Self-Effacers

John Lanchester

  • Chicago Loop by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 183 pp, £12.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 241 12949 4
  • Lies of Silence by Brian Moore
    Bloomsbury, 194 pp, £12.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0610 8
  • Amongst Women by John McGahern
    Faber, 184 pp, £12.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 571 14284 2
  • The Condition of Ice by Christopher Burns
    Secker, 170 pp, £12.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 436 19989 0

It’s sometimes easy to forget that good writing is not necessarily brilliant on the surface. There are talented novelists who eschew local flourishes in favour of a tonal evenness which they believe better serves the purposes of structure, characterisation and plot. Their prose seeks to be transparent rather than dazzling. If one could plot writers on a continuum which measured the extent to which a prose style forces its brilliance on our attention, the four novelists here under review would be clustered towards the self-effacing side of the spectrum, with colleagues such as Burgess, Nabokov and Amis fils huddling together for warmth at the far end.

Paul Theroux’s last novel, My Secret History, deployed a cool transparency of style to great effect in telling a story which appeared to be flagrantly autobiographical: that’s to say, its central character, ‘Andre Parent’, had lived in the same places and circumstances as Theroux, and had written the same books. My Secret History was about duality and secrecy, and their relationship to the business of writing; it was also about the ‘chip of ice’ that Graham Greene said exists in every writer’s heart. This chip is often talked about – and mentions of it on the part of writers are usually either a form of boasting or a plea for special treatment – but it isn’t often made to seem real.

The achievement of My Secret History was to sketch a believable connection between Andre Parent’s writing and the reptilian coldness of his egotism, and to do so without claiming that the one somehow excused the other. Theroux managed to avoid the usual confessional dialectic between self-accusation and self-exculpation – a dialectic which is involved in making a coded plea for the reader’s forgiveness – largely through the already mentioned coolness and lucidity of his style. A prose more intensely wrought would have injected an element of the energy which makes attractive fictional monsters as disparate as Richard III and John Self.

Chicago Loop (terrific title) is another book that has a cold, clear surface and a lurking nastiness underneath. Its central character, Parker Jagoda (terrific name), is a 37-year old architect-turned-developer who, unknown to his photographer’s-model wife Barbara, has been placing ads in the lonely hearts columns of the local papers. The book begins with Parker on the way to one of the ensuing dates. It rapidly becomes evident that all isn’t well with him: he has a sense of universal corruption and falsity; his jumpy thought-processes alternate between distraction and obsession; he keeps telling detailed lies about himself to strangers; he is going off his head. Just how off his head becomes apparent when he takes Sharon, his second date of the evening, back to her flat, and does something terrible to her – exactly what isn’t yet clear. Parker and Barbara then go to an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures (Parker hates them), to a restaurant (Parker throws up), and, the next evening, to a motel, where Barbara pretends to be a prostitute. The next time they indulge in some sexual role-playing in the same motel, Barbara dresses up as a man, and this has a strong psychic effect on Parker, who realises the nature of the terrible thing he did to Sharon: he had tied her up and bitten her to death.

With the knowledge of what he has done, Parker disintegrates. Before the murder, he had been on a health diet for years. When he went into a restaurant, he would wave away the menu and say: ‘No oil, no salt, no MSG, no colouring, no flavouring, no sugar, no white flour, no butter. What do you have?’ After the murder, with the newspapers running stories about the hunt for the ‘wolfman’, he starts eating piles of junk food. He also starts wandering around Chicago dressed as a woman, looking for a way of getting beaten up, until he finally jumps off Sears Tower.

There has always been a great deal of sexual unease in Theroux’s work, and Chicago Loop sometimes reads like a conscious attempt to take that feeling as far as it can go. The result is a miasma of sexual disquiet which certainly keeps you turning the pages, and which also leaves a perceptibly nasty aftertaste. This is partly occasioned by the fact that the sex in the book is perceived from Parker’s point of view – in other words, it’s pornographic – and partly by a sense that a story with this much power, on this dangerous subject, ought also to have a moral. Are we meant to perceive a connection between Parker’s crime and the (in truth, not extraordinary) kinky sex he has with Barbara? Are we meant to be disgusted by our own prurience – is this one of those hypocrite lecteur deals? Does the title contain a bilingual pun on the word loup, and if so does it matter? Or is there no moral, but just a narrative told with Theroux’s habitual momentum and detail? My own guess would be the latter – that the open ends are deliberate and that the novel’s genesis and import could be summed up by the author’s saying: ‘Eating people is wrong (but let me tell you a story).’

Lies of Silence, on the other hand, is very much a book with a deducible moral. It describes a few days in the life of Michael Dillon, a thirtyish former poet now managing a hotel in his native Belfast. Dillon is on the point of leaving his wife Moira (beautiful, bulimic, too tightly wrapped for her own good) for his girlfriend Andrea (early twenties, Canadian, a BBC radio producer): he plans to emigrate to England. On the evening when he is due to tell his wife about his intention to leave her, he goes home. ‘He opened the gate and stood in the garden, waiting for the cat. But the cat did not come. Where was it?’

Students of the oeuvre of Brian Moore’s one-time collaborator Alfred Hitchcock will hum doomy music to themselves when they read those words – and they’ll be right. The cat doesn’t come because the cat has been murdered by a team of IRA gunmen who, later that same evening, break into Dillon’s house, take him and Moira hostage, and force him to drive to the hotel and plant a bomb which is intended to kill ‘Alun Pottinger’ (i.e. Ian Paisley), and which will kill a large number of bystanders as well. If Dillon deviates in the slightest degree from his orders – if he makes any attempt to divulge that he has a bomb in his car – his wife will be murdered. But isn’t there a little part of him that wouldn’t mind that outcome?

