This is a compendious, layered novel – see ‘historiographic metafiction’ in the narratology handbook – the sort of novel that intercuts time zones and genres of fiction (realism, fantasy) and so fleshes out the present’s bleakness. In the present, middle-aged Charlotte FitzRoy is having a breakdown, precipitated very likely (thinks the business-like psychiatrist who plies her with anti-depressants she doesn’t take) by the death of her daughter Miranda in a car-crash; though as Charlotte sees it, loss of her political faith, dating from the coming-down of the Berlin Wall, has had rather more to do with it.
In the past, she is revisiting a possible ancestor, the FitzRoy, nephew of Castlereagh, who captained the Beagle, and whose missionary Christian faith was horribly called in question by the works of his (later enormously famous) passenger Charles Darwin. And there’s a third layer, a tribute to the other Victorians, in the form of Dodgson’s Alice, a mad hatter’s tea-party set in a pastoral landscape, where Charlotte (or one of the people she’s split into) converses looking-glass style with an orang-utan called Jenny and three men who turn up in a boat, and are always demanding more to eat and drink and smoke – Marx, Freud and Darwin (again – he is, as we shall see, the real guru in the woodpile). As Jenny the orang-utan says to these rather bewildered guests of our heroine’s imagination, ‘She believes herself to be doomed. Psychologically. Politically. And genetically. Welcome to the wonderful world of disappointment, boys.’ Until Charlotte gets the hang of her playground by the sea their déjeuner sur l’ herbe is a comically glum affair: ‘The three elderly gentlemen sat in a languid circle on the grassy bank around a bright white cloth covered with the detritus of a picnic lunch. They looked neither comfortable in their formal suits, nor relaxed, yet they sat on.’ In fact they have no choice about the matter since Charlotte herself is, in the colloquial phrase, out to lunch most of the time – just about capable of putting them on trial for having sold her their grand theories (‘I sentence them to wander helplessly in the historical wilderness’) but not very efficient at organising the catering. In this stratum of narrative we’re in ‘Lineage Alley. Limbo Park. Dementia Place. Idyll Mews’. Nowheresville.
Or to put it another way, which makes the story less like Alice Through the Looking-Glass, more a matter of ‘Lost in the Fun-House’, these narrative mirrors are multiple and distorting:
A great deprivation welled up in her, and the sturdy middle-aged woman began to crack apart as the unfulfilled needs of a monstrous raging, unloved child swelled up ... Charlotte could identify the qualities that had disappeared since the day she had wrecked her front garden. They added up, virtually, to an entire person ... A strong, lively, argumentative, humorous being had packed its bags and gone on holiday.
But the fun-house image doesn’t fit either, exactly. The key word in this quotation, I suppose, is ‘humorous’. Generally humour provides contemporary narratives about discontinuity of plot and the disintegration of the unified character with their overview, their version of unity (a self-mocking unity, full of pratfalls but nonetheless reassuring). In this novel humour is not the medium in which everything is suspended, it’s intermittent and not to be relied on, or possibly so black it’s hard to recognise. Jenny Diski’s oeuvre to date justifies one in the blacker and more perverse reading, given a choice. After all, this is the woman whose description of the heterosexual mores of our liberated times, in the form of the series of sado-masochistic encounters in her accomplished first novel Nothing Natural, was adduced last year by Sally Cline as a pressing argument for celibacy. And although quite a lot of time and four more novels have intervened since then, it’s not at all clear that Diski’s flair for turning the notion of ‘Post-Modern’ freedom round into an imprisoning obsession has deserted her.
This book in fact opens by toying with ‘If’ – ‘Perhaps, if Charlotte had known her father better ...’ – but soon (second paragraph) gets down to business: ‘But as they always are, things were as they were.’ The trick is to treat the present and future as if they were in the past tense already. Later on (in a flashback) we’re told that Charlotte likes to ask the question (of others, but mainly of herself): ‘Supposing your whole life had been a preview ... and now the foetus that would be you was asked if it wanted to come to term – to be born. What would you say?’ Other people give various answers, Charlotte always the same one: ‘she’d rather not have been born, thank you very much’ –
Because of then? Because of the things that couldn’t be changed on the road to the present ... Because of the monsters that came from back then? ... there was also the unknowable business of the future, but that, too, was as much then as anything.
For some contemporary writers trips into the past signify revisionism, the irreverence of parody, the freedom to choose your literary forebears. For Diski it’s quite the perverse reverse.
