When novelists tell us that the world is made of God’s love or the same green cheese as the moon, we expect them to dramatise their perception – to force their philosophy on us as a magician forces a card – so that we can see how it feels to share it, if only for as long as it takes to read the hook. The same expectation holds good when a novelist proposes, as Gordon Burn does in his new novel Fullalove, that not green cheese or God’s love but black pus – meaningless suffering, and an appetite for meaningless suffering – is the basic building-block of the universe.
The narrator is a journalist in his fifties, writing exploitative human-interest pieces, preferably with a direct link to violent crime, for a tabloid newspaper. His name is Norman Miller, but its similarity to Norman Mailer’s no longer gives him the pleasure it did when his pretensions, if not his values, were higher (an encounter with Mailer at the time of the Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire is one of the novel’s early flourishes).
Miller’s original interest in journalism came from a dissatisfaction with humdrum reality: ‘I cottoned on at an early age that ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world is dreary.’ Until the late Seventies, he thought it possible to trade in misery without being changed by what he exploited (‘The worse it gets, the better I like it’). Since that time he has lost the knack of ignoring his own corruption. Oddly, though, Gordon Burn has chosen to render Miller’s exhausted point of view in a monologue of scurrilous energy. The divorce between a literary sensibility and a moral one – between describing and experiencing – which the novel seeks to denounce is in fact insisted on from the novel’s first page to its last. How is it possible to make cynicism your subject without replacing it as your method?
A second problem with the voice of the book is its familiarity – its provenance, almost. The pastiche of Martin Amis is undisguised and apparently fearless. Here are the tropes in full, right down to the patented CST (Cadenced Synonym Triptych): ‘a troupe, a tiller, a greenham’ (of women keeping vigil outside a hospital). Here are the double-take paradoxes of low self-esteem congratulating itself: ‘If I hadn’t been drinking I’d have thought I’d been drinking.’ The Amis style, though, doesn’t altogether fit its new context. John Self would gorge himself on emetic burgers but he wouldn’t analyse his own motives for cholesterol abuse, as Miller does: ‘I knew the stuff I was cramming into my body was crap, but I also knew there was something seductive and pleasure-giving about it that had to do with resolving the distance you feel between the way you understand the external world and your emotional response to it.’ In Amis, the whole point of being a monster is that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing in this way.
Miller’s glints of self-awareness have an oddly flat quality, as if he was testifying at a meeting of Monsters Anonymous about the dark places his addiction has taken him, without actually being in recovery – fitting in a fair amount of monstrousness, in fact, between meetings. The persona’s self-knowledge and self-ignorance are awkwardly layered in the text, hardly an incidental defect in a book whose whole subject is the lamination of those opposites. So, for instance, Miller learns of his father’s death while interviewing a man whose wife has just lost her legs to an IRA bomb: ‘the sudden reversal of roles was disorienting. The sympathy the man who I was interviewing showed me was different not just in degree, but in levels of spontaneity and compassion, to any I had shown him.’ This is both stiff – an abstract recognition of emotion – and verbally clumsy (compassion as an ingredient of sympathy). The psychology seems oddly thin, as it does elsewhere in the book, on the rare occasions when sincere feeling intrudes.
The problem, formally and humanly, is that Miller seems to have a solid knowledge of his own hollowness. In this sentence, for instance: ‘I loved [my family] in a bred-in-the-bone, sentimental sense, but I didn’t know them any more than I knew the people whose lives I crashed or greased my way into most weeks of the year, whatever I might have preferred to believe.’ Or this one: ‘Without intending to I have put together a yellow museum of my infidelities, hollow promises, rank opportunism, cowardice and bad faith.’ Not bad for unconscious work – or doesn’t the unconscious go in for censorship, distortion or special pleading these days?
The anti-hero of Fullalove implodes because, this being a novel of masculine implosion, it is a genre requirement that he does so. Some recent narratives of masculine implosion have been concerned with redemption (Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time), while others (like Fawlty Towers and several of Martin Amis’s novels) are satisfied with their central character’s disintegration. What is odd about Fullalove is that collapse is its anti-hero’s point of departure as well as his destination, which makes for a less than dynamic reading experience. Although Miller is recorded as having experienced one ‘meltdown’ in the late Seventies, the novel has no other goal than bringing him to another, a secondary rendering of psychic fats.
The plot comprises two main strands: Miller’s exploitation of a hospitalised celebrity and his association (‘friendship’ would be too normative a word) with a woman who cleans the memorial tablet for policewoman Yvonne Fletcher in St James’s Square – a compulsive cleaner to balance his compulsive dirtying. The comatose celebrity, Scott McGovern, is a fiction, but Burn’s inventions run in parallel with the headlines. McGovern’s situation – gay media star exposed to tabloid harassment in hospital – recalls Russell Harty’s, while his fate (savagely attacked by a casual pick-up whose image has been partially captured on a security video) has elements in common with the murders committed by Colin Ireland.
