Nothing in a Really Big Way

James Wood

  • Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones
    Faber, 525 pp, £18.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 21703 8

In 1948, Tennessee Williams published a short story (and collection of the same title) called ‘One Arm’. It is about Oliver Winemiller, a magnificent young navy boxer who lost an arm in a car crash when he was 18, and whose life has subsequently gone to ruin. Working as a male hustler, he services thousands of men in cities throughout America. Eventually, he murders a wealthy client on his yacht, and is imprisoned and sentenced to death. In prison, Oliver has a kind of awakening – not a moral renaissance, but an access of attentiveness. He suddenly realises how much he meant to the men he pleasured, and writes long letters to them. But it is too late. He goes to the chair clutching a packet of his precious correspondence.

Like most of Tennessee Williams’s short fiction, the story is sentimental and portentously written. It also encodes the necessary hypocrisies of the age, whereby Oliver’s sexual adventures are yearningly evoked by a gay author, yet punished as at once the inevitable fruit of disability and the seed of a judicial death. Whether Williams knew it or not, his story proposes homosexuality as a deficiency the body must register, leading to deficient behaviour: ‘Before imprisonment he had thought of his maimed body as something that, being broken, was only fit for abuse.’

In his new novel, Pilcrow, Adam Mars-Jones slips in a quick reference to ‘One Arm’, when the narrator, a disabled boy called John Cromer, tells us that he and a schoolfriend ‘wept together over “One Arm” – Jimmy’s tears the more surprising since he knew the story so well’. Craftily, Mars-Jones doesn’t stop to reprise the tale, and the reference is so fleeting that one could easily miss it. But it seems a central allusion, because this constantly surprising book is nothing if not a calculated strike against the old novelistic tendency to connect moral and physical impotence (Sir Clifford Chatterley and his wheelchair, Rochester’s blindness). It is also, I think, a long joke at the expense of a punitive tradition that has linked homosexuality with illness or deformity of one kind or another; Denton Welch, the patiently analytical English miniaturist, devoted to slow descriptions of his surroundings, physically impaired by a cycling accident and frankly homosexual, breathes his close, liberating air all over Mars-Jones’s novel of disability and gay longing.

Like Welch’s work, Pilcrow gets nowhere very elegantly. Adam Mars-Jones has been celebrated for the slenderness of his work, increasingly for its non-existence, as if his career were an exercise in negative theology. Pilcrow is not only very long; it measures its length in such tiny units that at times you feel that a version of Zeno’s paradox will stop you from ever reaching its end. John Cromer is born in the early 1950s, just outside Bath, to a family studiously aware of its impoverished, upper-middle-class status. John develops normally until he is four, and then succumbs to a mysterious illness which turns out to be Still’s disease, a form of juvenile arthritis. Bed-rest is prescribed, disastrously, with the result that some of the little boy’s bones fuse, rendering him partly paralysed and reliant on a wheelchair. He is sent away to a hospital for disabled children in Taplow, where he is abused by some of the staff; later, he moves to the Vulcan School, a place where able-bodied and disabled boys can mix. He is much happier here, and begins his first sexual experiments. He is about fifteen when the book ends.

That is the novel’s frame, and it is also its canvas, which is painted, as it were, with millions and millions of little dots: we experience, at a devotedly slow tempo, the thoroughly ordinary occurrences in the early life of an ordinary English child whose disability soon comes to seem ordinary, also. It could be an easy novel to mock, as Mars-Jones, who has done quite a bit of mocking himself as the regular reviewer for the Observer, surely knows all too well. John Cromer is never a banal narrator, but he does cherish the daily banalities of his existence, and Mars-Jones certainly wants to list them. ‘Once I found my way into a broom cupboard full of mops and buckets and couldn’t get out again. It was a surprisingly long time before anyone came looking for me.’ In hundreds, perhaps thousands of small descriptive sections, each given its own title, we learn about how John’s mother develops a passion for budgies, and how the family acquires Charlie, the blue budgie; we learn about how John likes to roll his own snot and smell his farts in the swimming-pool. He likes cereal, too, especially Rice Krispies: ‘I particularly liked the three elves on the packet. I wanted to have elves like that, to keep as pets. Snap, Crackle and Pop would be useful little helpers for me.’ Sixty pages later, John has discovered Liquorice Allsorts (‘I was going through a Liquorice Allsorts phase at the time’). His parents get a television: ‘We had a television at Trees by this time, although Mum didn’t let us watch ITV on it.’ ‘A tricycle was the next adventure.’ He visits the zoo: ‘A more important occasion for me personally was a visit to Whipsnade Zoo.’ And John loves songs, and wants to tell us about them:

I liked ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush, You’re a Blue Toothbrush,’ because the guru Max Bygraves helped me see that love doesn’t mind if you’re different. I liked ‘A Windmill in Old Amsterdam’ because there was no resisting the idea of mice in clogs. I liked Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ because it meant I could sing in Cockney . . . I liked ‘Little White Bull’ for the same Cockneyphile reasons . . . I liked Rosemary Clooney’s ‘This Old House’ . . . I loved ‘Dem Bones Dem Bones (Dem Dry Bones)’, for reasons that had nothing to do with the words.

