Something else

Jonathan Coe

  • In Black and White by Christopher Stevenson
    New Caxton Press, 32 pp, £1.95
  • The Tree of Life by Hugh Nissenson
    Carcanet, 159 pp, £6.95, September 1991, ISBN 0 85635 874 6
  • Cley by Carey Harrison
    Heinemann, 181 pp, £13.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 434 31368 8

The traditional self-contained, sensibly-proportioned novel, still very much the dominant influence on today’s literary scene, is called gently into question by each of these writers. Carey Harrison, with ostensibly the second (although in fact the first) volume of what looks set to become a monumental tetralogy, puts pressure on the boundaries of the form by insisting that it absorb a near-infinity of characters, events and incidental detail. Less ambitious, but more subversive, Christopher Stevenson and Hugh Nissenson seek to dismantle the system from within by producing novels which look like something else altogether: a form of experimentation which often has rather puritanical motives behind it – the assumption being either that existing literary forms have played themselves out or that it’s somehow possible to get closer to an uncorrupted version of the truth if the trappings of novelistic convention are done away with.

Christopher Stevenson, however, seems to be entirely free from such puritanism, and this is one of the reasons his novel feels refreshing. For a start, he makes no secret of the fact that the formal experimentation of his work has its roots in strictly commercial considerations. A journalist on Bristol’s Western Daily Press, Stevenson has, at the age of 27, decided to go in for self-publishing, and to produce his book in tabloid newspaper format because that way it will be ‘cheap to produce and cheap to distribute’. This is not just a question of writing a linear 50,000-word novel and printing it out on tabloid-size sheets: he has actually split the narrative up into little gobbets or ‘stories’ and laid them out five or six to a page, instructing the reader to ‘take the individual items in whatever order you like, however your eye falls on them’. And each story, of course, comes equipped with its own punchy headline: ‘He should be told now,’ ‘Love Triangle Murder Probe’, and so on. In this way puritanism becomes even more out of the question, because Stevenson is not only parodying tabloid conventions – an area where ‘truth’ is already lucky to get much of a look-in – but simultaneously adopting them with a gusto which would make many of our more distinguished novelists blanch. (It will be a while, I think, before we see an Iris Murdoch novel with the words CATCH THESE EVIL SEX KILLERS emblazoned across the cover.)

In Black and White therefore both looks and feels almost exactly like a tabloid newspaper, and this is bound to make differences to the way we treat it. Inevitably we place less value on a book designed along these lines: we fold it, we tear it, we smudge the print, and if we aren’t careful we put it in a pile of real newspapers and throw it out with the rubbish or wrap potato peelings in it. At the same time we approach the actual reading of it in a uniquely receptive frame of mind: the postures, both mental and physical, which we take up for the reading of newspapers tend to be more relaxed than those adopted for books, and so Stevenson benefits from our subliminal awareness that to be occupied with a text of this size, shape and format is something we associate with leisure rather than study.

At the heart of the novel lies a banal little story. Dereck and Sue Wellings are locked in a sterile marriage which suddenly shades into violence, prompting a visit from one WPC Teresa Fryer, who happens to be gay. Sue and Teresa embark upon an affair which is then discovered by Dereck: a fight ensues and he dies after falling through a plate-glass door. Suspected of murder, the lovers flee and are hunted down by the combined efforts of both police and local press – specifically Leon Evans, a success-hungry reporter on the Bristol Evening Herald, which has recently taken a plunge downmarket under the influence of its new editor. Finally Sue and Teresa are brought to trial and Leon gets his comeuppance by hounding them so obsessively that he misses out on a major national news story.

This story is well-paced, competently told and not without suspense, but it would be silly to pretend that the main interest of the novel lay in its plot. In a proselytising ‘editorial’ column on page two, Stevenson imagines a world which has ‘ten million people in Britain buying a new novel every week or two’, and points out that for the price currently charged by British publishers for new hardback fiction, a family could rent a video recorder for a month. This is true: but it’s hard to argue that the novel as a form has any inherent edge over film or television, say, when plot and characterisation, as here, are roughly on a par with an episode of The Bill. In Black and White has vigour and a fair degree of momentum, but very little of the psychological complexity or subtlety of perspective which remain the chief justifications for the novel’s continued existence in an age of many more palpably dynamic narrative forms.

What it does have, on the other hand, is wit, married to an insider’s knowledge of journalistic practices and a sense of how to express the resulting ironies through juxtaposition and tricks of layout. Stevenson knows, for instance, that public opinion is just as easily swayed by newspaper speculation as by facts, and so for the scene where Teresa sees a scandalous front-page report on the murder, rips up the paper in fury and pushes it down the toilet, he uses an especially double-edged headline: ‘Flushing away the worst of the evidence’. Also, in a format which does not allow for much description, he manages to convey a vivid sense of location and catches the authentic flavour of a provincial life which combines both pride (one scene takes us on a detour to Cary Grant’s birthplace) and small-mindedness. I especially liked the DIY assistant who, on being told that her work colleague has just brutally murdered her husband, replies: ‘I always said she had a hard little face.’

