Briefly during the second act Michael Frayn’s stage-play, Make and Break, transcends its setting, a Frankfurt trade fair, touching on a general gloom. Mrs Rogers is treating Garrard, a goatish sales rep, to the fruits of Buddhism. It is late in the day. Elsewhere assignations are arranged, faces stuffed, drinks swilled. Mrs Rogers’s seducer is impatient of nirvana; besides his hand rests all ready on her knee. Although she cannot recall the ‘proper technical term’ for suffering, she’s certain it stems from desire. The exchange is heady and brief – more like a business opportunity than a seminar. Revels intrude. It’s a good example of the way Frayn makes us laugh, and of the absence of privacy that distinguishes farce and provides these two novels now reissued with a common theme.
Towards the End of the Morning focuses its suffering on Fleet Street, fleshing out the drab angst of hacks. Happily there are moments of oasis. Tessa, for instance, impersonates a guardian angel, immaculate, horsey and sloane. In another life she might have collared a duke or a prince, even the heir to the throne. Stepping off the Newbury train, on her way to her lover, she notices how Paddington Station has deteriorated, no longer ‘full of innocent bustle presaging lunch at Marshall and Snelgrove’s and tea at Fortnum’s’. Instead ‘girls with white faces and heavily kohled eyes hurried out towards Praed Street’ – the book is best read with a streetfinder close to hand – ‘as if hastening to appointments with abortionists in seedy consulting rooms behind the Edgware Road’. Alas, times have changed since 1967, when the novel was first published, as much in Bayswater and environs as in the world beyond; but deterioration continues unabated. Inevitably this affects responses to the novel. If the humour seems fresh as ever, much of it has succumbed to nostalgia for ‘this prosperous decade between two disastrous economic depressions’ (as Alasdair Gray recalls it in The Fall of Kelvin Walker, subtitled ‘A Fable of the Sixties’). It occurs to John Dyson, Frayn’s downtrodden hero, that ‘failure was the secular equivalent of sin.’ But even his failure now seems like success. He and Bob Bell work out of the same office collating ‘Years Gone By’ or ‘The Country Day by Day’, duelling with bishops and others reluctant with copy. The common purpose of their lives is to resist the irresistible ebb of selfesteem. Dyson considers himself the victim of each possible permutation of unsuccess. His paranoia extends beyond professional interests into areas of domestic planning. The early commitment to a Georgian or Regency house in some gutted (but soon to be gentrified) district near London’s centre – because ‘they did not want to live in the suburbs, in an ugly suburban house with uncongenial neighbours’ – yielded to market forces, spiralling downwards through central Early Victorian and suburban Early Victorian until it came to rest finally at Spadina Road (‘an ugly suburban house with uncongenial neighbours’). Dyson was no luckier christening his children. Graduates’ whimsy was responsible for ‘Gawain’, disposing to chivalry. But the child was disappointing, grew up reticent and dreamy, unsuited to the contraction into ‘Garry’. ‘Damian’ had opposite, ‘rather earthy and coarse’ results. Now lighting-up times and their proposed transfer to Dyson’s page haunt him as the spectre of a final indignity.
Frayn’s characters inhabit small worlds confined by yearnings. A trade fair in Make and Break, synchronous and unsuspended disbelief in Noises Off, the Cuba of Clouds (Angel tells Mara, an English journalist: ‘this country is not the world. The world is in other places’): these are similar devices. Likewise in Towards the street of shame seems to its functionaries an inexorable universe. Dyson dreams of television celebrity and its benefits – theatre tickets, restaurant reservations, Gawain and Damian at the right schools – but his single appearance breaks new ground in humiliation. He is invited to enrich a studio discussion of race relations with accounts of Spadina Road. At the preliminary dinner with his co-panellists, he drinks too much, enamoured of this self-important world in which ignorant opinions are exchanged to choruses of approval. But as the arc-lights go up and the experts take their places, veterans dispense with deference, leaving Dyson to platitudes of ‘absolute fascination’. The alternative to floundering in failure is to embrace it. This is Bob’s chosen course. He neglects ambitions, unless, that is, coming home to find your chops grilled by women with small bottoms and spiritual expressions qualifies.
He hasn’t these idealised houris outside of magazines and so pro tempore makes do with Tessa. Bob’s single bed confines them to acrobatics bent on survival: ‘it hadn’t been a night they had lived through; it had been the Dark Ages – all seven centuries of them with wars and oppressions, visions and turbulences.’ But we must look elsewhere for the novel’s truly tragic figure, to the husband of Bob’s landlady. Poor old detested Reg collects memos from his editor inviting him to make ‘other arrangements’, which he dismisses as jokes – for reasons of expediency, not insouciance – doubtful that such things exist.
