Emotional Sushi

Ian Sansom

  • One for My Baby by Tony Parsons
    HarperCollins, 330 pp, £15.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 00 226182 0
  • How to Be Good by Nick Hornby
    Viking, 256 pp, £16.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 670 88823 0
  • Little Green Man by Simon Armitage
    Viking, 246 pp, £12.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 670 89442 7

Tony Parsons is the talented journalist who used to play Leonard Bast to Tom Paulin’s rentier intellectual on Late Review, the BBC’s weekly parade of Schlegelisms. He was the mean little man with the Estuary accent who was entitled to his views. He currently writes a column for the Mirror and his opinions spill forth also now in novels. ‘The problem these days is not getting the British to talk about their feelings,’ he announces in his new book. ‘The problem these days is getting them to shut the fuck up.’ Quite. The problem with having opinions is that you soon get stuck with them: it’s not like having ideas, which tend to variety and nuance. The novels of Tony Parsons are already beginning to repeat themselves.

There are a number of similarities between One for My Baby and Parsons’s previous novel, the ‘publishing sensation’ Man and Boy. Man and Boy may have been ‘universally acclaimed’ but it was clearly not widely read, since reviewers of One for My Baby seem not to have noticed the many features the book shares with its predecessor. Both novels are set in North London. Man and Boy was divided into three parts. So is One for My Baby. Readers may recall that the narrator of Man and Boy was called Harry, and he was a producer on a TV talk-show. His wife, Gina, left him and went to work in Tokyo. The narrator of One for My Baby is called Alfie (Parsons seems to be paying homage to characters played by Michael Caine). Alfie’s wife is called Rose. Rose dies on him. She was working in Hong Kong. In Man and Boy Harry’s misfortune led him to reassess his relationship with his young son and his parents and to fall in love with a woman who had a young daughter of her own. In One for My Baby Alfie’s misfortune leads him to wish he had children, to reassess his relationship with his parents, and to fall in love with a woman who has a young daughter of her own. In One for My Baby Alfie’s new love, Jackie Day, is a feisty lady down on her luck – she’s a cleaner. In Man and Boy Harry’s new love, Cyd, was also a feisty lady down on her luck – she was a waitress. In both novels Harry/Alfie is assaulted by the ex-boyfriend, and in both cases Harry/Alfie ends up in a dustbin (North London does not yet seem to have the benefit of wheelie bins). In Man and Boy Harry’s father tackled two intruders who had broken into his house. In One for My Baby Alfie tackles someone he thinks to be an intruder in his grandmother’s house. Later, the grandmother dies. In Man and Boy the father died. In Man and Boy Harry had a panic attack – in a supermarket. In One for My Baby Alfie has a panic attack – on the Tube. Towards the end of Man and Boy there was a scene in a lap-dancing club. Towards the end of One for My Baby there is a scene in a brothel. In both novels there is a last minute, last page twist in which the hero gets the girl. In both novels Parsons uses the songs of Frank Sinatra as background music.

These slight structural similarities may have something to do with the universally acclaimable publishing sensation based on the principles of novel-writing advanced in books with titles like ‘Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them’ and ‘How to Write a Mi££ion: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Author’. They might not therefore be seen as laziness or perfidy, but merely as the constraints of genre. ‘Plenty of people,’ as Matthew Arnold remarked, ‘will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual conditions of the masses.’ Fair enough: Parsons is dishing up traditional plain fare and one would seek in vain in such an offering for evidence of the subtle delicacies of structure, those flavourings, those little balancings to be found in food or fiction of a finer quality, the sort of stuff that Tony Parsons himself might be expected to read or eat after a hard day’s work in Metropolitan Zones 1 and 2.

