Waving the Past Goodbye

Lorna Sage

  • A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson
    Faber, 372 pp, £15.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 571 19079 0
  • The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn
    Granta, 224 pp, £14.99, March 1997, ISBN 1 86207 013 X

Mona Simpson’s novels are long and loose, and make compulsive reading. She not only writes about obsession, but she passes on the effect with extraordinary directness, almost as though there’s no separate authorial presence in her books at all – art concealing art with a vengeance. A Regular Guy is her third novel, and in it she celebrates her first ten years in the business by surrendering her addiction to ‘I’, and edging just a little further over into fictionality with the invention of self-made hero Tom Owens, the multi-millionaire founder of a West Coast biotech company he christens ‘Genesis’: ‘He thought of himself as a guy in jeans, barefoot in the boardroom.’ But the story’s focus, the person whose point of view we share, even if she is in the third person, is Owens’s illegitimate and disowned daughter Jane. She is ten years old at the beginning, the questing girl in search of Dad whom Simpson always needs to get the show on the road.

This is another plot in which parents have failed to grow up, to stay together, to make a home, or even to concoct a shared story that makes sense. Again, the adults have no alibi and there’s no end in sight for the broken-family romance which casts the child as father of the man, let alone the woman. (Simpson’s mothers are worse disasters, but usually only because they stay around more, and are at least there to be despaired of.) She has a way of taking this point of origin for granted: it is how we live now, a personal variation on an ineluctable theme. Anywhere but Here (1986) and The Lost Father (1991) shared some of the same characters and touched on the same story from different angles. This story has elements of exoticism: ‘My mother was pregnant with me in Egypt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. When I asked her why she flew home ... she said it was so that I could have the very best medical care ... in Wisconsin ... My grandmother said anyway she couldn’t eat the food.’ But mainly it’s an all-American story of rootlessness and guiding dreams: ‘My father left us in 1961 ... The summer of 1970 ... my mother and I took the biggest chance of our lives and drove to California in a Lincoln Continental we didn’t own so I could become a child star on television.’ Simpson’s first book told the part of the story about failing to be a child star, her second focused on finding father. Both are fuelled by a colossal want, expressed in terms of the gravitational pull of the West Coast (which is where father went, not ‘home’ to Egypt). The people are just ordinarily strange – very much the kind described by Raymond Carver in the introductory essay he wrote for his 1986 selection of Best American Short Stories (which featured a story by Simpson):

‘Real people’ in the guise of fictional characters inhabit the stories ... The characters ... are people you’re likely to be familiar with. If they’re not kin, or your immediate neighbours, they live on a nearby street, or else in a neighbouring town, or maybe even the next state over ... Or ... in New York, or Berkeley ... not such exotic places finally when all is said and done ... We’ve seen them in the cities, towns and countrysides ... or else on TV.

One thing that marks these characters as related is the way they seem to be forever camping out in their lives, living insecurely and provisionally. Simpson’s focus on the child who has to take custody of the parent is distinctively hers, however.

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