‘Write about what you know’ is one of the routine prescriptions handed out to aspirant novelists. The advice will doubtless have an odd ring to anyone who has lived in a province. After all, what could you know that might conceivably interest them? There is a tendency among people who have never lived in a metropolis to suspect that the ‘real’ world exists somewhere far beyond their own pinched horizons. Faced with what they assume to be the thumping banality of their own experience, they are tempted to write about what they’d like to know.
In his recent book of American peregrinations, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Jonathan Raban fetches up amid the small, insular community of Guntersville, Alabama, where he meets a young motel-owner called Tim. Tim is writing a novel. Raban is consulted for a professional opinion of the work in progress, and with commendable grace he identifies the strengths of this driven ‘kitchen-table writer’. But he also highlights the central weakness: Tim is writing about a world – California, the movie industry, advertising – of which he knows practically nothing. Having gently pointed out its lack of plausibility, Raban offers a suggestion.
‘Can’t you write about what you know? Write about Alabama? At present your characters are behaving unreally because they’re not living in a real landscape. They’d behave quite differently if they were living here in Guntersville.’
‘Couldn’t you take a deep breath, rethink the story, and set it in a northern Alabama town where you can get all the details right?’
His face, which had been wearing an expression of injured but still hopeful authorship, cracked into a derisive laugh. I was, after all, a hopeless critic; I didn’t know the literary ropes at all.
‘You think a New York agent would touch a book that was located in Guntersville?’
Of course one sympathises with Tim’s incredulous scorn. He tries to kick-start his work with glamorous life-styles and exotic locales, only to be told that the raw material is right outside his front door. It is surely the case here that familiarity breeds not contempt so much as a lack of confidence – the confidence to see in new and interesting ways a place that has become inextricable from one’s mental furniture. A literary tyro on this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, may well look with envy on the novelistic potential of the small-town Deep South: even that motel looks like a gift from here. The conviction that life is elsewhere is never more vivid than in childhood – I recall my wonderment as a small boy at the sound of the name ‘Torquay’ (I still haven’t been there). An obscure but needling disaffection with her surroundings – a staid, unremarkable Jewish neighbourhood in post-war Brooklyn – gnaws at the young narrator of Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s novel, a beautifully grave and witty performance that deserves a good deal more attention than it has received.
Leaving Brooklyn is short but tightly cargoed, a rites-of-passage story which observes generic limits yet somehow rejuvenates its frazzled traditions. An unexplained injury shortly after being born has left Audrey with a defective eye, slightly scarred and inclined to wander, a disadvantage felt more keenly by her parents than by her. For to 15-year-old Audrey her skewed eye lends ‘secret vision and knowledge of the components of things, of the volatile nature of things before they congeal, of the tenuousness and vulnerability of all things, unknown to those with a common binary vision who saw the world of a piece, with a seamless skin like the skin of a sausage holding things together. My right eye removed the skin of the visible world.’ The imagery of excoriation is also appropriate to Audrey’s peculiar modus operandi as a storyteller. Looking back from the vantage of middle age, she wonders whether the process of growing older might not involve a stripping rather than a toughening of the skin. Before the memory of her younger self – a girl she barely recognises now – vanishes altogether, she intends to peel away the accumulated layers ‘the way some people can peel an orange, in one exquisite unbroken spiral’.
Yet if Audrey has been endowed with some special insight, she has also been denied the ordinary faculty of ‘depth perception’. She is destined to live in ‘a flattened version of the world’, unable to judge depth as others do: at the top of the Empire State Building she can see nothing spectacular through the viewing machines, while others ‘gasped at the panorama’. Her eyes, then, are a metaphor for divergent choices. Her ‘good’ eye represents the confining, one-dimensional surfaces of Brooklyn, her ‘bad’ eye the pull of errancy and the possibility of escape. Audrey’s Brooklyn is a state of mind, booby-trapped with biases and distortions and projections, ‘the shadow field on which my good and bad eyes staged their struggle’. As we shall see, the crux of the story is the moment at which the bad eye holds its gaze.
