Down and Out in London and Amis

Zachary Leader

  • Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson
    Deutsch, 273 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 233 98392 9
  • The Burnt House by Adam Lively
    Simon and Schuster, 264 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 671 69999 7
  • Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 121 pp, £10.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 571 15242 2
  • The Magic Drum by Emma Tennant
    Viking, 142 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 82556 5

Robert McLiam Wilson was born in 1964, which means that Ripley Bogle, his first novel, was written in his early twenties. The novel’s qualities are those of immodest youth: it is ambitious, energetic, self absorbed, bursting with hormonal vehemence and self-consciousness. Structure and sequence (or plot) are not its strong points. The good bits are bits, hit you straight on, and mostly have to do with the narrator-protagonist, his wishes, delusions, comical pretensions and embarrassments. No one else gets much of a look-in, and those who do – parents briefly, a school friend, first loves, a mentor – are perfunctorily, instrumentally rendered: they matter because of the way Ripley reacts to them. All this is quite openly, cheerfully admitted on the narrator’s part, and is meant to be indulged. Whether it will be, though, depends upon one’s tolerance for the narrative voice, a voice which is startlingly familiar. Here is a representative passage:

It suddenly comes to me that I am hungry. Well, perhaps ‘hungry’ is not quite the right word. Bowelwitheringly fucking ravenous might well be a more just and measured phrase to describe what I am currently experiencing. All right, so I’m a young man and, no doubt, prone to the overstatement of youth but this is the real thing.

The voice here is like that of Martin Amis, whose mark is all over this novel, not just in the muscular, shouldering prose style – the style of John Self – but in Ripley’s rich tangle of adolescent preoccupations, his Charles Highway-like obsession with bodily products (‘matutinal lungbung’ in particular), with his own appearance (‘My tasty eyes ... Much is the womanly bullshit that has been spouted about my eyes’), with ‘knowing’ (‘My word,’ Ripley announces at one point, ‘isn’t all this relentless self-awareness bracing?’). If you don’t like or approve of this sort of thing – some people simply haven’t the stomach for it – you won’t get on with the novel at all. If you do, you’ll still have trouble, since you’ll be forced into diminishing comparisons. These Wilson has himself courted – with typical heedlessness – but he ought not to be sunk by them completely. Ripley Bogle isn’t as good a novel as The Rachel Papers, let alone Money, but its author has talent and nerve.

Like his creator, Ripley was born in West Belfast, though the novel opens in London on the eve of his 22nd birthday. Ripley lucks and talents his way out of childhood squalor and neglect, winning a place at Cambridge. There, after much posturing, he is sent down and then dumped by his girlfriend, ending up adrift in London – a cool and stylish (if rather thinly motivated) tramp. Ripley’s history of rise and fall alternates with lengthy descriptive passages detailing the life of the London streets. Each chapter begins in a different borough or district, elaborately pictured, and then moves on either to Ripley’s recollections or extended tramp anecdotes – a pub brawl, a stabbing, soup-kitchen charity. Some of the tramp-lore (how to keep warm, where to kip, which is the tramp’s best season) is authentic-sounding; of the memories, the most successful are those that have to do with Belfast and the troubles, for these show that Wilson can frighten – even move – as well as dazzle and disarm. Two scenes of sectarian violence are especially gripping, and quite unlike the rest of the novel, in that they take Ripley outside himself. Such moments, together with the style’s sure rhythms and vivid particulars, suggest that Wilson is a writer worth watching – for all the present novel’s indebtedness and clamouring, bumptious self-regard.

Though only three years Wilson’s senior, Adam Lively’s virtues as a novelist are altogether more sober and measured. Not that The Burnt House, his second novel, isn’t ambitious, only that its ambitions are structural or conceptual rather than local, its concerns oddly abstract and impersonal. Such concerns, according to Wilson’s narrator, are those of maturity, but whatever their provenance they issue here in a vision not so much of particular lives as of life itself. Though peopled by a cast of dutifully observed modern types, both English and American, and set in a recognisably contemporary London, one feels always the presence of a larger design in the writing.

