Howl

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Fullalove by Gordon Burn
    Secker, 231 pp, £14.99, August 1995, ISBN 0 436 20059 7

When novelists tell us that the world is made of God’s love or the same green cheese as the moon, we expect them to dramatise their perception – to force their philosophy on us as a magician forces a card – so that we can see how it feels to share it, if only for as long as it takes to read the hook. The same expectation holds good when a novelist proposes, as Gordon Burn does in his new novel Fullalove, that not green cheese or God’s love but black pus – meaningless suffering, and an appetite for meaningless suffering – is the basic building-block of the universe.

The narrator is a journalist in his fifties, writing exploitative human-interest pieces, preferably with a direct link to violent crime, for a tabloid newspaper. His name is Norman Miller, but its similarity to Norman Mailer’s no longer gives him the pleasure it did when his pretensions, if not his values, were higher (an encounter with Mailer at the time of the Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire is one of the novel’s early flourishes).

Miller’s original interest in journalism came from a dissatisfaction with humdrum reality: ‘I cottoned on at an early age that ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world is dreary.’ Until the late Seventies, he thought it possible to trade in misery without being changed by what he exploited (‘The worse it gets, the better I like it’). Since that time he has lost the knack of ignoring his own corruption. Oddly, though, Gordon Burn has chosen to render Miller’s exhausted point of view in a monologue of scurrilous energy. The divorce between a literary sensibility and a moral one – between describing and experiencing – which the novel seeks to denounce is in fact insisted on from the novel’s first page to its last. How is it possible to make cynicism your subject without replacing it as your method?

A second problem with the voice of the book is its familiarity – its provenance, almost. The pastiche of Martin Amis is undisguised and apparently fearless. Here are the tropes in full, right down to the patented CST (Cadenced Synonym Triptych): ‘a troupe, a tiller, a greenham’ (of women keeping vigil outside a hospital). Here are the double-take paradoxes of low self-esteem congratulating itself: ‘If I hadn’t been drinking I’d have thought I’d been drinking.’ The Amis style, though, doesn’t altogether fit its new context. John Self would gorge himself on emetic burgers but he wouldn’t analyse his own motives for cholesterol abuse, as Miller does: ‘I knew the stuff I was cramming into my body was crap, but I also knew there was something seductive and pleasure-giving about it that had to do with resolving the distance you feel between the way you understand the external world and your emotional response to it.’ In Amis, the whole point of being a monster is that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing in this way.

Miller’s glints of self-awareness have an oddly flat quality, as if he was testifying at a meeting of Monsters Anonymous about the dark places his addiction has taken him, without actually being in recovery – fitting in a fair amount of monstrousness, in fact, between meetings. The persona’s self-knowledge and self-ignorance are awkwardly layered in the text, hardly an incidental defect in a book whose whole subject is the lamination of those opposites. So, for instance, Miller learns of his father’s death while interviewing a man whose wife has just lost her legs to an IRA bomb: ‘the sudden reversal of roles was disorienting. The sympathy the man who I was interviewing showed me was different not just in degree, but in levels of spontaneity and compassion, to any I had shown him.’ This is both stiff – an abstract recognition of emotion – and verbally clumsy (compassion as an ingredient of sympathy). The psychology seems oddly thin, as it does elsewhere in the book, on the rare occasions when sincere feeling intrudes.

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