Dirty Jokes

Julian Symons

  • Brief Lives by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 217 pp, £12.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 224 02747 6
  • Deception by Philip Roth
    Cape, 208 pp, £12.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 224 03000 0
  • Homeboy by Seth Morgan
    Chatto, 390 pp, £12.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3664 2

‘Julia died. I read it in the Times this morning... I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.’ The first half-dozen lines of Anita Brookner’s novel suggest the tone, straightforwardly realistic, and tell us the principal subject, the relationship between flamboyant upper-middle-class Julia and Fay, whose father was a cinema manager. The opening chapter’s ten pages enlarge on this, sketch Julia’s youthful success as a diseuse and tell us of her solicitor husband Charles’s death, mention Fay’s own glimpse of fame during the War, when she sang ‘on the wireless’ as the serious spot on comedy shows, and her marriage to Owen, a junior partner in Charles’s firm. One has the feeling too much is being given away, but that isn’t so. The framework provided by this opening chapter is essential to the way Fay’s story is told, its placing a small artistic triumph that would have been appreciated by James or Conrad.

It is a commonplace that Brookner writes better about women than about men, as the unhappy Lewis Percy testified. The men in Brief Lives are important but they are kept in their right place, which for Brookner is the background, and as background figures they are perfectly convincing. Owen is beautiful, eager to escape from his over-loving mother, bored with life as a single man. After marriage he falls into a routine in which Fay’s role is part-housekeeper, part-hostess, part-bedmate, but never equal. ‘He wanted a wife who would cause him no anguish, yet at the same time he wanted to hold her at arm’s length.’ Fay accepts this, as she accepts the hatefully harsh indigo, sage-green and claret decorations of their London home, done by Owen’s first wife who had ‘advanced ideas on interior decoration’. Fay’s life is on one level the story of her exploitation – by Owen, Julia, Charlie and a doctor with whom she doesn’t quite have an affair – but at the age of 70 she is able to say without irony or complacency that on the whole her life has been easy and happy. ‘When I keep away from the old songs and my own disappointments I really think I manage rather well.’

The springs of the story are the interactions in the lives of Fay and Julia, but its real subject is the onset of old age. It is seen in Fay, after her husband and Charlie who became her lover have both died, in the blank mornings and unforgiving evenings she spends in a flat in Drayton Gardens ‘comfortingly near the cinema’ which she rarely visits. For Fay, old age is chiefly mental, so that she comes to doubt whether she was born to be a mistress or even a wife, perhaps should never have left her mother. She is perfectly aware that ‘no woman of any sense thinks like this today,’ as she had been aware earlier of failing to understand the music or style of the Sixties, its shouting, enthusiasm, lack of charm. In Julia the change is physical, expressed in a passage about her appearance after her husband’s death: ‘Julia was in bed, wearing an ultramarine satin nightgown with cream lace insertions ... There was, to me, something shocking in the expanse of white shoulder and arms, left on view for visitors: her flesh looked cold, preserved in its marble chill from unwonted surges of the blood, ageless, in its way perfect, remarkable by any standards ... The remains of a breakfast – a sticky plate, a cup and saucer – could be seen on one of the bedside tables.’

The subjects of Julia’s tyrannical rule are shown with a sharpness that never fails in sympathy. Maureen, who comes to interview her for the local paper but is drawn into Julia’s circle, has permed hair and rimless glasses and knits furiously when forced to hear the dirty jokes Julia enjoys. Pearl Chesney, Julia’s dresser in her years of fame, is a robust Cockney who, like Maureen, escapes in the end from Julia’s flat in Onslow Square, yet feels a sense of loss in doing so. She was memorable, Fay suggests. ‘That’s it, dear. Memorable. You always did have a way with words.’ The commonplaces are right for the people and the situations.

This short, subtle, beautifully organised and orchestrated novel positively gains from the deliberate restraint and detachment of the writing. We are given no example of the dirty talk with which Julia embarrasses her circle, and the apparent openness of Fay’s narrative says no more about the crucial failure of her marriage than that for Owen ‘love became purely functional.’ Such discretion heightens the effect of separateness and desolation in their lives. The keynote of the book is a reflection of Fay’s when she has called off a meeting with Charlie: ‘One pays too dearly for love.’

If Brookner writes about men as a species to be examined rather than understood, Philip Roth’s women are hardly more than receptacles for semen, emotional punching-bags or ministering angels. The fact that his novels have only one subject, Philip Roth, is made plainer than ever by Deception, which is written entirely in dialogues between a novelist named Philip but otherwise not distinguishable from Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, his wife, his married English mistress and other women. There is a good deal of what might be called pillow talk, except that it takes place in a room with no bed and presumably no pillows, which is as trivial or plain dull as the actuality:

‘What is it?’

‘I’m thinking that I still love you.’

‘Really? Despite?’

‘Despite.’

Add to many such passages conversations about marriage, infidelity, psychiatry, the problems of being a writer the greater problem of being a Jewish writer, named Philip, and you have the materials of Deception. It has taken Roth to the American best-seller list ‘for the first time in years’ according to his publisher, and must be the worst book he has written.