Stevenson’s novel must be regarded as an interesting hybrid rather than a thorough and radical subjugation of novelistic practices to the requirements of a different form. In an accompanying press release he says that he’ll continue experimenting with low-cost publishing, but not in the tabloid format – which is a pity, because there’s a challenge here which he has identified but not quite risen to: a novel which imitates the newspaper format in every respect, with illustrations, classified ads, even horoscopes and TV listings all playing their part in a single narrative which would have to work its way up, I suppose, to a sporting climax. Meanwhile this intelligent, cheeky enterprise can be warmly recommended.

Strip away Stevenson’s innovative packaging and you find something very like a conventional novel. Quite the reverse is true of Hugh Nissenson’s The Tree of Life (first published in America some six years ago), which is packaged like a conventional novel but strains every muscle to take on the form of a diary or ‘Waste Book’ kept by an American settler called Thomas Keene in the early part of the 19th century. Instead of dialogue or traditional narrative we get inventories, shopping lists, poems, drawings and diagrams (courtesy, as a footnote whimsically informs us, of ‘the Thomas Keene Collection, Mansfield, Ohio’). A fragmented story starts to emerge: Keene, a distiller of whisky, eight years widowed and much given to masturbating over his favourite passages from Juvenal, hankers after a local widow called Fanny, who agrees to marry him but is then captured by Delaware Indians during a raid. Although her companion, Jethro Stone, is tortured and sent to an unspeakably protracted death, Fanny is saved thanks to the good offices of John Chapman – also known as Johnny Appleseed, pioneer, missionary, follower of Emanuel Swedenborg and one of America’s more colourful minor folk-heroes. The novel concludes with a poem commemorating Chapman, and a short postscript written by Keene to his son in old age.

While it’s impossible not to admire the detail and conviction with which Nissenson has re-created the period, we might also have wished for a less taciturn narrator than Keene to guide us through this alien landscape. Sometimes his curtness can be exploited for comic effect:

8 Dec. Noon.

   Light snow.

   A run of 12 gall. whisky, 80 proof.

9 Dec. 7PM.

   Drunk.

10 Dec. 5AM.

   Constipated.

   10PM. Ditto.

At other times, the strangeness and barbarity of the events so perfunctorily described – especially the death of Jethro Stone, which is nastier than anything you will find in Stephen King – leave the reader groping for some sort of moral context in which to view them. Nissenson seems to have concentrated all his energies on drawing a portrait of the period so filled with specifics that some echo of the contemporary consciousness, one would have thought, was more or less bound to emerge along the way, almost as a by-product: but this hasn’t happened, and so we are left in a vacuum, gazing back across the centuries at these peculiar people and happenings, baffled and antagonised.

But then authorial commentary – that precious capacity to imply a set of normative values against which the events of the novel are to be measured – is one of the first things you jettison when trying this kind of experiment. In Black and White manages to find an ingenious equivalent in the shape of the Press Council: the very last item in the novel is a tiny story headed ‘Press Council raps Herald,’ in which the tabloid excesses of some of the earlier sections are roundly condemned (after we have all thoroughly enjoyed them, of course). Carey Harrison, meanwhile, adopts the orthodox approach: a rational, objective narrative voice which serves as a tactful reminder that somewhere behind the profusion of incident and the oblique turns of plot there is a controlling author to keep a watchful and responsible eye on things.

Harrison’s reader-friendly mode of narration is welcome, because the project of which Cley forms a small part is potentially daunting for both author and reader alike. There are four proposed volumes, to be published under the general title To Liskeard, each narrated in the first person by different characters who will finally be reunited with one another in the eponymous Cornish town. Cley is the first in the series, but not the first to appear: presumably the publishers felt that this short, teasing but rather diffident novel would not sound an adequate fanfare for the ambitions of the sequence as a whole, and preferred to kick off with the gigantic Richard’s Feet, which traces the career of Richard Thurgo, a London solicitor, in post-war Hamburg where he is masquerading as an ex-Nazi. Back in England, Thurgo has been presumed dead for some twenty years after his body was supposedly found in the remains of a burnt-out jeep, the only identifiable features being his well-protected feet (which belong to Martin Bormann, as it eventually turns out).

The plot of Cley also hinges on a road accident and a case of mistaken identity. This time the narrator is Jack, Richard’s son, who becomes witness to a car crash while holidaying with an eccentric American couple in Norfolk. One of the shell-shocked survivors is identified as a Mr Sindacombe, but Jack is convinced that it is none other than his old enemy and former schoolmaster Bromley. This is an intriguing premise, and the sophistication with which Harrison dangles the various possibilities before our mesmerised eyes makes the rough and ready action of In Black and White seem primitive indeed. If the resolution is disappointing, we get some fruity characterisations along the way, and Harrison (the bulk of whose previous output consists of TV and radio plays) certainly knows how to write dialogue which skims across the page. An epigraph from the Book of James hints at a routine moral about the need to accept contradictions: this is fine as far as it goes, but there will be a considerable sense of anticlimax if we have to follow these characters all the way to their Cornish rendezvous simply to learn this well-tried lesson. Still, to judge from the way Richard’s Feet multiplies and expands upon the themes adumbrated here – I’m thinking in particular of the half-sinister, surreally comic world of schoolboy connections which continues to haunt the protagonists – it’s more likely that Harrison has an abundance of further tricks up his sleeve in readiness for the two succeeding volumes.