Cartoon Quality

Zachary Leader

  • Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser
    Routledge, 305 pp, £4.95
  • A Prize Paradise by Oliver Pritchett
    Eyre Methuen, 171 pp, £4.95
  • A Revenger’s Comedy by Derwent May
    Chatto, 191 pp, £5.95

Edwin Mullhouse etc is by far the most interesting and inventive of the three novels under review. It is also, with all its knowing brilliance, the most irritating – relentlessly clever, frequently cloying. The story it tells is that of the life and aesthetically pleasing death by suicide of Edwin, 11-year-old author of Cartoons, a novel, we are told, of genius. It is also that of Edwin’s biographer, Jeffrey, a mere half-year older, whose exhaustively solemn record of his lifelong friend’s minutest peculiarities and achievements continually draws attention away from its subject. This tension between subject and biographer is central to the novel, and has wider, at times metaphysical, implications.

Jeffrey divides Edwin’s life into three periods: The Early Years (0-6), The Middle Years (6-9), and The Late Years (9 to 11). Its major episodes – the encounter with Edward Penn, aged seven, muralist; Edwin’s doomed love for the sullen Rose Dorn, third-grade femme fatale; Rose’s fiery end; the improbable friendship with Arnold Hasselstrom, inarticulate playground psychopath; the romantically tortured genesis of Cartoons, complete with feverish bouts of sleeplessness and nervous debility; Jeffrey’s urging of Edwin’s carefully plotted suicide (‘I aspire to the condition of fiction,’ reads the suicide note they concoct) – rise out of a welter of pseudo-academic detail. There is much easy satire of literary biography, particularly of the stuffily myopic and self-important ‘Definitive Life’ variety.

Jeffrey tells us everything: Edwin’s infant sounds are listed (for three months and six); so, too, his first movements, as recorded in his father’s My Story: A Baby Record; the numerous passages of verse and prose two-year-old Edwin can recite from memory (‘It wuzza besta time, it wuzza wussa time, it wuzza age a whiz, it wuzza age a foo!’, ‘A bee a noppity: assa question!’); every book Edwin is known to have read between the ages of two and three (the list fills three-quarters of a page); synopses of all 31 stories from Edwin’s ‘Middle Years’ (Number 16: ‘A story about the letter l, who is sad because he is the thinnest letter in the alphabet. One day he is chased home from school by o. His father, L, finding him in tears, explains to him that letters are not important by themselves but only as parts of words. He is part of “elephant”, “eagle”, and “whale”, while o is part of “worm”, “hog”, and “toad” ’).

That this sort of thing can quickly cloy, the author, Steven Millhauser, knows full well. And it can be said that his creations, Edwin and Jeffrey, know it. Jeffrey, after listing the titles of 59 of the well over two hundred cartoons he and Edwin saw during the Middle Years (they include ‘The Brothers Kara-MOUSEov’, ‘Winnie the Pooch’, ‘Quackers and Cheese’), identifies as their most important property ‘a certain disturbing quality … a quality that I shall define … as a repellent cuteness’. Later, in words that apply as much to Millhauser as to Mullhouse, Jeffrey explains: ‘I do not mean that Edwin was blind to this quality of cartoons, on the contrary he was especially sensitive to it and sought it out deliberately for his book. For it is Edwin’s achievement to have discovered Beauty not in the merely commonplace … but in the lowest of the low, the vilest of the vile: in the trivial, in the trite, in the repellently cute.’