From time to time Frayn rewards his heroes with fleeting freedom. Waiting at the airport at the beginning of an ill-fated, expenses-paid outing to the Middle East, Dyson briefly experiences jubilation and calm: ‘the Final Departure lounge, sealed off from gross particular Britain by passport and customs barriers, was a bright nowhere land, sterilised of nationality and all the other ties and limitations of everyday life. Here Dyson felt like International Airport man – neat, sophisticated, compact; a wearer of lightweight suits and silky blue showercoats; moving over the surface of the earth.’ The arrival of Reg restores him to life’s imperfection. Howard Baker, the Swiftian hero of Sweet Dreams, is more fortunate, transported from the Highgate traffic to Heaven, a ‘golden land of opportunity’ and ‘a society so complex that everyone in it is winning the race’. The ideal metropolis reveals its wonder in bursts. At first the promise of parties alleviates boredom. Howard teams up with his friend Phil Schaffer and the two of them visit amusement arcades, edit books of poetry, swoon over pictures of naked women with spiritual expressions. In some ways, Heaven recalls the scene of Dyson’s TV-excitement, peopled by admiring clones.
In ‘Prometheus’, one of his ‘unlikely stories’, Alasdair Gray admits to the unkindness of the Jews who foisted the world onto one man’s shoulders, ‘for it made him very lonely’. Frayn displays comparable cruelty. Horrible loneliness awaits Howard because Sweet Dreams is a book of genesis as well as revelation. Serious matters cry out for attention; there is the universe to devise and entertain. Howard is allocated the task of making credible mountains, dispatched to some celestial Saatchi and Saatchi, where others like him, international airport men, sit in similar summer suits and silk ties. When he stumbles upon the framework for the Matterhorn, Howard becomes the genial centre of his circle, a sort of Biblical Bloomsbury (‘we are a set, aren’t we? We’re a sort of movement’). Phil is assiduously designing man while Charles Aught gets on ‘terribly well’ inspiring John Donne: ‘He’s really rather a honey. As a matter of fact I usually just give him the first line or two and leave him to get on with it. He’s quite literate.’ But it’s not all hard slog. God gives garden parties and lists his interests in Yellow Pages. Predictably the Almighty ranks among Frayn’s more cynical creations – a majority shareholder in GEC, Westinghouse and Con Edison, which is why the world turns round. Cynicism is endemic in heavenly beings as competition is in man. Even Aught inclines to subversion: ‘I don’t know whether you saw any of the rather naughty stuff I put old Percy Bysshe up to.’ This raises a few problems. Ostensibly an experiment in sweeping satire, Sweet Dreams is also an elaborate private joke, at the expense of Cambridge contemporaries. God runs Heaven after the example of the tutorial system. Frayn invests Howard with all sorts of representative importance – ‘the collective imagination of the middle classes compressed into one pair of trousers’ – but his constituency seems fractious and small.
Another problem with Sweet Dreams is that even as the world suffers the throes of creation, it already exists. On one occasion Howard visits it for the purposes of academic study and to draw up reports. His findings are so sensational Hollywood magnates court him for the cinema rights. Howard’s reacquaintance with the fallen condition marks the beginning of wholesale disillusionment with his heroic brief. Besides, the arbiters of heavenly taste and fashion seem as fickle as their counterparts on earth. Already wicked tongues denounce the mountain mogul for inventing mass destruction: ‘people are going to be dropping off your Matterhorn thing like fleas off a dog.’ After a period of pique and exile, Howard returns to public life, entering partnership with God, who reveals himself to be A.P.J. Vigars, a prominent Cambridge intellectual. The two are bonded by a reverence for democracy. This means ‘to get anything done at all, one has to move in tremendously mysterious ways’. Howard emerges in his second stage as an unscrupulous administrator, well versed in the rudiments of life: morbidity and a hostile environment. Meanwhile hopes of enriching life by designing a Matterhorn have been relinquished: ‘Our whole involvement in the world is devious. It has to be devious. We’re working in a complex and difficult medium.’ Clearly Howard’s promised land after its completion will reflect these difficulties and involve suffering. And so it will resemble the doldrums of the previous novel, unillumined and bleak. Like Mrs Rogers and Dyson, its inhabitants will be martyrs to entropy and Howard its bumptious agent.
In a curious way, Alasdair Gray’s latest hero has a lot in common with Howard. Through the trials of this short novel, Kelvin Walker earns an honourable place alongside him in the pantheon of unlikely messiahs. Kelvin is a Nietzschean pilgrim from Glaik, a Scottish boomtown where ‘we manufacture fish-glue and sweaters and process a lot of cheese.’