That design grows out of the novel’s dual plot. At the centre of the main narrative is the American anchorman Bob Morton, who has come to London on a sort of sabbatical. Something is missing from Bob’s life, for all its rush and glamour, and this something is symbolised by a burnt and dilapidated house he buys in North London, as well as by a mysterious (or unlikely) attraction he feels to one of the labourers hired to repair it, a dreamy, inarticulate 19-year-old named Aidan. When Bob’s daughter Laura joins him in London for the year, she proves immune to the charms both of the house and of Aidan, and is instead drawn into the faster, flashier milieu of the odious Jeremy Tetchley, son of a Conservative MP (himself pretty odious). Jeremy is both seriously disturbed – obsessed with pornography, paranoid, emotionally frozen – and superficial, the worst sort of trend-setter, and eventually (though this takes rather longer than it should) Laura drops him and returns to the States. Aidan, meanwhile, drifts away from the house, and by the novel’s conclusion only Bob, who has given up his job, is left to commune with its spirit.

In the midst of this mostly uneventful narrative Lively introduces passages from a quite different sort of story, one drawn from the pages of a Science Fiction novel Aidan is reading entitled The Voyage beyond Infinity. In the main or realistic narrative, the characters are either pulling away from life – that is, life conceived of as ceaseless doing or making – or eager to plunge into it: the tension is between activity and contemplation, and at various points, for various characters, one or the other seems a delusion or evasion. In the Science Fiction story, this tension is allegorised in the form of a mythic voyage beginning in the year 231,418 and involving the last surviving humans, inhabitants of the gigantic spaceship Xykon, the most distant of all research ships from Earth. This second or mythic story opens when Xykon loses contact not only with Earth but with the Milky Way and the other galaxies composing the ‘Local Group’. A cataclysmic explosion is ‘sweeping throughout our universe’: to escape it, Xykon must set course deeper into space, for though the explosion is ‘advancing towards us at enormous speed ... we can keep ahead of it.’ If Xykon ever stops, mankind will be doomed.

The meaning of this story is clear: on the one hand, such journeying is heroic, what life is meant to be about, which is why Xykon’s captain likens it to earlier, earth-bound exploits ‘all those millenia ago’; on the other, it is absurd, as the voyagers themselves come to realise, hundreds of generations later. The pointlessness of a life devoted exclusively to flight and self-perpetuation results inevitably in disaffection, ennui, rebellion; and eventually the ship votes to land on the first habitable planet ‘and let our children live. And maybe our children’s children. Then the Explosion can catch up and end it all. But at least someone will have lived.’ Here, as in the main story, one does not know which side to take, since the choice is as bleakly drawn as is the real-life contrast between, say, the frenetic Jeremy and spacey Aidan (whose conversation consists almost entirely of the words ‘Dunno’ and ‘Salright’). America and England fit into this opposition as well, at least in Bob’s eyes, the one standing for a world of manic activity (Americans ‘talk incessantly, as though from a nervous disorder’), the other, even in these days of Thatcherite enterprise, for a more contemplative and considered existence – though as Bob himself realises, the fruits of such an existence are hardly consoling. Bob values the grey, smoke-stained imperfections of the burnt house ‘as reminders of mutability’; and mutability is the message also of the Science Fiction story, a story which ends (for us at least, since Aidan never finishes it) with a vision of eternal recurrence. One has to live, Lively seems to be saying, even if life is ultimately meaningless.

The realistic parts of the novel have something of the vastness of the mythic tale, so that Lively’s ‘philosophy’ – the solemn talk of meaning and recurrence – doesn’t seem out of place. This is achieved in part by a series of suggestive parallels between events in the mythical story and key moments (the Sixties, for instance) in the lives of the realistic characters. But it is also effected by descriptions of the night sky, of the city’s immensity, of seasonal change. These have a sombre power, and stand out from the ground or base of Lively’s prose, which is restrained to the point of blandness (and is also sometimes clichéd, as in the traffic’s ‘distant roar’, sleep’s ‘engulfing’ waves, London ‘spread out like a map’). Nor are the novel’s characters as interesting as one would like them to be, even Aidan, whose strangeness is monotonously registered. Finally, the book is sloppily edited.

Emma Tennant’s Two Women of London, the more interesting of her two new novels, is a clever updating of the Jekyll and Hyde story – which makes it a sort of companion piece to The Bad Sister (1978), itself an updating of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The novel opens in February of last year and is set in West London, in a large communal garden haunted by the Notting Hill rapist. The inhabitants of this garden include the slatternly and ferocious Mrs Hyde, whose basement flat fronts onto Ladbroke Grove, but is connected at the back, through a small, neglected garden, to the leafy affluence of the gardens of Rudyard and Nightingale Crescents, and Ms Eliza Jekyll, who runs a trendy new gallery on the Portobello Road, and lives next door to Mrs Hyde, but round the corner, off the main road. Stevenson’s setting is comparably precise and symbolic: the front of Dr Jekyll’s home is part of a square of ‘ancient, handsome houses’, while the back, which Mr Hyde uses, belongs to a sinister block of buildings bearing ‘in every feature the marks of prolonged neglect’.