Schwartz conveys the solipsistic hauteur of adolescence quite expertly while still managing to shape a distinctive character in Audrey. Appealingly forthright, proudly intelligent, she has what would nowadays be called ‘attitude’. She yearns for a life somewhere – anywhere – else, far from the middling crowd of respectable Brooklyners: ‘I was planning to live an exotic life in some distant, turbulent place as soon as I could, Paris maybe, attending the Sorbonne, or Cairo, where, rumour had it, if you sat in a certain café eventually everyone in the world would pass by. Maybe not people from Brooklyn, but everyone else.’
Audrey’s exposure to the climate of experience is unwittingly engineered by the very person who would shield her from its perilous blasts. The advent of contact lenses persuades her mother, who seems to revere doctors (‘big men’) almost as much as she does the Roosevelts, to take her to an eye specialist in swanky Park Avenue. Although reluctant to be fitted with the crude plastic lens (its effect is only cosmetic) the trip does at least afford a glimpse of ‘mythic Manhattan’, separated from Brooklyn by a river, ‘though it felt like another planet’. Obliged thereafter to make weekly visits to her eye doctor, Audrey doesn’t take long to notice this man’s way of pressing his leg against hers during examination; her suspicion that he might be giving her the eye, as it were, is confirmed when she responds to his touch. The author looks back wonderingly on her reaction to this man’s advances, at a loss to decide whether she could have done this. Finally, ‘I can only repeat that I did do it, unlikely as it seems.’ Schwartz follows through her sexual initiation with startling candour and a detachment that baffles her seducer (whose name we learn almost in passing): in a neat reversal of expectation it is he who gets snared in obsession, not Audrey. For her, the weekly appointments are a primer in leaving Brooklyn, an opportunity to test-drive life.
What precisely is she leaving? She calls Brooklyn ‘our remote little outpost’, but in truth it is also a haven for thousands of European Jews in flight from the Holocaust. It is the closely bonded immigrant milieu that Woody Allen affectionately revisited in Radio Days; Bernard Malamud set a number of early stories there. Audrey is also leaving behind a six-year-old’s memories of war: the departure of sweetheart Bobby, rationing, the wire on the milk bottles which her mother saves for the war effort, the news of Roosevelt’s death, the exultant parade on VJ Day. (It would be the last time war ended in such triumphalist fervour, as the long march now began towards Korea and Vietnam. Audrey acknowledges in rueful hindsight that ‘we were never again able to claim innocence.’)
As a 15-year-old she detects a more insidious war going on, a war of nerves, whipped up on the tide of anti-Communist hysteria. It is filtered through television (another new lens) and seems to be orchestrated by a man her father calls ‘the pig’, known to the rest of the world as Joseph McCarthy. Audrey listens to her father inveighing fiercely against the Senator, with his ‘balloony face and small mean eyes and snout’, and cannot understand why he hasn’t been overthrown. Why have people truckled to these witch-hunts? She deplores this mood of complaisance, which strikes her as all too typical of comfortable Brooklyn. ‘Real life’ still reaches her neighbourhood like some distant rumour. ‘There was no one worth accusing in this dead backwater, no artists, no communists, no adventurers, no one with a soul. No drama or upheaval could happen here where we languished on the periphery, in the shadows of the world. Even McCarthy was only a fat face on a flat screen, no danger.’
The suffocating tameness of Brooklyn life is characterised by her parents’ regular ‘card party’ nights. This is the orderly entertainment of pinochle and pretzels, of bagels and banter and the tinkling of mah-jong tiles in a lounge thick with the fug of cigars. Upstairs Audrey is audience to ‘a symphony of social noises: the men’s table sent up a cannonade of belches from the soda consumed, and a crackling of nuts and chips, and the percussive slapping of cards and shuffling of the deck and the voices’. After the games are finished and the tables folded away, Audrey joins the assembled husbands and wives for supper, listening to their relaxed, amiable chat ‘like an anthropologist’. She enjoys these occasions, even though they represent for her a model of parochial propriety that must be strenuously avoided. The bohemian life she envisages will decidedly not include anything resembling a card party, nor will any of her future friends be married – her lifestyle will be a sophisticated rebuke to this close-knit conviviality, to the cosiness of routine.