In the first chapter Kelvin arrives in London in search of power and £5,000 a year, intent on acquiring both in the manner of confidence tricks. The Fall of Kelvin Walker skirmishes around Gray’s favourite themes – politics, sexual politics and religion – without engaging any of them for very long. Perhaps this comes with the territory. The novel embarks on an odyssey of tricks, and the most daring of all of them Gray plays on the reader. Guidelines are few and far between, and the rest of the novel is aphoristic warnings: ‘certainty isn’t easy in a world as big and as strange as this one.’ The world may be large and difficult, but Gray’s treatment of it in this novel is uncharacteristically minute. On his first evening south, Kelvin meets Jill, a vapid bohemian; perhaps he even chooses her for her imagined Nietzschean flavour. Jill introduces the homeless saviour to her boyfriend Jake, brutal but artistic (a saving grace as far as Kelvin is concerned), and offers him sleazy shelter. What Gray has contrived is clearly not so much a fable as a morality drawn up on strict Presbyterian lines. Kelvin’s upbringing in the shadow of his merciless father, a latter-day John Knox, has taught him spartan conduct and rigid self-discipline. The result can be absurd, since Kelvin suffers his various slings and arrows with persistent Panglossian good humour.
Kelvin’s confidence works to startling effect after several false starts. He secures the kind of fame Dyson dreamed of in Towards, as the anchor man on the BBC’s ‘most boring programme’, because its producer also hails from Glaik and because ‘the BBC is suffering just now from a dangerous personality deficiency, particularly in the field of regional dialect.’ Bolstered by his provincial tones, Kelvin soon finds himself haranguing the nation’s leaders, ‘the British alternative to revolution’. Television appearances are relieved by syndicated press columns in which he spews vitriol at flower power, student insurrection ‘and, of course, the greed of the unions’. But the forces of reaction are already lining up against the ideologue, organised by the studio bosses who suspect he has outgrown his usefulness. Kelvin’s public humiliation at the hands of his father, who steps out from the audience to denounce his misfit son, is an act of paternal kindness and a treat not to be spoiled. The ‘Anticlimax’ traces Kelvin a decade later, to the General Assembly of the United Seceders Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland where he is the 293rd Moderator. Nietzschean glory has faded into legend and now he has become the ‘official spokesman for all that is most restrictive in Scottish religious and social opinion’. Jake and Jill live ‘anticlimactically’ in Ladbroke Grove, with two children who often manage, not being Scottish, contentment beyond Kelvin’s kids. The Fall of Kelvin Walker seems a perplexing departure from Gray’s earlier work, disarmingly simple in construction and typographically unadventurous.
Gray inherits a tradition of Scottish writing which is currently enjoying something of a renaissance. Lean Tales bears witness to its health and energy. In one Gray story published here, young Alasdair’s journey of 1959 seems to anticipate Kelvin Walker’s. ‘A Report to the Trustees of the Bellahouston Travelling Scholarship’ presents impressions of London and points south to Gibraltar. As the train trundles out of Glasgow Central, homesickness descends. Gray’s hero speaks for James Kelman and Agnes Owens – the collection’s other contributors – and for all writing north of the border ferociously indifferent to England and its literary culture: ‘I do not love Glasgow much, I sometimes actively hate it but I am at home here. In London this sickness increased until it underlay quite cheerful feelings and weighed so heavy on the chest that it began to make breathing difficult.’ Sophisticated themes and subversive commitments identify this Glaswegian trio. Kelman’s rejection of received syntax complements his stories of transient, unwashed Scotsmen and invigorates them. Owens’s reliance on the rhythms of ordinary speech is aggressively non-literary. Her preoccupation with the misfortunes of uneducated and often outcast women reminds us that she is concerned with a group whose experience books often deny. These are people like Arabella, in the story of the same name, who cannot read letters from the health inspector or decipher the writing on the slip from the Social.
The hand of God is visible in Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, when the clouds subside. This first novel describes foreigners and heretics ‘in conflict with the Pope, in conflict with God’. An American couple leave their native California for an isolated corner of Mexico. Richard Everton’s ancestors owned a ranch in Ibarra long ago. They quarried copper out of the local mine. Memories of the splendid past were preserved in photographs of adobe houses and bougainvillea under skies of heliotrope blue. On arrival the Evertons discover that the skies at least are unchanged. Otherwise the ravages of the 1910 revolution have taken their toll; the gazebo and the hedges gone, the fountain laid waste. During the civil war farmers grazed livestock over the ranch or used it as a hiding place from the military. Many of the novel’s chapters have appeared separately as short stories, and gathered together they have a statuesque, melancholy air, as variations on a theme. Doerr stirs purpose into her landscape and, another Mexican phenomenon, complicity with death. ‘We have come to live among spectres, Sara tells herself. They are not people, but silhouettes sketched on a backdrop to deceive us into thinking the stage is crowded.’