But hang on. In Man and Boy Gina has teeth ‘a little bit gappy, a little bit goofy, teeth that give every single smile a rakish air’. And now, in One for My Baby, Rose, too, has ‘this buck-toothed grin that stopped her from being any kind of conventional beauty’. In Man and Boy Cyd and Harry attended an awards ceremony where Cyd wore ‘a green cheongsam in Chinese silk – high-necked, tight as a second skin, the greatest dress I have ever seen in my life’. In One for My Baby Jackie and Alfie attend a dinner party, where Jackie wears ‘some western designer’s idea of a cheongsam. It’s midnight blue with red piping, very tight fitting … she looks great.’ Perhaps she’s had it dyed. In Man and Boy Harry’s grandfather smells of Old Holborn and Old Spice. In One for My Baby Alfie’s grandfather smells of Old Holborn and Old Spice. On page 114 of the hardback edition of One for My Baby there is a tasteless joke about Essex girls and vibrators. There is also a joke about Essex girls washing their hair in the kitchen sink. And a joke about Essex girls and mosquitoes. On page 182 of the paperback of Man and Boy there is a tasteless joke about Irish girls and vibrators. And Irish girls washing their hair in the kitchen sink. And Irish girls and mosquitoes. In Man and Boy, Harry says: ‘I once read somewhere that, in any relationship, the one who cares the least is the one with all the power.’ In One for My Baby, Alfie says: ‘I remember this thing I once read on a problem page about the person who holds the power in any relationship … the person with the power is always the one who cares less.’ There are countless other examples of self-repetition. One for My Baby appears to have been untouched by any editorial hand, or at least by an editorial hand that had also bothered to pick up Man and Boy. There is even one scene of sexual congress – a crucial plot point, as Parsons’s manuals might put it – which seems to describe an anatomical impossibility.

In One for My Baby, then, Parsons does not pretend to originality, or even attempt to reposition the brand; nor does he opt for any great subtlety of meaning. Both novels are a bitter lament for the long lost nuclear family, the respectable surburban, lower-middle-class family life, the family, as Alfie puts it, ‘that I knew in my childhood, a family that somewhere along the way I have somehow got separated from’, a ‘land of small pleasures, quietly savoured – card schools (men and women) on Christmas night, football (men and boys) on Boxing Day, a trip to the local for a game of darts and a couple of pints (men only) when we had “guests”’. Or as Harry puts it, ‘card schools at our house every Boxing Day … Scotch at Christmas and the brown ale at weddings’. If Harry and Alfie are the same character with different names, Man and Boy and One for My Baby are the same novel with different titles.

So why would anyone bother to read the second book? For exactly the same reason they bothered with the first: for a serving of emotion in the raw. Parsons’s is a world of uncooked delicacies: a world of kids saying the cutest things, of lovable teenage rogues, of sweet grannies and daddies dying, of different cultures rubbing along just fine, and of the bewildered male emerging bruised and battered but with his dignity intact. It’s emotional sushi, and Parsons knows it. In One for My Baby, Alfie’s father is the author of his own widely acclaimed publishing sensation, a memoir, Oranges for Christmas, which is described as ‘full of dirty-faced urchins having a rare old time hunting for rats on bomb sites while their nextdoor neighbours are being blown up by the Luftwaffe’. Oranges for Christmas is obviously intended as a stab at books like Angela’s Ashes, but it gets to the heart of Parsons’s own nostalgic project. His are books that sell pity and memory: they’re a kind of blackmail. They extort. One for My Baby approaches the reader with tear-stained face, arms extended, demanding: ‘Hug me.’ Unless you’re a cold-hearted beast, you will. But in the morning you’ll regret it.

Nick Hornby is a former teacher, as the title of his new novel might suggest. Like Parsons he is capable of great emotional directness. The narrator of the new novel thinks about her poor suffering brother:

We could go home to Mum and Dad’s. We’d both be happier there. He wasn’t suicidal when he was there, and I wasn’t careworn and guilty. It would be great. We’d fight about what television programmes to watch, probably, but apart from that … And we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as before. We wouldn’t decide that we wanted to get older and live lives of our own. We tried that and it didn’t work.

How to Be Good, then, is another novel with a lump in its throat. But where Parsons is saying ‘Hug me,’ Hornby inquires politely: ‘Can I help?’

How to Be Good is Hornby’s attempt at a female narrative voice. The opening sentence of the book is quick to make its point, and has Hornby donning the equivalent of a female impersonator’s bonnet and skirts: ‘I am in a carpark in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him any more.’ Like Parsons, however, Hornby’s distinctive voice proves impossible to disguise: How to Be Good’s Katie Carr is About a Boy’s Will Freeman is the High Fidelity Rob is the same autobiographical voice familiar to readers of Fever Pitch.

