Flamboyant historical staging characterised Andrew Miller’s first two novels, Ingenious Pain and Casanova: his third makes use of a very different kind of theatricality. Here, in two discrete, barely overlapping stories – one of a dying woman attended by her sons, the other of an exiled Hungarian playwright tempted by a shameful memory into a last-ditch act of political redemption – the stage directions are slow and deliberate, the settings minimal and swiftly sketched. Every action carries a purposeful weight that leaves no room for chaotic exuberance.
At first sight, what plot there is seems schematic. In Somerset, Alice Valentine is succumbing to lung cancer, quartered in a room where ‘a stuffiness half intimate, half medical’ exacerbates the gradual suffocation brought on by her illness. Her son Alec, a frail, nervous translator whose ineffectual ministrations leave him ‘blushing from an emotion he could not quite identify’, is not the favoured boy: that honour goes to louche Larry, a former tennis professional of minor distinction, a TV actor recently sacked from his part as Dr Barry Catchpole in Sun Valley General, a man slithering down the ladder of celebrity into alcoholism, divorce and the humiliations of the ‘glamour industry’.
In Paris, the playwright László Lázár gives a dinner party, unaware that in the darkened silences of a West Country summerhouse, Alec Valentine is haltingly translating his latest work into English. The two characters never meet: they are linked only by ‘the orderly double-spaced world of the text’, and the blurry magazine photograph of Lázár that Alec has pinned above his desk.
Lázár’s play Oxygène – he has previously written highly praised pieces with titles like Sisyphus Rex – is to be set on a revolving stage, with the action and dialogue shared between those above and those below the surface of the earth. An accident has trapped a group of miners underground somewhere in Eastern Europe; the oxygen available to them is running out, and frantic rescuers are exhausting themselves above. Each of the trapped men responds to his predicament with markedly different emotions. Lázár’s play is merely alluded to, however – its political and social dimensions are made known only through the parallel world of Miller’s novel.
In Miller’s story, too, we witness the comings and goings on a revolving stage, the ‘above’ and ‘below’ of the play mirrored by the two halves of the novel, each with an epigraph from Hamlet. They have neatly oppositional titles, ‘Nightwatch’ and ‘What are days for?’, and throughout the characters are caught between action and inertia, success and failure, achievement and resignation. Should Alec act on the memory of his mother asking him in a rare moment of companionship to end her life should she become ‘gaga’? Should László throw in his lot with a group of Albanian freedom fighters in order to make up for a fatal moment of indecision in 1956?
At times, Miller displays an excessive regard for narrative tidiness that threatens to undermine the emotional impact of his quietly forceful prose. His skilful changes of scene, the movements and images that echo and rebound through the text, leave little work for an imaginative reader to do: little that hasn’t been signposted and blocked, or that offers the possibility of transformation or uncertainty. The result is a novel that seems at once overdetermined, anxious that we should understand its purpose, and underpowered, promising only further levels of refinement and resolution.
This might be why there are some uncertain moments of comedy. Aside from Alice, who boasts her own brand of integrity and inviolability, the characters sometimes come across as stereotypes from the world of pastiche. What could be more knowingly clichéd than a fading sports star, ‘a kind of decoration, a baroque squiggle’, dosing himself up with beer and Xanax and cocaine while his marriage – to another stock character, a mantra-chanting, health-obsessed American, complete with dysfunctional child – rapidly unravels? Or the urbane homosexual playwright, well versed in the arts of gracious living yet tormented by his past sins of omission? At least Larry and László, who have articulate inner voices, are to some extent aware that they are hamstrung by their conformity to type, and are unable to do much besides play the roles assigned to them.
For Larry, ‘something had failed; the reasons hardly mattered now. What counted was hanging on, toughing it out as though he were two sets down and had just been broken.’ Toughing it out includes flying to LA to star in a porn film, turning on the charm as Dr Barry Catchpole in order to impress the director’s wife and pocketing the envelope of money furtively given to him. In LA, exhibiting what we imagine to be the first-time porn actor’s nerves over his ability to perform, Larry gets hold of some pills. One type guarantees instant sexual arousal; the other, by unexplained symmetry, death. Naturally, these harbingers of Eros and Thanatos look confusingly like one another. When Larry quits America – ‘the last place on earth where things actually happened, a country where a man’s life could still have a mythic weight’ – for his mother’s deathbed in ‘remote and underlit’ England, he takes the tablets and his kleptomaniac daughter with him. The scene is set for a deathly farce.