Remedios Acosta, their maid, remarks of the Americans: ‘they are kind and friendly, but they are strangers to the exigencies of life.’ But not for long, because, as the story unfolds, we learn that Richard has contracted a blood disease (‘enfermedades de la sangre’, as the Ibarrans have it) and has been given only six years to live. In this sense, the Evertons deserve the name chosen for them – ‘meso-desorientados’, stranded between a vanished past and portents of death. They are disoriented in other ways, of course, As Richard goes about the lengthy processes of re-opening his ancestors’ quarry and making it profitable, he assumes ‘the awful responsibility of apportioning jobs’: awful in this community where families have ‘survived by the thinnest margin since the mines were shut down, one by one, after the Revolution’. And so the Evertons offer prosperity to the Ibarrans as well as heathenism. Small businessmen and mothers without husbands importune them for survival. But philanthropy when possible is an ambiguous comfort, more comforting to its distributors than to those it relieves. Remedios wonders at the feeding of pets: ‘they buy special food for three dogs and a cat that are not theirs. Will those animals remember how to hunt mice and hares if they are fed on plates at the door? The señor and señora are preparing them to starve.’
The title story in David Leavitt’s Family Dancing begins with a graduation party, flower arrangement and girls in starched tunics, handing trays around. But like the other stories, ‘Family Dancing’ soon scratches its polished surfaces and considers the rough edges of Middle America beneath. At 24, Leavitt is already a veteran of the New Yorker, and a distinctive style emerges from this collection. Breezy cameos descend into the detritus of family life. Like photographs of weddings, his studies are not of individuals but of straining, uneasy groups. And the intimacy between parents and children, siblings, and husbands and wives seems fragile, contrived to disguise inertia.
Leavitt proves an accomplished narrator, at home with neurosis and afternoon soap opera. Family Dancing observes the wayward spirit of survival in the Reagan age. Neil’s mother in ‘Territory’ sits outside the Co-op with her non-nuclear future: ‘Keeping up the causes of peace and justice is a futile, tiresome effort; it is therefore an effort fit only for mothers to keep up.’ Mothers figure prominently in Leavitt’s attitudes, as the self-elected guardians of continuity. In the following story, ‘Counting Months’, divorced and terminally ill, Mrs Harrington still counts her blessings because her children avoid drugs, unlike their friends, and are not caught up in ‘the craziness of the world’. If chaos comes, it will not be on account of Leavitt’s mothers. But Leavitt is not simply the precocious amanuensis of families. Many of his stories contradict parental certainties or disappoint them. Their subjects are often single, betrayed or widowed, dying or insane like Alden in ‘Aliens’, who discovers poetry. His daughter disowns him, claims origin from the planet Abdur in the Fourth Millennium and obedience only to Space.
But the finest separateness belongs to gays, who break up families as effectively as madness. In ‘Dedicated’, Celia feels she must emit a strange pheremone that makes men homosexual, but accepts this uncomplaining: ‘what Celia loved in her gay friends was their willingness to commit themselves to endless analytical thinking.’ Leavitt’s analysis can be painfully self-regarding, but it furnishes anguish with meaning. Andrew explains to Celia later on: ‘Growing up a fag is a strange thing. You never learn about boys’ bodies because you’re afraid of what you will feel and you never learn about girls’ bodies because you’re afraid of what you won’t feel.’ If suppressing differentness is harrowing, the experience of young people who try to confront their feelings and explain proves even more so. The beaming parents who stand by at San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade are only bit-players in Leavitt’s drama, underlining Barbara’s unhappiness in the first story and Nathan’s equivocation in the last. He won’t march in case his mother spots him on the television news. If the reader emerges from these homespun stories recalling guilt, not celebration, it is because Leavitt manages to discomfort as well as to entertain.
Whitbread Stories: One is a collection of work by Leavitt’s contemporaries in Britain, drawing on a mixture of styles. Vanessa Brunning’s ‘The Face of the Horned Magdalene’ is a black comedy about furious turn-over in an old people’s home. Leonard Deane-King combines Science Fiction and fairy-tale in ‘Good Intentions’ – a story which will appeal to admirers of Spielberg’s E.T. – when Chaz and Len find a friendly Martian in the backyard. Mark Illis’s ‘Loomis’ describes an encounter in Eastern Europe between holidaying students and a street dancer, an eye for detail and jealousy informing familiar situations. Patrick Gale returns to English farce in ‘Borneo’ to punish and amuse. Bee’s bandage-party for the Afghans breaks up after one of the guests asphyxiates.