Fortunately, it is a voice of apparently inexhaustible and androgynous charm. Hornby was never really writing Lad Lit, which if it exists at all would only be drunk and sneering and immature: the equivalent of pub-talk. He writes something more like Lite Lit, infinitely more sober and self-possessed: an evening in with a take-away. Even Fever Pitch was cosy: a book most definitely in touch with its feminine side. How to Be Good is full of the kind of perfectly pleasant hummable riffs that Hornby – currently pop-music critic for the New Yorker – is justly famous for. Remember ‘My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups’ that begins High Fidelity? Remember ‘How cool was Will Freeman? This cool: he had slept with a woman he didn’t know very well in the last three months (five points). He had spent more than three hundred pounds on a jacket (five points). He had spent more than twenty pounds on a haircut (five points).’ How to Be Good now extends this fine line of wit even further:

Here is a list of the people that Andrew and David have hitherto regarded as talentless, overrated, or simply wankers: Oasis, the Stones, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Robbie Williams, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Auberon Waugh, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Archer, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, William Shakespeare (although to be fair they despise the comedies and some of the history plays only).

‘It is easier, in fact,’ notes Katie, ‘to write down the people in world history that they both like: Bob Dylan (although not recently), Graham Greene, Quentin Tarantino and Tony Hancock.’ Andrew and David, it has to be said, would probably count Nick Hornby somewhere between Martin Amis and Jeffrey Archer.

How to Be Good is uneven. Compared to Parsons, the smooth operator, Hornby can appear cack-handed: people come and go without apparent purpose; there are longueurs, and some of the characters are stereotypes; there is no upbeat sentimental ending. But this turns out to his advantage. In the book’s final paragraph, Katie’s husband David is kneeling on a windowsill attempting to fix a leaky roof, hardly a blockbuster moment:

He’s wearing jeans, and Tom and I grab hold of one back pocket each in an attempt to anchor him, while Molly in turn hangs on to us, purposelessly but sweetly. My family, I think, just that. And then, I can do this. I can live this life. I can, I can. It’s a spark I want to cherish, a splutter of life in the flat battery; but just at the wrong moment I catch a glimpse of the night sky behind David, and I can see that there’s nothing out there at all.

This is so perfectly poised that it rights the whole novel.

Katie Carr is a hard-working GP who is ‘becoming heartily sick of liberalism. It’s complicated, and tiring, and open to misinterpretation.’ David is the house-husband who writes a column for his local North London newspaper, entitled ‘The Angriest Man in Holloway’. When he’s not busy looking after the children or being professionally angry, David is also writing a novel, The Green Keepers, about the staff of Green Keepers, a company that sells ‘banana elbow cream and Brie foot lotion and lots of other amusingly useless cosmetics’, all of whom ‘require bereavement counselling when the donkey they have adopted dies’. Katie and David have two young children, Tom and Molly, and their marriage is, as the saying goes, falling apart. Or self-destructing. Katie is having an affair, while David befriends a New Age healer called GoodNews, a man with a goatee and body-piercings who has taken so many drugs he seems to possess miraculous powers. Under the influence of GoodNews, David blisses out and becomes, in his own words, ‘a liberal’s worst nightmare’ – because, as he explains, ‘I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.’ David’s change of heart leads to hilarious – ! – consequences involving the sharing first of food and then of living space with the homeless.

How to Be Good is a serious book. You can tell because there is a lot of talk about sin. From the very first page Hornby is busy addressing his title: the question of how to live a good life. David tries to walk it and Katie goes on, and on, and talks it. Neither of them arrives at an answer because, as Katie puts it, ‘rich and beautiful lives seem to be a discontinued line.’ Actually, rich and beautiful lives are still widely available, but perhaps not in North London. The real problem, not only for David and Katie, but also for Hornby, and, for that matter, for Tony Parsons, is that although they appear to be posing difficult questions about Life there is no real risk involved in any of their answers, so the dilemmas never feel real. Parsons subjects Alfie to a few trials but he is acquitted, quickly and predictably, and even Hornby really only tests his characters’ marriage with conundrums. When it looks like Katie’s lover, Stephen, might start causing some serious trouble, he is politely asked to leave – and he does.