Perhaps there is something a little parochial about these atrocities. A novel as fanatically pessimistic as Fullalove can only have a problematic relationship with America, a country both more violent and fuller of hope than our own – where cynicism is more closely related to impatience than despair. Burn’s use of transatlantic tags like ‘no-brainer’ or ‘pushing the envelope’ has a curiously homeopathic function, as if inoculating Fullalove against American positivism.
The custodian of WPC Fletcher’s memorial tablet seems at first to be a representative of sympathetic suffering, and of victims in general. Burn’s novelistic scheme badly needs figures of innocence, but his literary temperament is not drawn that way, and this character turns out to be as deceptive as her name, pronounced Vera Bachelor like someone out of Coronation Street, but spelled Veorah Batcheller like someone out of hyperspace. Veorah isn’t an exploiter of suffering, but she is a connoisseur, someone who seeks an inhuman meaning in it, a cabalistic topographical pattern of the sort familiar from the novels of Peter Ackroyd or Iain Sinclair. She may be a husbandless housewife living in a rundown seaside resort, but she is no ordinary housewife from a seaside town. When Miller mentions his computer password, she immediately announces what hers would be if she had such a thing: ‘ “Ikkoku”, which is Japanese for “Pilgrimage”. “The going out and the coming back”. “A voyage in the symbolic realms of death.” ’ By this stage of the book, nothing Veorah says could surprise the reader, short of verbatim quotations from Hansard or Jack the Ripper’s diaries.
It will scarcely come as a shock to reveal that realism is not Fullalove’s mode, but the book still hankers after some of realism’s effects. The author wants his expressionism, and the obsessions he explores through his characters, underwritten by the world in some way. Miller’s job exposes him to the accumulated abrasive misery of mankind, and his soul is rubbed raw by it. That’s the theory. But in fact the key image of the book – hammered home with the forcefulness of the keynote address at a conference – is not restricted to journalistic experience:
The flowers come wrapped in all the surfaces of cheap living – klaxon colours, slippery prophylactic textures ... The effect aimed for in the impromptu pavement shrines marking the site of the latest nail-bomb or child-snatch or brutal sex-death is peaceful, pastoral, consolatory ... In reality, though, the flower-heaped memorials are just another variety of urban utterance ... People crowd at the edge of the oddly regular weave of the blankets of flowers, stunned by the scale of what they have made ... But soon ... they turn into just one more example of urban blight; of city sadness ... The poor colours bleed and fade. The soft toys that have been put there – the Snoopys and ... bag-eyed Pound Puppies – moult and burst along the seams and spill their no longer lovable or huggable wetted kapok guts.
By the time Miller sets off with a photographer to sneak into the hospital and snatch an image of the comatose McGovern, the urban landscape has darkened almost beyond recognition:
we glide by rape sites and murder sites, scenes of hit-and-runs, child snatches, vendetta assassinations, carjackings, care-in-the-community neck stabbings, and their commemorative shrines in varying conditions of completion – the full gamut, from newly laid and composting flowers, to cinderblock bunkers with decorative ironwork grilles and creosoted roofs, plastic bouquets in Third World vases, flickering candles, Christmas lights, bottles and mirrors to deflect the remaining malignant spirits, and pictures of the deceased hologramically – hyperdelically – rendered or cheaply photocopied and sheathed in plastic.
Is it being a spoilsport to point out that it is still possible to undertake quite long journeys across London without seeing even one of Burn’s chosen emblems of poignant kitsch?
It’s clear that Gordon Burn and Fullalove aspire to the extremity represented by the best of J.G. Ballard or Derek Raymond, by a Crash or an I Was Dora Suarez. Both of these books retain some residual claim to realism, but work by isolating a lurid element in the world and expanding it almost infinitely. Fullalove tries the same trick, but there is a curious emotional block in the book that prevents it from working. Not that Crash and I Was Dora Suarez are similar in their emotional tone: there is no pity in Ballard, almost too much in Raymond. There is pity in Fullalove, but it is studiously, even compulsively, adulterated.
Here is the unsuspecting wife of an atrocious murderer being interviewed by Miller after she has been opened up (the sexual overtone of the phrase very much to the point) in a series of hotels by the newspaper’s specialist operative in that area:
Rachel Stires was pleasant looking in a skinny, country nutty, windburned lollypop-lady son of way. She had her hair pulled back in a heavy ponytail, and wore velour track suits and plastic flower-shaped earrings of the kind people used to throw darts and shoot down ping-pong balls to win at travelling fairs. I brought bottles of Blue Nun to the sessions, and she prepared trim triangular sandwiches garnished with potato crisps and cress and served with quality-weight paper napkins saved from one or another of the hotels where they had stayed. She had collected the matchbooks together in a soup bowl on the low table, where there was also a bowl of sharp-smelling pot-pourri with the satin bow from the original packet adrift in it.
