Wheezes

Jonathan Coe

  • Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively
    Viking, 282 pp, £14.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 670 84830 1

Samuel Beckett was one of the first to realise that in a predominantly agnostic and sceptical age, nothing could be more irrelevant than the novel whose plot continued to imitate the workings of a benign deity: the writer’s new task, on the contrary, consisted in finding ‘a form that accommodates the mess’. Half a century has gone by since then, and still, both in and out of the mainstream, novelists are struggling to adapt their narrative strategies to the demands of a reality which, as any glance at the newspapers will remind us, grows daily more grotesque and unmanageable. In particular the threat of terrorism begins to look forever closer and more insistent when passed through the media’s magnifying lens, and any writer seeking to address this subject must face up to the possibility that tidy endings are not to be relied upon: that our lives (our narratives, in other words) run the perpetual risk of truncation by sudden, unexpected acts of violence which are dauntingly inexplicable in terms of cause and effect. In the words of Howard Beamish, one of the central characters in Penelope Lively’s new novel, reality ‘has never been quite so devastatingly random’.

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