One is reminded of the joke about the Oxford don, heard walking across the quad, intently saying to his interlocutor, ‘Ninthly’.

There is an important difference between Cromer’s inability to select detail and his creator’s inability, but at times the two sicknesses coincide. There are dull patches, when the narrative – such as it is – is worn to a perfect sheen of boredom by the chafe of daily detail. But it is impressive, given the odds stacked against it, how lively most of the book is, and how funny, too. Mars-Jones is challenging us, rather as Harold Brodkey did in his enormous, microscopically narcissistic novel, The Runaway Soul, to keep up with the book’s massive deceleration. Unlike Brodkey, Mars-Jones is witty. So the novel displays an amusing self-consciousness about the sluggishness of its project; time and again, Mars-Jones seems to be nudging us to laugh at Pilcrow. Look at the delighted way John describes his grandmother making scrambled eggs: ‘Nothing seemed to happen, and it kept on not happening for a very long time . . . Her activity seemed designed in fact to protect the contents of the pan from any changes that might be brought about by cooking.’ This is a funny description of watching eggs not cook, and an even funnier description of watching a novel not cook. Mars-Jones knows how to ration his revelations: ‘Two things happened towards the end of my years of bed rest which had a knock-on effect on my future, although I wasn’t really party to their importance at the time. One was that my dad sat down on the bed, and the other was that Mum picked up a magazine.’ Later, John acquires a cactus, which is about as exciting as those scrambled eggs: ‘I had a cactus on the ward. It did nothing. It did nothing in a really big way. It was inert even for a cactus, and cacti aren’t the most entertaining of plants.’ Which takes us back to John rolling his snot: ‘The privilege of my situation, in which boredom lay so close to over-excitement that there was hardly any space between, was that snot qualified as a toy.’ Substitute ‘the novel’ for ‘my situation’, and you see what kind of fun Mars-Jones is having – not so much at our expense as at his own.

Pilcrow is not only a fat gauntlet thrown down measuredly at our hurrying feet, but a subtle send-up of various genres: the family memoir, full as a biscuit tin with old brand names and sweet lost objects (we come across Peek Freans, and Fray Bentos, and Quink, and Bruce Forsyth, and Flanders and Swann); the gay coming-of-age novel and memoir; and the English boarding-school novel. When John Cromer gets to the Vulcan School, the details are those you would expect in any familiar all-male report: beatings, school slang (the headmaster uses what he calls his ‘Board of Education’ to whack the boys’ bottoms), terrible food (pilchards on toast), heroic objects of desire, and gay fumblings. But, again, Mars-Jones uses John’s disability to subvert familiarities. Most of the pupils are handicapped, so that sartorial codes, say, are relaxed. Ties must generally be tightly knotted: ‘Exceptions were made for those with tracheotomies.’ Boys will always compete with each other at school – especially if they are both spastic: ‘Luke and he didn’t get on, which was virtually inevitable. They were fighting to monopolise the very small amount of spastic mystique available.’ Pubescent boys will be boys, yet everything is at once easier and harder when they are zooming around in wheelchairs: ‘It’s never much of a problem to feast your eyes on the trousered groin of a wheelchair occupant, since his bottom and legs are already on a kind of tray.’ Yet coitus is nearly impossible. John tries it on with a boy called Julian Robinson, but John’s legs are almost entirely inflexible and Julian’s are floppy, because he has polio. As the two rub against each other, John feels a flash of pain – Julian’s ‘heavy callipers scraping against my legs. I winced, he lurched backwards and the exchange of secret information was over before it could begin.’

There is something a little freezing in this sarcasm, and once or twice, as in the ‘spastic mystique’ phrase, one feels that Mars-Jones is a bit too intent on maintaining his polar polish. Yet the book’s almost pathological assault on sentimentality can work very well, as when, for instance, John moves reticently and briskly from pilchards to death, and the writing is both mocking and moving:

There was no possibility that I was going to eat that disgusting food. Soon everyone else had finished theirs. I noticed that David Driver had a boiled egg and some toast. It looked delicious. On the other hand, David had muscular dystrophy which was going to kill him soon anyway, which must have been why he was excused pilchards and likewise force-feeding. He was so weak it wouldn’t have taken much to finish him off.

And Mars-Jones’s scrupulous, compound eye enables him to see a whole era: Pilcrow is at its best not when it is guying old genres but when it is inventing new ones. The first third of the book amounts to a vividly intelligent cultural essay on growing up in the dismal 1950s. It is full of scintillating phrases and original observations. John reflects on the rareness of physical contact in his family. Hugs, for instance, ‘were emergency measures, not for every day. I wasn’t used to them. I’d hardly experienced them . . . Hugs might just as well have been kept in the medicine cupboard, so as not to lose their effectiveness by over-use.’ The stifling atmosphere at Granny’s house is brilliantly evoked in one line: ‘I remembered that at Granny’s house I wasn’t allowed to touch the coal tongs because they were dirty, nor the sugar tongs because they were clean.’ Granny is formidable – ‘Life for Granny was a nettle to be grasped, grasped and then made into soup’ – while Mum is conformist, eager to transmit to John the precise class calibrations of the time: ‘Being suburban was much worse than being working-class, because suburban people had their roots in the working classes, and were denying their own people just as St Peter did to Jesus.’