A graph of Roth’s progress from the appearance of Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer a little more than a decade ago would go almost straight down. In that book the relationship between rookie writer Zuckerman and the maestro E.I. Lonoff (‘I think of you as the Jew who got away’) is done with a comic sense and delicacy that later turns into an obsessive concern with Zuckerman’s condition as the Jew whose best-selling novel ‘Carnovsky’ didn’t help him to get away from the problems involved in being Jewish. There are fine comic scenes and characters in Zuckerman Unbound (Alvin Pepler, Zuckerman’s fellow Newarkian, who for three weeks was the winner on a quiz show) and The Anatomy Lesson (in the invention of Dr Kotler’s pillow that will eliminate all Zuckerman’s chronic pains). The comedy gets lost, though, in the author’s running argument with himself and any reader who will listen about the nature of Jewishness, and his battle with the (Jewish) critic Milton Appel who has accused him of being a ‘Jewish shit ... carrying the hereditary curse of self-hate’, and says Zuckerman’s success was the product of ‘a vulgar imagination largely indifferent to social accuracy’. ‘Carnovsky’ may be identified as Portnoy’s Complaint and other names given to Lonoff and Appel, but the point is that the effect on Roth’s fiction has been to turn him into a writer for whom the world external to himself hardly exists.

It comes as no surprise, then, to find Philip in Deception bending the ear of his mistress about himself and Zuckerman:

‘This is the situation. Zuckerman, my character, dies. His young biographer is ... talking about his difficulties getting started with the book. He’s found a tremendous lack of objectivity in people’s responses to Zuckerman... What interests him is the terrible ambiguity of the “I”, the way a writer makes a myth of himself and, particularly, why.’

The wonderfully patient mistress agrees to ‘play reality shift’ and become the biographer while Philip plays himself – who else? – and we are away on several pages of self-examination more fascinating to Philip than to the reader. Holed up in his Notting Hill attic Philip also broods with unrewarding crude simplicity on English attitudes to the Jews. Do Jews try harder in England, does his mistress prefer circumcised men, why does everybody hate Israel and love Arabs even though they crap on pavements, why does nobody talk to Philip at parties about the IRA and Northern Ireland, only about Nazi Israel and Fascist America and the sainted Sandinistas? ‘After London even Ed Koch looks good.’

Towards the end of the book it is suggested that some of the conversations are not ‘real’, but part of the novel Philip is writing. Philip tells his wife that the mistress is an invention, other conversations took place but not as he wrote them down and as she and we have been reading them. ‘I have been imagining myself, outside of my novel, having a love affair with a character inside my novel.’ So this is a novel about the difficulty Philip finds in writing a novel? Yes, but the artificiality can be taken a step further. Philip Roth, whose name is on the book’s cover, would probably claim that ‘Philip’ is no more than a character whose opinions, beliefs and behaviour have only coincidental connections with Philip Roth. This completes the solipsistic circle of book and author, and gives another twist to the title, but at the cost of wrecking the integrity of the work. The realities of fiction, the characters of fiction, have their own validity, and except very briefly or as a joke can’t successfully be fused with the reality of life. And whatever else Deception may be, it is no joke.

Homeboy, on the other hand, though in substance horrific, is in manner distinctly jokey. Seth Morgan, his publisher tells us eagerly, is ‘a survivor of the San Francisco street drug culture and a former convict’, and ditto his central character, dope addict Joe Speaker. To describe the activities of Joe and his acquaintances Morgan has fashioned a style like that of an addict on a permanent high. The account of how Bermuda Schwartze, headliner at the clip joint where Joe is a barker, got her ‘fortyfour triple-D bionic bumpers’ is typical:

Bermuda’s barometric bazooms were a standing joke on the Strip to all but her. She’d gotten her boobjob back in the days before implants. A Van Nuys surgeon had simply injected a couple of gallons of silicone into her chest with a syringe the size of a cake decorator. And all he asked in payment was to be strung up by an engine hoist in his garage and sodomised with a caulking gun. ‘But you get what you pay for,’ Bermuda philosophised: the first cold snap the miracle mammaries lumped up like two sacks of golf balls. Only when both the thermometer rose and the barometer dropped would the silicone decongeal and jiggle as it ought.

Funny? I thought so, but one can’t take too much of it, and too much of everything is what Seth Morgan is out to give us. There are reminders of Runyon, occasional echoes of Chester Himes’s Coffin Ed and Grave Digger in the dialogue’s street-smart cynicism, but the resemblances are superficial. Morgan’s book has the form of a thriller which begins when the Fat Man, Baby Jewels Moses, tortures the prostitute Gloria Monday to reveal the whereabouts of a necklace (‘ “Necklace” the Pimp Bimp coyly simped’), and has her strangled by his sidekick when she hands it over. If one accepts that the animal level of behaviour is right for these people in this place, Morgan’s eagerness to describe violence in detail still seems gratuitous (when Gloria dies ‘one rolledup eye bulged big as a pingpong ball’ and ‘the other was sprung from its socket, hanging by optic fibers’), but Homeboy is just one among a wave of similarly violent American thrillers, of which the cult novel The Silence of the Lambs is the most viciously unpleasant.