- Everything You Know by Zoë Heller
Viking, 198 pp, £9.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 670 88557 6
Willy Muller, the 50-year-old narrator of Everything You Know, confides at the beginning of the novel that he doesn’t understand his girlfriend’s attachment to him. He treats her badly, but she won’t be shaken off. ‘Her stoicism would be understandable if I had money or charm or an enormous penis,’ he says. ‘But I have none of these things. It’s odd.’
When she appeared on Start the Week recently, Zoë Heller described Willy as typical of a certain kind of ‘older but strangely attractive man’. While it’s true that he’s an interesting, complicated character, witty and disaffected, veering erratically between arrogance and acute self-loathing, the ways in which he’s attractive aren’t immediately obvious. In the first few pages he describes his reaction to receiving a posthumous parcel from his youngest daughter, who killed herself four months before. ‘I thought Sadie had done exceptionally well to be so efficient and laconic in death,’ he says. ‘But now, as I trawled through the pathetic items in the envelope, I felt the familiar prickings of parental disappointment. She had, it seemed, succumbed to the sentimentalities of leave-taking, after all. And Christ, isn’t life hard enough without that sort of hokey melodrama?’ It emerges that Willy was convicted of manslaughter after his wife died ‘during a marital spat’. Whether or not he killed her isn’t clear at first, but we do learn that after finishing his prison sentence he gave a graphic account of her last moments of consciousness in his bestselling memoir To Have and to Hold.
There’s an edge of comic melodrama to the novel, and it’s clear that we’re not always supposed to take Willy seriously. But he isn’t simply a comic character and the book isn’t intended only to be funny. Its main themes are sex and death, and the comedy often turns suddenly and savagely into moments of grim self-analysis and misery. There are several overt references to King Lear, and they have point: Everything You Know is the story of an isolated and self-deceiving man driven to confront himself by the death of his youngest daughter. Beneath his posturing and flippancies and judgmental attacks, a more serious psychological drama is unravelling, and one consequence is that Willy can’t be seen as just an amusing monster or a comic stereotype: the plot and structure depend on our minding whether or not he can ultimately be happy.
Unreliable, potentially dislikeable narrators can, we know, be teasingly seductive, playing with our moral beliefs and instincts, challenging habits of instant judgment, extracting sympathy from resistant readers. But however complicated and convincing the character, there’s always the danger that a more basic response will kick in: why would anyone want to spend several hours locked inside the head of someone they’d cross the street to avoid?
On the whole, Willy Muller is funny enough for this not to be a problem, but there are moments when uneasiness surfaces, prompted most often by his assessments of the women around him. These usually centre on cutting descriptions of what he sees as physical inadequacies: one nurse in the hospital where Willy is recovering from a heart attack has ‘great, fleshy pistons of ... buttocks’ which ‘chug up and down in her nylon slacks’; another has ‘greasy hair and udder-like breasts’. His girlfriend is ‘a bit bizarre-looking’, with a face that’s ‘always a minor shock’, ‘gormless’ and ‘semi-literate’, but Willy just about manages to tolerate her: after all, ‘bodily speaking, she is quite appealing.’
An outsider in both Los Angeles and the UK, Willy is detached enough to be very funny about both countries and about himself. His girlfriend, he says, ‘speaks as if she had learned English from watching soap operas. “You know something Willy? she’ll say. “You can’t run away from you.” ’ He is thrown out of an anti-smoking camp in the Arizona desert for telling a ‘camper who wanted me to be her partner in a cactus-decoration competition to fuck off’; he remembers being intrigued, as a young man, by his first wife’s English ‘upper-middle classness’: ‘Even her obscenities – “Fuckaduck”, “Bloody bollocks” – seemed exotic to me. Later, when I got to know her friends, I found they all spoke that way – but, being in love, I didn’t think to reassess my first impression of her supreme originality. I simply assumed that her friends were imitating her.’ This kind of grudging humour is often acute, but there’s an emptiness behind it which can turn swiftly to melancholy.
Willy is a failing LA hack whose speciality is ghosting celebrity autobiographies. As he convalesces, he is also struggling to finish both the memoirs of daytime TV star Reginald Boon and the screenplay of the deeply controversial To Have and to Hold. Caught up in an early Eighties fast-talking and unsatisfying world of quick deals, quick sex and ready insincerities, he can’t admit to being incapacitated so his agent sends him away to a Mexican villa, where he can recover while pretending to be ‘in writer’s retreat’. When he eventually brings himself to read the diaries his daughter sent him he is drawn into the past and gradually becomes disillusioned with the values that underpin his life.