The tension is unbearable – or at least it would be if the central premise of the plot wasn’t so disastrously implausible. That the IRA would leave Dillon unattended to plant a bomb at his own hotel simply isn’t credible: as a result, what ought to be the book’s central moment of moral drama has no impact at all. Dillon, in anguish, tips off the police, who arrive in time to save the lives of everyone at the hotel; the IRA have made no attempt to keep Moira hostage once Dillon leaves to plant the bomb, so she is safe; but Moira defies police advice not to tell the media about what has happened, and suddenly she and Dillon are in danger. A creepy priest comes to warn Dillon against giving evidence, but Dillon gives him a flea in his ear and leaves for England with Andrea. Fate, however, is not far behind ...

Lies of Silence is a thriller – plot-centred, character-centred, not distractingly well-written. Moira, tormented by her desire not to lose her husband and full of contempt for the people who take her hostage, is a very vivid character, even though Moore makes her deliver the book’s moral. ‘You’re just a woman, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ one of the IRA men tells her. She replies:

‘No? I’ll tell you one thing I do know. You’re not fighting for anybody’s freedom. Not mine, not the people of Northern Ireland’s, not anybody’s. The only thing you’re doing is making people hate each other worse than ever. Maybe that’s what you want, isn’t it? Because if the Catholics here stopped hating the Prods, where would the IRA be? And the worst of it is, I’m wasting my breath talking to you because you’re too stupid to know the harm you’ve done.’

The faceless eyes in the woollen mask stared at her, unblinking. ‘Have you finished?’

John McGahern’s Amongst Women is a much more oblique version of the Condition of Ireland novel. Moran is the man who lives amongst women: he is the former leader of an IRA column in the war of independence against the British, the most glorious period of his existence, which he now never talks about. The novel is taken up with what is in a sense the epilogue to his life, as he marries for the second time and, with Rose, his second wife, brings up his three daughters and one remaining son – the other, eldest son having left home permanently after one beating too many. And that’s all: no events in the larger world impinge on family life, and thanks to the flashback construction of the book we already know that no major disaster happens to the family, who remain close to Moran to the end of his life.

Amongst Women is, in its undemonstrative way, a risky book, and there is an element of take-it-or-leave-it about the way in which it commits itself so resolutely to its ordinary story. From the critical point of view, there’s something snookering about the absoute transparency and unobtrusiveness of McGahern’s style: his disappearance into the story he is telling is Chekhovian in its completeness. It’s difficult to find a register in which to praise Amongst Women, a book which doesn’t offer obvious angles of approach or surface pyrotechnics. As with Chekhov, the words of evocation one might consider using – ‘humane’? ‘compassionate’? – are utterly contradictory to the manner of oblique, tactful immersion in which the fiction is written. Moran is the figure by whom the book must stand or fall: an angry, proud, self-pitying man, whose love for his daughters is none the less real for its destructiveness. He is completely absorbed in the drama of his own life in a way that McGahern sees as both pitiful and heroic. Here, for instance, is Moran deciding to marry, in the aftermath of a quarrel with McQuaid, his lieutenant in the IRA column, now richer and more successful than his former captain:

In a cold fury he stood and sat for a long time within, twice changing from chair to chair. After years he had lost his oldest and best friend but in a way he had always despised friendship; families were what mattered, more particularly that larger version of himself – his family; and while seated in the same scheming fury he saw each individual member gradually slipping away out of his reach. Yes, they would eventually all go. He would be alone. That he could not stand. He saw with bitter lucidity that he would marry Rose Brady now. As with so many things, no sooner had he taken the idea to himself than he began to resent it passionately.

The events and the subject-matter of The Condition of Ice are more public; the connections which the novel makes between the personal and the political are more explicit. Christopher Burns’s third novel is narrated by Ernest Tinnion, a former mountain climber who has returned, fifty years on, to the site of his greatest triumph-and-disaster, the Versücherin (‘Temptress’) mountain in Switzerland. The bulk of the novel recounts the attempt Tinnion made on the fearsome North Face of the Versücherin with another climber, Hansi Kirchner, in August 1936: the chapters which describe the climb are alternated with chapters describing the preparations for it – preparations which included Tinnion eloping, Lawrence-like, with the wife of a local worthy. A sinister German photographer with Nazi connections lurks, eager to get pictures of this triumph of the will; Jean, Tinnion’s girlfriend, begs him to think of his new responsibilities to her and abandon the climb; some Italian mountaineers are preparing for their own attempt on the face.

The Thirties are, perhaps, becoming a little over-used as a stage-set for fiction: all sorts of easy resonances and forebodings accrue. The Condition of Ice, however, puts much more into its period setting than it expects to get out: the relationship between political and athletic extremism – the Nietzschean cocktail of high places and supermen – was a genuine concern of the Thirties, as The Ascent of F6 testifies. In fact, the political background to The Condition of Ice might have been more effectively present if it had been less mentioned, and less explicitly debated. That’s a small objection, though, set against the novel’s various successes, which include the nicely-judged depiction of the unconscious homoerotic bond between the two climbers, and the portrait of Hansi, a weak character who only finds himself when pursuing his absurdly dangerous hobby. The novel’s main achievement is its horribly realistic description of the climb itself, an account of physical extremity so engrossing in its detail that one hardly notices (and certainly doesn’t mind) the thematic baggage which it also manages to gather up.