Which is why, of the three men in a boat, Darwin matters most. Genetic patterning has acquired an all-encompassing explanatory power, absorbing even the most contingent-seeming stuff: ‘Everything was there in the bloodline: random chance, historical necessity, personal history and destiny; living inside her, bouncing together in her blood like bingo balls.’ Charlotte isn’t just everywoman having a breakdown, she is by profession a genetic technician, which accounts up to a point for her Darwinian fixation – but only up to a point. For instance, she privately draws doom-ridden conclusions from her supposed descent from Robert FitzRoy, who committed suicide, like his uncle Castlereagh, and like her father, who wasn’t married to her mother, but left her his name – which he didn’t spell in the supposedly ancestral fashion with a capital in the middle. That spelling Charlotte takes on when she decides to adopt the doomed ‘line’ that leads to her. You’ve only to compare this treatment of the meanings of illegitimacy with – say – Angela Carter’s in Wise Children, where bastards are on the whole lucky, to see how very determinedly Diski is setting up her own patterns of fear and desire here.
For the real authority behind poor Charlotte’s sense of doom is the author, with Darwin and genetics as her ‘front’. Charlotte contemplates her own life in the spirit of someone ‘rereading a novel ... knowing what is to come, hoping nevertheless that somehow a transformation would have taken place ... Perhaps this time Raskolnikov would not kill the old woman, Jude and Sue’s children would not die ... But ... there’s no escaping the marks on the page.’ True, this passage refers to the past, and the process leading to her breakdown, but we’ve already established that ‘the future ... was as much then as anything.’ And if one thinks back to Diski’s last novel but one, jokily titled Then Again, the imprisoning interpretation seems to be the right one. In Then Again, Esther travels in time more mystically, tracking down her Jewish identity, as a child swept up and adopted, in one incarnation, in a medieval pogrom; and, interestingly enough, she finds lovers in carers-turned-torturers (a renegade priest then, a sadistic psychotherapist now) thus forming a kind of bridge back to the cruel sex of Nothing Natural. At the back of it all, it seems, is the agony of adoption and/or rejection. Charlotte is never rejected by her mother, but in effect discounts her in order to relish her deprivation, her exclusively paternal ‘bad blood’, a ‘line’ that allows her to have her cake and eat it, be at once doomed by heredity and orphaned and illegitimate, and thus yet more effectively rubbished.
Such a perverse preference for suffering, expressed so ingeniously through a kind of sceptical parody of Post-Modern play with narrative and character, is shocking and witty. But there’s more, for Charlotte has passed on her heritage to her children, whom she has always deplored and disliked. The dead daughter Miranda, a narcissistic model, is only regretted because Charlotte can’t quite give up on the notion that she might – just might – have developed into a person given more time. Miranda’s car-crash seems to be in the blood, too, since her father (to whom Charlotte had no intention of getting married) also died in a car-crash. Charlotte was driving on that occasion, but blameless as far as the accident was concerned, and only just pregnant with this daughter who miraculously survived in the womb to be erased later with (one’s made to feel) only marginally more of a personality. Miranda’s elder brother Julian (same dead, disposable father) is still with us, but equally empty – a cold yuppy who regards his lefty mother as at best an embarrassment. He is, however, given one speech that has some bite:
You dashed in and out as if saving the world wasn’t just more important than your kids, but more interesting, too ... Remember when you used to go to that feminist bookshop ... and I had to wait out on the street because, although I was only nine, they didn’t allow males in? ... I like being a rich young man with a portable telephone, instead of being an unwanted little boy standing outside a feminist bookshop.
How the options narrow down, in the Diski world. How lavish she is with pain, and how crude sometimes, for all her intelligence and style, in the way she hands out the punishment.
But then, in Like Mother, two novels ago, Diski imagined the story of a woman who decides to bear a child she knows in advance will be literally brainless, a sea of liquid behind the eyes. Compared with that, these ‘empty’ brats in Monkey’s Uncle get off lightly, you could say. A more conventionally playful variation on the theme is the prominence given in the novel’s fantasy landscape to the queenly orang-utan Jenny (named for genus, but also after the author) who has a great deal of dignity, and acts as an able critic of human ‘overcapacity in the brain box’ which may account for our self-destructive goings on. And there is some real fun to be had out of the three men in the boat, the Alice pastiche, and the way it’s played off against the dubiously real world of the early Nineties. The Victorian FitzRoy is done with tact and some patience, in period style. And Charlotte cheats her suicidal destiny after all, by trying wholeheartedly but failing – ‘She had tested the definition of her life and found it to be very definite indeed.’ This way honour is satisfied, and she even finds a smidgeon of fellow-feeling for her son, ‘an approximation of warmth’, and hands on to him her symbolic silver spoon, her sole souvenir of her father, a seed pearl the story has invested with magical meanings that are not all sinister.
It’s a virtuoso performance in its horrid way, and sometimes rises to heights of comic malice. Jenny Diski would think (I fear) that I read her too seriously, that her obsessions are ironically on display. I cannot persuade myself so, however, even with this relatively good-tempered and expansive book. She seems to be still on the other side of celebratory disinheritance, using the freedoms of invention to invent narrative prisons. And so she mockingly mirror-reverses the carnival atmosphere of other people’s magical realisms.