The diary extracts cut into the main narrative in short italicised sections, providing a sharply defined alternative point of view. Sadie describes growing up in England and being shuttled from one disobliging aunt to another after her father goes to prison. She’s passed from London to Leeds, then sent to a girls’ boarding school in Shropshire, eventually returning to London, where she follows her sister to live in a squat. Willy himself is a Jewish refugee, who escaped from Germany with his mother, just before the outbreak of World War Two, so that the novel takes in Germany, Los Angeles, Mexico, and the North and South of England. On both sides of the Atlantic, privilege is set against poverty; council estates in London confront the gaudy affluence of Willy’s Mexican villa, as well as a certain type of self-styled English middle-class bohemia.
The effect isn’t always realistic, but the wide range of settings and cultures gives the novel a general sense of openness and breadth. The tone and mood shift continually. Comedy opens out into sudden moments of acute sadness; the voice of Sadie as a young girl is the more effective for being placed next to Willy’s.
Sadie’s diaries begin in 1970, when she’s nine, three months after her mother’s murder, and continue until just before her own death 11 years later. Her childhood, as remembered by Willy, revolves around Elvis and ‘French skipping’ and ‘whimsical rituals’ such as ‘folding all her clothes ... into geometric patterns on a chair before she went to bed’, or ‘going to sleep with her arms folded across her chest like the girls in Little House on the Prairie’. Her own account, taken up just before Willy’s arrest, details visits to ‘gorgeous’ child psychiatrists, and the effects of her father’s new notoriety: ‘Today at school, Tracy Letts said I couldn’t join in kisschase because my dad is a criminal ... sophie said she was just jealous because our life is so glamorous!!!’ Like many of the other characters in the novel, Sadie doesn’t seem to mind too much about her mother’s murder; and her lack of emotional depth can’t quite be explained as shock or numbness. But in other, more general, ways Heller’s portrayal of a Seventies childhood, deeply immersed in the details of school, food and TV, is very convincing. Perhaps in deliberate contrast to Willy, Sadie doesn’t make judgments, reporting that ‘therapists never seem to have anything bad to say about you, only about the other people,’ and defending her father against the press, because ‘the newspapers aren’t objective.’
She’s as funny as Willy, and equally interested in sex, and as she gets older the detailed reports are entertaining. She is 13 when she has her first encounter, in a tent at a Wiltshire music festival, with an ‘old American hippy ... when he kissed me, I was a bit horrified because of his horrible flappy lip and his yellow teeth and the grey bun but I closed my eyes and I felt quite sexy ... his yukky sperm went all over my sweatshirt. It smelt of chemicals.’ Later, she has an affair with a married man: ‘he is quite a bit older (thirty-five???) and no oil painting, but for some reason I was into it. I think I like them older and a bit ugly.’
Both Sadie and her older sister Sophie drift into early motherhood and South London housing estates. Both also cut off contact with Willy after the publication of his book about their mother and when, after reading Sadie’s diaries, Willy tries to renew relations with Sophie, he discovers that she’s living with an ‘addict’, and that her son is seeing a psychiatrist. Though he feels irretrievably distanced from her, the visit evokes strong memories in him; he finds himself comparing her young son to himself at the same age and grows steadily more nostalgic. The novel seems to be approaching some kind of Dombeyesque reconciliation, and it’s a relief when the mood is abruptly punctured, and the expectation subverted.
There are many good moments along the way. A man laughing is like ‘a small animal being drowned in saliva’; Willy, being conned by Sophie, feels ‘the taste of the sea’ rising at the back of his throat. In the hospital, ‘patients trudge through the corridors with wafers of lavatory paper stuck to the soles of their slippers.’ Sadie, describing sex with the married man, veers within a couple of sentences from the almost poetic – ‘Like every moment of sensory pleasure I’ve ever had ... all rolled into one and lasting for hours and hours. The light in the room changes; it’s always dusk’ – to the bathetic: ‘Our skin goes together. Oh you beautiful girl, he says. And I think, What? Who? Our bodies fit. No rubberiness.’ Similarly, Willy complains about ‘handing over fiendish monthly sums to some pissy insurance company’ only to find himself trapped in ‘a fucking petridish’, but he also knows about ‘those English winter days when the sun juts in and out of vast, racing cloud banks and the air is cold and pale and bright at the same time’.