When Edwin Mullhouse focuses directly on the repellently cute, it brings to its task a pleasing ingenuity and accuracy, as in the following description of the opening moments of a movie cartoon: ‘Behind the rich blue luminous curtain, rippling, the paler blue luminous letters ripple, mingling with bright blue luminous melodies jingling in an odor of salt and cardboard, mingling with jujyfruits, jingling with jujubes, in the black-crow licorice dark. In light, caught, the letters, transfixed, stiffen. Brighter than licked lollipops, livelier than soda in sunlight, lovelier than sunshine on cellophane the colors shine: popsicle orange and lemon-ice white, cotton-candy pink and mint-jelly green, cherry-soda red and raspberry-jello red. Cellophane crackles in the green-and-red-tinted dark.’ Here, the frankly nauseating means to evoke the object under scrutiny. With the novelist’s own (as it were, incidental) cartoon-like cuteness, though, we have more trouble. Sometimes the effect is moving, as in the following description of the approach to White Beach: ‘soon the old two-storey houses with their rickety outdoor staircases gave way to empty lots and long low factories behind wire fences, as if the town had died on the way to the water.’ At other times, though, the writing trembles on the brink of an irredeemable coyness, as when fire engines ‘Redly … rushed away, with black firemen stuck all over their backs like clinging cats’; or falls right in, as when Edwin’s neck, ‘as if it were a pale fruitjuice container into which cherry-flavored Kool-Aid had been poured, darkened perceptibly’. That the artist’s wholly conscious intention may well be realised in a passage like this doesn’t matter in the least: we still wince, finding the repellent cuteness quite untransmuted.

Though Jeffrey’s solemn pedantry is the source of much of this excess, it also contributes moments of startling insight. By treating the more commonplace incidents of his hero’s life with deadly seriousness, Edwin’s biographer captures something of the intensity of childhood experience: the violence of spurned friendship, for instance (‘In games of dodgeball she aimed at his head’); outrage in the face of inconsistency (‘the relation between spelling and sound perplexed him endlessly; he never forgave the Inventor of Words for “do” and “go” ’); the fanatical concentration involved in youthful play (hence all those endless lists and repetitions). ‘Let no one tell me that childhood is lived in a timeless present,’ writes Jeffrey, with characteristic percipience and grating playfulness: ‘Rather it is a fever of futures, an ardour of perpetual anticipations.’

Stephen Millhauser, for all his novel’s faults, is dazzlingly gifted, not just in the richly sensual precision and wit of his writing (the ‘hot blue bulb’ of the silver camera flash Edwin’s father brings him, ‘so that he can press his fingernails into the soft warm bumps of glass’), or his encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of American childhood (‘paper bags and scraps of waxpaper tumbling across the deserted playground’), but in the gathering menace with which Jeffrey’s Humbert-like obsessiveness is revealed, and the (on the whole) becoming tentativeness with which its relation to the hoary chestnuts ‘Art v. Life’ and ‘Intellect v. Instinct’ is suggested.

Oliver Pritchett’s A Prize Paradise, another first novel, is altogether more modest and familiar: a modishly spare and astringent satiric farce, in the manners of Waugh and Amis. Its hero of sorts, Christopher Sharp, works for Overseas Citrus, on the West Indian Island of St Agnes. Sharp’s maddeningly ‘committed’ and inattentive leftist wife, Sarah, campaigns tirelessly against her husband’s company, good-humouredly fanning insurrectionary fervour. The Islanders too are well-worn satiric types: cheerful and indolent, politically apathetic – everything, in short, the wet liberal wants not to believe about them. Sharp and his fellow executives lead no less familiar comic colonial lives, tepidly hearty and ineffectual. The England whose spirit they breathe over the Caribbean is evoked in ‘bottles of orange squash, tins of baked beans, Vim, Sarson’s vinegar, cream of chicken soup’.

Into this tired and well-tried setting Pritchett injects Arthur and Ann Brockham, winners of London Office’s ‘Ten-Day Caribbean Paradise Holiday for Two’. Though Arthur’s comic antecedents are also familiar, his mean and wingeing awfulness is vividly, at times originally, rendered. Resolutely unimpressed with the arrangements for his holiday, Brockham pesters Sharp about photographers (why hasn’t his picture been taken ‘Enjoying the Company’s leisure amenities’); deprecates the island scenery (‘He says the picture on the postage stamp is a confidence trick’); passes an entire night on the town, at tacky Uncle Harry’s Club, worrying the mosquito bite on his forearm. In the end, Brockham slyly joins forces with Sharp’s wife, and with the Island’s cynical and fatuous Minister for Education (among other things), and nationalises Overseas Fruit. This, too, is familiar, since only boors and bores succeed in such novels; while their heroes, invariably hopeless (‘Sharp held Brockham’s laundry on his lap and thought glumly about the clumsiness of love’), wear awkward ineffectuality like a badge of integrity, often of Englishness.