Both women are representative figures of Britain in the Eighties. Mrs Hyde is an impoverished single mother, precisely the sort of person hit hardest by the new ethos (her filthy, neglected children are only occasionally glimpsed through barred and grimy windows, but their bruises have already aroused suspicions). Eliza Jekyll, on the other hand, is a prime example of the sort of woman the new age favours: independent, ‘post-feminist’ (‘a fink in other words’), on the make. ‘Capitalism,’ comments one of the artists who exhibits at her gallery, ‘is the cause of Eliza’s prosperity. And capitalism will continue to bring her prosperity while others starve.’

Which is one reason why Eliza and Mrs Hyde are connected in the allegory, an allegory as ‘Victorian’ as the supposed values that have helped to create the new Britain. The two women stand ‘for all the divisions we are in the midst of suffering in this country’, and are meant to be seen as responsible for each other in several senses. This is clear in the novel’s opening pages. At the same time, however, the extremity of Mrs Hyde’s violence, and its association with the activities of the rapist, are viewed by at least one of the novel’s narrators as a sign of something deeper – of an original evil. This view is supported by a proliferation of supernatural suggestions in the story, as well as by the perfunctory pharmaceutical ‘explanation’ – no more plausible or satisfying here than in the source – on which the plot is meant to hang.

Yet it is the social allegory which engages, in part because we are always kept at a distance from the two women and their painful transformations (in the filmed versions, we actually see these transformations, which helps explain why the social side of the allegory is muted), in part because the supernatural intimations are hokey and old-fashioned. This is a novel rich in the ‘crawler’ or ‘shilling shocker’ atmospherics Stevenson was at pains to temper: an owl hoots in the garden’s ‘black, rural peace’, storms ‘moan’ through the tall trees, the moon is full, interiors are dark and candlelit. Even though some of this is tongue-in-cheek (of a piece with calling Eliza’s cleaning lady Grace Poole, a name derived not only from Bertha Mason’s ‘keeper’ in Jane Eyre, but from Dr Jekyll’s servant in the source), its effect is to undermine the story’s metaphysical dimension. On the other hand, the Notting Hill setting can be seen in Jekyll and Hyde terms, as full both of rapid change and sharp division. To one of its older inhabitants, it suggests ‘that everything this country had once represented is liable overnight to be turned into its opposite.’

Like the original, Tennant’s novel wavers between different registers and meanings. In Stevenson, though, the resulting uncertainty connects to a much more powerfully imagined – a more frightening – picture of loss of control. This novel is more distanced and heady, more of a game (certainly more of a game than The Bad Sister, which is comparably clever and indeterminate, but much more gripping). In the end, its themes are only sketched out, are never quite realised in the writing. And this is its principal point of connection with The Magic Drum, the second of Tennant’s novels under review. For the themes in The Magic Drum – of creativity and female oppression – aren’t embodied either, and the novel quickly dwindles into an uneasy satire of genre conventions, principally those of Gothic and detective fiction. Here the uncertainties, both tonal and thematic, are meant to be explained by an unreliable narrator (she not only imagines things, but her imagination is ultimately conventional or banal). But what this unreliability has to do with poetic power, say, or the theme of gender constraints, is unclear.

The narrator in question is Catherine Treger, a trendy and ambitious young journalist in her early thirties. Catherine has been assigned to write a story about Cressley Grange, a 16th-century house in Herefordshire, shrine for the devoted followers of Muriel Phrantzes Cole, a Plath-like poet who died there some twenty years ago. Today, Cressley Grange is run as a creative writing school, under the joint direction of Jason Cole, Muriel’s husband, and himself a poet of distinction, and his prickly cousin Jane. After a brisk Prologue introducing the principal characters (they are all ‘types’) and setting the plot in motion (Catherine’s paper has told her to find something new to say about Muriel and to discuss the pros and cons of ‘creative writing’), the novel takes the form of entries from her diary. In these entries, all the standard Gothic and thriller motifs are gathered: a large and crumbling house (creaking floorboards, winding passageways, hidden doorways and recesses), a terrible storm (roads blocked, phones down, electricity out), a corpse (‘Who, who could have wanted to murder this wonderful man,’ wonders Catherine obtusely), multiple suspects, surprise revelations, even a return from the dead. As in Two Women of London, the novel ends with a rush of incident and discovery, and we are left in uncertainty. It is hard to care, given the surrounding silliness and melodrama.