In Fullalove pity is everywhere spiked with contempt. Take this account of the murder by two teenage girls of the small girls they were meant to be babysitting: ‘Off their faces on acid, speed, and estate-bottled rough cider, they took Mitsubishi Diamante, aged six weeks, and Sudio Porsche Carrera, aged twenty months, by their left legs and beat them against the wall.’ The pathos-quotient of being a murdered innocent seems to be set against the sneer-value of those naff names, with the heartless joke of ‘estate-bottled’ tipping the scales towards something essentially gloating. Burn has no gift for conveying lives undistorted by horror, even the ordinariness of broken lives before their breaking.
When a girl and her pony are killed in a ritual way, there is a Hannibal Lecter-style relish in the description (‘The pony’s cooling, milky blue entrails coiled intricately round the girl’s neck’) that suggests not merely a moral numbness acquired by over-exposure to horror, but actually a sadistic aesthetic shared with the killer. This is certainly Crash territory: the idea that we are not brutalised by atrocity but sensitised in a new way.
In the first sentence of the book Norman Miller disclaims the distance of irony (‘I use the language of self-loathing ... knowingly and deliberately, without any ironic intent’), but in practice irony is a constant presence in the book, a cold trickling that the reader only notices when it is turned off – when the book concerns itself not with actual victims of atrocity, but with those who exploit their experiences. When Miller and his photographer enter the underparts of the hospital on their mission of abuse, the photographer is given expressionistic speeches that cry out for an ironical hosing-down:
You don’t hear them? The murmuring souls? The howls of the unburied? The souls condemned to wander unhappily until their mortal remains have been laid to rest? That weird wilderness sound? ... Don’t tell me you don’t hear this ... It sounds like some deep-space receiver picking up fragments of communication flows from Earth. Sobbing whispers heard deep in the jungle at night, howls carried on the wind, trees and plants moaning in awful harmony. Tribal people calling to each other through the manioc leaves in the jungle of screaming souls.
Well, Miller doesn’t say he doesn’t hear these sounds, or that he does; he passes on his companion’s outpourings without comment. There is no dry murmur to be heard of ‘this isn’t Cambodia, you know, dear, people come here to have their tonsils out.’
Still less does he have a sense of proportion about his own crisis. He adopts as tutelary deity a plush puppy intended for a pavement shrine, ‘a two-foot-long by foot-and-a-half high, orange-and-yellow plush, saucer-eyed Every-pup’, an object which is fetishistically celebrated: ‘Tentatively at first, I let my nose graze in the semi-lush, machine-cropped fabric. I was covered all over in a thin film of perspiration. I made myself familiar with the bunched legs, investigated the raggedy outsize ears. Then I tucked the little dog under my chin and drifted into the sweetest sleep with my arms clamped close around it.’
When a colleague delivers the Fullalove puppy – for indeed this is a soft toy in whose honour a self-consciously hard novel has been named – to Miller at a particularly low ebb, it inspires the book’s closest approach to an epiphany. The Fullalove puppy is as suited to elegiac long-shots as to sensual close-ups: ‘I thought of the pair of us: the bad news bears, the bathos junkies. We had started out so well. But something in our lives had brought us to this pass: two middle-aged men in a cheapjack hotel doing a ten-minute fandango around the cuddly creature one of them has become convinced possessed the magic necessary to deliver some tragically mislaid part of himself back to himself.’ If bathos can be an addictive drug, this passage amounts to an overdose.
Innocence in Fullalove exists not in people but in objects – the eponymous pup – and in children’s stories. Excerpts from The Velveteen Rabbit or The Skin Horse appear every now and then without comment in the text, like epigraphs that have slipped their moorings. The effect is momentarily disorienting, the false-naive worldview seeming sickly in this context, yet even in a paragraph a sort of sincerity can be reconstituted – in preparation for further sullying. The excerpts from innocent literature are floating islands of value that exist separately from the world of the book, except for a moment of half-hearted desecration when Norman and Veorah recite The Velveteen Rabbit together, and he sees ‘her nipples stiffen against the snowy track suit top’. This passage is all too clearly symmetrical with the moment when Norman’s photographer gets the sought-after shot of celebrity coma: ‘Hawkins’ trousers are tented at the front, taut across his erection.’ But long before this point in the novel, its violations of sensibility have come to seem dogged rather than imaginatively driven, its transgressions only pseudo-perverse. In earlier books, both fictional and non, Burn has shown a fascination with murderers (Alma Cogan circled round Myra Hindley; Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son dealt with Peter Sutcliffe). Here he tries a new canvas, but with no change of palette. Fullalove sets out to explore the psychopathology of the atrocity-packager, but ends up creating such a hyperbolic fantasy of tabloid vampirism that readers may be reminded not of the truly vicious but of those who confess to the wildest crimes, either out of a desire for attention or a conviction that ‘ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world’ is bound to be dreary.
The caustic shadow of Martin Amis falls on more than the style of the book. In his second novel, remarkably enough, Burn has achieved a depth of self-defeat, and a tally of own goals, that it has taken Amis two full decades of literary productivity to reach.