Yet in the book’s closing sequence Schwartz allows these card-playing suburbanites a savvy that takes patronising Audrey quite by surprise. The HUAC hearings, hitherto no more than a background in this ‘dead backwater’, are suddenly, joltingly foregrounded. Her parents’ friends, who have just concluded another round of cards, turn to talk of McCarthy, exchanging stories of people – their own people – whom he has ruined. Audrey can scarcely believe her ears. Not only do the likes of Mr Ribowitz and Mrs Tessler have friends who have suffered evictions and sackings under McCarthyism – these casualties actually live in Brooklyn. ‘Here was reality – these many victims, the clash of ideologies, politics somersaulting personal destinies. Movietone News in the making, previewed around our dining-room table.’ The scene amounts to an anagnorisis. The sort of drama Audrey craved was being played out in the streets and houses she had known all her life. The ‘flat’ world of Brooklyn has revealed unsuspected planes and depths.
Leaving Brooklyn maintains a finely-tuned tension between adolescent angst and retrospective tenderness, between a narrator’s knowledge and an author’s knowingness. The wealth and specificity of detail Schwartz braids into the story carry the stamp of autobiography, but if Audrey begins the book as a puppeteer’s plaything she has broken free of her strings long before the end. The borderline between memory and imagination has been blurred irrevocably: it’s no longer ‘a case of double vision, but of two separate eyes whose separate visions – what happened and what might have happened – come together in what we call the past’. With its strange lyrical contortions this novel is proof that writing about what you know can be a drastic process of discovery.
It is difficult not to sympathise with Hugo Hamilton, a Dublin-born writer whose debut novel Surrogate City was hijacked by reality before it even appeared. Set in pre-1989 Berlin, what clearly started out as a contemporary urban romance already has the forlorn air of a period piece, locked in an era when the writing was still on the Wall. Hamilton’s publishers have put on a brave face and hoisted it as ‘a portrait of a city and a state of mind that have vanished completely’. Cast as an ensemble drama, the novel’s central focus is the burgeoning relationship between the narrator, Alan, and a young Irish woman, Helen. The latter has arrived in Berlin homeless and hopeless, but convinced that Dieter, the man whose baby she is carrying, is holed up somewhere in the city. (The couple lived together in Dublin before Dieter mysteriously took it on the lam.) Rescued by Hadja, a resourceful, headstrong Berliner, and her pop-star boyfriend Wolf, Helen enlists Alan’s help in her search for the missing father. As their friendship develops, Alan, ‘a person of ambiguous needs and ambiguous desires’, finds himself slipping into the role of surrogate father and, in time, lover. So it is with considerable ambivalence that he greets the news that Dieter has been found alive and well, and apparently ready to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood.
A variety of other intrigues satellite around this core, though their common bond would appear to be infidelity rather than surrogacy. The narrative proceeds at a rather ungainly jog, pursuing tangential story-lines (an Iranian who bullies his student girlfriend briefly becomes one of Hadja’s pet concerns) and then abandoning them. One never feels quite sure that Hamilton knows which direction his story ought to take, and the plot obstinately refuses to thicken. He is too often let down by the ugly chime of his sentences, and a straining towards the aphoristic. ‘Lucky people are obsessed by misfortune. Unfortunate people are obsessed by luck’: one hardly cares to ask whether the observation is true. The writing crucially lacks the courage of its descriptions:
The U-Bahn in Berlin has its own dry climate which belies the weather above ground. The smell reminds me of a new leather handbag. But that’s simply because I don’t really know what a new handbag smells like. The U-Bahn has a smell you can’t really identify. It smells like nothing. Llke nothing on earth.
There is so little ventured in these sentences that one wonders why Hamilton didn’t cross them out and start again. The tragedy at the book’s climax comes straight out of left field, a melodramatic charge which the preceding pages (and it has been a slow read) have done little to earn. This and much else can be forgiven in a first novel, and one trusts that Hugo Hamilton will be luckier in the choice of locale for his second.