Towards the end, though, the novel begins to take on distinctive qualities, leavening its safe ironies with odd and unexpected touches of violence. Sharp begins to get headaches (at moments of Fawlty-like frustration), but headaches of incongruously graphic intensity: ‘Christopher Sharp stood up suddenly and gave a scream of pain as every sinew tore itself apart and sent a flash of lightning through his skull so that his eyebrows glowed red hot.’ Then there’s the accident which does away with the Company’s man from London Office, or the description of Barnes’s drowned body, ‘white and swollen as if it had been in the water for weeks’; or of the poems of the Company’s token black – ‘about St Agnes and full of love and unexpected rage’. What precisely these moments are doing in the novel (not everything here seems under control – Ann Brockham’s presence, for instance) is unclear, though they go hand-in-hand with the increasing darkness of the humour. ‘Can’t think why we allow him in the pool,’ muses Sharp, ‘unhappily’, over Barnes’s swollen corpse.

A Revenger’s Tragedy, by Derwent May, is a kindlier book, the distinguishing feature of which (again late and largely unexpected, given the stock satiric material) is an almost affecting sombreness. ‘Almost’ affecting, because William Pirates, the reclusive eccentric who is meant to evoke it, and on whom the novel’s action pivots (by promising an appearance on telly, Pirates lures to his house on an Essex estuary an assortment of egocentric media bores and pseuds, total strangers), is too reclusive, disappearing for long stretches of plot, and only at the end revealing a depth of character for which we are almost wholly unprepared. ‘He was entirely without talent,’ observes one of Pirates’s intended victims (in a speech itself oddly out of character),

but he knew there was a simple, honest culture which we all trample on. I come from a simple home. My mother would have understood the feelings … It was his party. He was going to kill us all at the end of it, but he was proud to have us there, didn’t want to fall down as a host.

Pirates, though, has never, until this moment, been more to us than a series of comic grimaces. We see what the speech intends, but its actual effect is vaguely embarrassing given our distance from the object of its sympathy.

The narrator of the novel, John Berry, is a familiarly likeable, because hapless, comic innocent (he too, though, is corruptible), whose baffled encounters with Pirates’s guests allow the author to parade their awfulness. These encounters produce the best moments in the novel, especially the detailing of snubs, including not answering when addressed, not letting others speak, not introducing oneself, responding to jokes and pleasantries with insolent silence, and turning away in mid-sentence. Other good bits involve blatant careerism and greedy selfishness, as when the dining room of Pirates’s house bursts into flames and a TV producer shouts: ‘Guests first, then Staff.’

This, though, is about the novel’s funniest line. Again and again, jokes and witticisms fall flat, farcical bits limp, slapstick drags, repartee fails to sparkle. One character, a homosexual telly-intellectual named Bart Bagehot, is called, by another, ‘Fart Faggot’; a third falls in the estuary, and Bart, ‘never at a loss for words’, calls out to Petula, a pop shrink: ‘He didn’t want to go as far back to the womb as that.’ ‘You can be my first patient when I start again,’ says Petula. ‘Thanks a Freudian,’ says the editor to whom she talks. Elsewhere, the narrator overhears two literary types humping in the bushes: ‘Byron! Oh …! Keats! Oh … oh! Kipling! Oh …! Oh – Oxford Book of English Verse! Ah … ah … ah … OH!’ Then there’s the dialogue:

‘She’s got a battery iron,’ I said.
‘A battery hen?’
‘No – a battery iron,’ I laughed. ‘Iron using a battery. She likes showing it off.’

Or: ‘When I was a small boy, I remember telling my mother I’d found some crumpets on the rocks.’ ‘Ooh!’ said Bagehot. ‘Mermaids, no doubt.’

These passages aren’t meant to sound as feeble and flat as they do. They are, moreover, of a piece with a more general feebleness, which allows most things to happen in the novel just when you think they will, and much as you expected. There’s even something perfunctory and winded about the quasi-apocalyptic dénouement.