Sharon, his second date of the evening, back to her flat, and does something terrible to her – exactly what isn’t yet clear. Parker and Barbara then go to an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures (Parker hates them), to a restaurant (Parker throws up), and, the next evening, to a motel, where Barbara pretends to be a prostitute. The next time they indulge in some sexual role-playing in the same motel, Barbara dresses up as a man, and this has a strong psychic effect on Parker, who realises the nature of the terrible thing he did to Sharon: he had tied her up and bitten her to death.

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