Mixed Up

Joanna Kavenna

  • The Optimists by Andrew Miller
    Sceptre, 313 pp, £16.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 340 82512 X

Andrew Miller’s first two novels, Ingenious Pain (1997) and Casanova (1998), were extended fantasies set in an imaginatively embellished 18th century. In his third novel, Oxygen (2001), Miller cast off the breeches and capes to write about a mother suffering from terminal cancer whose sons go to her house in the country to help nurse her. His new novel, The Optimists, describes a war-traumatised contemporary journalist who leaves the city to nurse his mentally ill sister in the countryside.

In past and present, Miller is compelled by inversions and oppositions. His novels are often hinged at the centre. In Ingenious Pain, the protagonist feels no pain for one half of the novel and an excess of pain for the other. In Casanova, the eternal lover finds his love is unrequited. The brothers in Oxygen are opposites: one is introverted, quiet, scruffy; the other is well-dressed, suave, endlessly adept. Alec arrives from his ‘small flat in London’, where he lives next door to Mr Bequa – ‘whose clothes carried their own atmosphere of black tobacco and failed cooking’ – and works as an underpaid translator; Larry from a drugs marathon in LA, where he has been a successful TV actor, though his fortunes are now faded and his marriage has collapsed. Through Alec and Larry, Miller develops a wider opposition, between Europe and America. For Alec,

Culture and Beauty and Style were European phenomena, or, more specifically, French. America was Hollywood and Vegas and rednecks. It was razzmatazz and bad food. It was helplessly vulgar. But for Larry and his friends, America had felt like the last place on the planet where things actually happened, a country where a man’s life could still have a mythic weight to it.

Despite the structural continuities, there are significant differences of style and atmosphere according to whether Miller is writing about the past or the present. In his historical fiction, he errs towards camp; his sentences sparkle, flaunting their frivolity. The novels are full of boisterous grotesques, and Miller relishes their strangeness. The pain-immune protagonist of Ingenious Pain is first put on stage as a performing freak and later courted by monarchs as a fearless surgeon. Then he meets a northern witch-queen who cures him. He ends up living with a reverend who first appears skewered by a scalpel, haemorrhaging, having been over-vigorously bled. There is a back-streets cast of hawkers and crooks, ham actors the lot of them, with decayed teeth and rasping voices. Casanova laments his lot to Samuel Johnson. He is a vividly seedy lover, Johnson a polysyllabic agony uncle; and around them whirls a cast of women for sale, rapacious aunts and mothers, and gentlemen bartering their mistresses over tea. Casanova thinks in luscious phrases:

He was looking out at the green whorls of English fields and English woods, at the enchanting chalky blue of the English sky, and wondering if this tilled and agreeable little country might not be just the place for a man to … shake off those morbid dawn vigils, those nights when it seemed some demonic lapdog crouched on his chest, panting into his face.

Writing about the past, Miller is in a holiday humour, allowing his characters flights into the baroque, spilling out adjectives and lavish conceits. In his contemporary world, everything is tautly documented, strictly confined to realism. Faced with the present, Miller becomes spartan and literal. The pace drops: the historical novels are explosions in allegro; Oxygen and The Optimists are measured and methodical. His metaphors shrivel, landscapes are observed in sparse, workmanlike prose, and his characters are smaller. They live in seamy parts of London; they eat lukewarm food in bad restaurants; they slink out to the cinema in the afternoons and cry at Hollywood schmaltz. Atmosphere depends on the accumulation of detail. In Oxygen, Miller lingers on the gruelling minutiae of nursing: ‘Some measures she had agreed to. She took sit-down showers instead of baths, had a raised plastic seat on the toilet, and on Alec’s last visit he had rigged up a bell, running the wire down the stairs from the bedroom and screwing the bell-housing to a beam by the kitchen door.’

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