The beauty of Simon Armitage’s new novel is that it’s prepared to face up to things. But then of course Armitage has the great advantage of coming from West Yorkshire. He is also a poet (Little Green Man is his first work of fiction). And even if you didn’t know it, even if the book came in plain brown wrappers and without a title page, you could probably tell. To turn from the prose of Hornby or Parsons to Armitage is like setting the clock back, turning from the world of colour supplements to the work of John Florio. What strikes one immediately is the density of the language: it’s a distillation, like a purée, or as Armitage’s narrator Barney puts it, ‘a different barrel of biscuits altogether’. Armitage has always been a connoisseur of cliché and proverbial saying, twisting the words slightly, as if they were the top on a plastic bottle of slightly shaken Coke, and then letting them fizz. In Killing Time, for example, his commissioned ‘millennium’ poem, he writes, typically:

So they left no stone unturned,
put fingers in every pie,
left no darkness unwormed,
let no sleeping dogs lie.

This neat little quatrain might serve as a useful motto to the novel.

Unfortunately, Armitage’s narrator Barney is out of work – no amount of imaginative investment, it seems, enables Hornby, Parsons or Armitage to provide their main male characters with proper jobs (although Alfie does teach English as a foreign language). At the beginning of the 21st century, we are once again in the age of the flâneur. Indeed, the real benchmark for the contemporary novel about the male in crisis is John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips (2000), a book in which the Mr Phillips in question takes a walk and, until near the end at least, nothing much happens. As befits the modern drifter, Armitage’s Barney has separated from his wife and child and sets out to fill his empty life by recreating his childhood. He contacts some old friends from school – Winkie, Stubbs, Pompus and Tony Football – and presents them with a challenge: they must compete once again for the prize of a useless ornament – the little green man of the title. When Barney and Co. were boys they performed dares to take possession of the talisman: ‘it started with Pompus ladling frog-spawn down his kecks. Then Stubbs nicking a packet of johnnies from the chemist’s. Then Tony Football walking through the graveyard at midnight, in bare feet. And the banger up the cat’s arse … And so on, and so on.’ Now that they are all grown up, of course, the stakes are higher and the winner gets to keep the little green fella, who, as it turns out, according to Barney, is actually a piece of 17th-century Chinese jade worth three quarters of a million pounds. Unlike One for My Baby and How to Be Good, Little Green Man has a plot that proceeds via a series of genuinely shocking twists and turns – one might even say convolutions – so summary would be a give-away. Just imagine the worst thing you could challenge a friend to do: and yes, they even do that.

Armitage also outdoes his peers in his range of sideshow insights and amusements. Parsons and Hornby are often to be found fossicking around in the attic looking for unusual memorabilia to serve up to their fellow thirty and fortysomethings, but only Armitage really comes up with the goods. ‘In the 1970s,’ he writes,

things got covered up. Walls were draped with woodchip, antique doors were boarded over and panelled off. Mantelpieces were torn out, fireplaces bricked up. Bricks and stone were daubed with Artex or emulsion. Ceilings were clad with polystyrene tiles, floorboards with lino and wall-to-wall foam-backed rugs. Every inch of wood was treated and primed and slapped with coat after coat of shock-resistant, blindingly shiny gloss. After so many layers, it’s hard to get back to the true grain.

The metaphors resound, and the sentences ring: ‘Winkie’s breath always smelt of pear-drops or puke’; ‘He had a lazy eye. He had glue ear’; and there are ‘vast, plug-ugly seagulls with nicotine-coloured beaks and dinosaur feet’. Little Green Man is an appropriate title: it is certainly more perfect – and more enviable – than its competitors. Yet what’s most remarkable about the book, however much it manages to distinguish itself, is that its portrayal of the pathetic English male, struggling with obscure, atavistic impulses which threaten to destroy anything resembling a good life, only goes to prove Parsons and Hornby’s point, one which any respectable separatist-feminist could have made back in the early 1970s: all men are the same.