On the other side of the Channel, László, too, prepares himself for dramatic action that verges on the farcical. Stung either by his conscience or by a simple desire for excitement and engagement, he has accepted the task foisted on him by the resistance cell, who first subjected him to a Jesuitical interview that takes place in another stage set – an unknown room, three chairs and a single bed, a cellphone and an alarm clock. There is a beseeching, earnest boy, an arrogant, dismissive woman, and a suitcase full of money, to be taken to Budapest for an arms deal.
These stock situations might have something to do with the novel’s scattered references to other writers. Miller tries to make the references seem natural, but his studied offhandedness only emphasises their artificiality. Alec Valentine, in the only moment he impinges on László Lázár’s life, is said to sound like a character from Stendhal, and he marks out the boundaries of the family home much like Hamlet stalking the ramparts, occasionally pausing, ‘like a man who has entirely forgotten what he came for’. Alice thinks of Orwell’s TB and wonders if she might float above the world in death, like the heroine of a South American novel; Miller chronicles her decline in language borrowed from medical journals; Larry says that he was first attracted to America by the works of Hemingway.
Oxygen is a novel about suffocation, and this inhibits its characters and its readers. Its themes are compressed, and sometimes almost sidelined, as if Miller lacked confidence in them. Failure is the most obvious point of departure, the nature of heroism its corollary. There are heroic qualities to be found in the appreciation of failure, as László’s apparently rhetorical question – ‘What pride could he take in consummate failure?’ – suggests. Elsewhere, Larry meditates on his disintegrating life and comes up with the unexpectedly reassuring thought that ‘the last good road left open to him was failure itself. And this he decided to call hope.’ Alec, who has already had one minor nervous breakdown, his ‘wobble’, and who realises that his mother cannot share her love equally between him and Larry, reaches a similar epiphany: ‘He knew now, with a certainty that bordered on relief, that he wasn’t going to manage.’
It is difficult to write these self-diagnoses without making them sound either portentous or inauthentic. Miller’s skill in manipulating his characters’ psychological states is impressive, but he tends to allow interior monologue to do too much work. Self-consciousness becomes strained: one of Alice’s visitors, for example, notes in himself ‘the sensation of impending danger’, hardly an inappropriate response to an imminent death. Sub-subplots are introduced via Alice’s memories, which let us in on family history: her father’s postwar depression, for example, and her late husband’s alcoholism. Alice failed to rescue either of them, just as László’s guilt revolves around his failure to take one life in order to save another. These stories attempt to influence the narrative with ghostly stealth, but they also have something of the air of alibi about them.
The narrative veers between orchestrated events and simple descriptions of the end of a life – these passages are the best in the novel – and one wonders what contrivances will be necessary to bring the book’s disparate elements together. László’s play is described as a departure in his work because its ending is ambiguous: the miners might be saved. There is no parallel reprieve for Alice, but others may find that, after all, they can manage.
Early in the novel, a gun is fired, half in play, half in ignorance. This introduces the notion of Russian roulette, an image that recurs in Alice’s pill-box, ‘its segments like the chambers of a gun’, in a description of the human heart, ‘chambered like a weapon’, in the confusion of the deadly and sexy pills. The element of chance means that we can never be certain of outcomes, however near to the end of the story we seem to be. Simple-minded transcendentalism is one refuge from uncertainty: Larry’s wife devotes herself to her Buddhist koans, or riddles; Larry is recommended a therapist on the grounds that ‘this guy guarantees closure.’ But another way out is through despair, as László notes in the letter he leaves for his lover when he sets off on his Albanian adventure, accurately remarking that he has ‘made futility into a fetish’. Russian roulette, five times out of six, doesn’t result in death.
These ideas should have been given more space to breathe; but breathlessness is the order of the day. One wishes, too, that the cast, in their various states of physical decrepitude, mental disintegration, misery and optimism, had been allowed to break free from one another and express themselves more fully. Miller, however, seems to be experimenting with narrative inhibition and authorial control after the untethered tableaux of his first two novels. But despite shadows of great power and intelligence, it occasionally appears as if this is a novel in progress instead of the finished article. For all that, you would have to look hard in the blandness of contemporary fiction to find such an unaffected and unembarrassed portrayal of terminal illness.