Generally, Mars-Jones’s prose is exceptionally nimble, dry, humorously restrained, very English, with a little Nabokovian velvet too. He can describe more or less anything and make it interesting. This description of John’s mother showing her son the proper way to eat a Sunday lunch takes a page, and never languishes; indeed, it achieves a queasy verisimilitude. Our faces are practically in the mush:

Mum gave a demonstration, and it was fascinating to watch her at work. First she mashed and moulded a tiny piece of potato onto the rounded side of the fork. I guessed that this was to be her foundation, a moderately squashy substrate for the cornerstone of sausage which would still leave room for the addition of Yorkshire pudding in a small but unprocessed chunk. There must be room left for a bonnet of lightly crushed pea. I was fascinated to watch the whole edifice grow, tottering a little but never in serious danger of falling.

Finally it was time to crown the forkful with gravy. This was the moment of truth, a test of the cook as well as the diner. Mum carefully rested her loaded fork on the plate. A suitable puddle of gravy would be waiting to one side of the perfectly balanced forkful. Providing the gravy was properly viscous, she could coax it with a swoop of the knife against the urgings of gravity so that it ended up on the top of the potato-sausage-pudding-pea amalgamation as a savoury varnish.

The dangers for an over-educated English writer who spends most of his time producing journalism are an unembarrassable facility and an embarrassment in the presence of seriousness. Every so often, Mars-Jones seems to be making only phrases, threads rather than webs. When John finally gets into comfortable sexual proximity with another boy, it is round a campfire: ‘For years after that night the smell of marshmallows toasting would give me an erection. Caramelisation of any description was likely to set me off. I had to steel myself against arousal when pudding time came round at the Compleat Angler. I’m not sure I’m safe even now.’ This is not believable, but worse, it has a cute jauntiness. Suddenly, the ambitious bulk of the novel is annulled, and the reader wonders if John’s first sexual experiences matter to the author, or are just put in for fun. John Cromer is appealing, charming even, which is a considerable achievement given the narrowness of his interests and the amount of time we spend in his presence. But he can also be irritatingly clever at the expense of his own juvenility, which is a way of saying that this is a book voiced by a child and revoiced by an adult who wants to impress us. With Mars-Jones always hovering behind him, John Cromer can never be interestingly unreliable. Close to achieving sexual bliss with one of his schoolfriends, John says to him: ‘I think if you could pull me up and back about another inch, Luke, I’ll be as snug as a bug in a rug.’ And then instantly comments: ‘This had been one of Gillie Walker’s favourite expressions, and of course I was using childish language to camouflage an adult yearning.’

Pilcrow is a peculiar, original, utterly idiosyncratic book. It is admirably courageous, both in what it heaps on us, and in what it holds back. While it drops us deep into the everyday, it boldly refuses the everyday consolations of plot and dramatic structure. John’s brother and sister barely appear. His father and mother, though vividly drawn, are somewhat arrested in their 1950s roles – quiet breadwinner and anxious, emotional housewife. A larger question – of what these five hundred or so very talented pages amount to – is not quite answered by the book in hand. The problem with the parodic patina is that you are still reading a conventional coming-of-age gay fiction, and a conventional story about an English boys’ school, with all the usual stuff about wet dreams and wanking and flogging, and bottoms and trouser-bulges. Mars-Jones’s desire to make John’s disability seem normal – itself no small fictional triumph, since we entirely inhabit this invented world – is in danger of cancelling out the originality of that disability, and hence half of the novel’s raison d’être. If John seems too pathetically disabled, then the novel comes uneasily close to the pessimism of ‘One Arm’ – homosexuality and disability unpleasantly twinned; but if John becomes too healthy in his disability, then the disability seems a little pointless, and the battle against the moralism of ‘One Arm’ a hollow gesture.

Curiously, the recent novel that hovers behind Pilcrow is Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which could not be more different in style and tone. Where Ishiguro’s narrator, Kathy, is flat as paper, John Cromer is a paper Ariel, darting around with his insights and whimsicalities. But both books are variations on prison fiction, in which the flea-sized banality is of greater sustaining interest to the trapped protagonists than the whale-sized adventure, where snot might be of more interest than snow. Ishiguro’s book is set in a boarding school whose pupils, we gradually learn, are clones who will die in their twenties, as part of a government plan to harvest new organs. Stylistically, I would rather live in Mars-Jones’s word-palace; metaphysically, I would rather feel the walls of Ishiguro’s prison squeeze me, because his pessimism seems powerfully relentless. John Cromer’s disability, though absolutely realised, seems a little weightless, even a tad temporary, and Pilcrow breaks off, fairly abruptly, with John successfully petitioning to leave the Vulcan School and enter an ordinary grammar school. The story feels incomplete, as is. There is talk of two more volumes. We will need them, to see what John Cromer makes of his disability, and to see what John Cromer’s disability makes of Adam Mars-Jones, the novelist.