Tucked in and under

Jenny Turner

  • Destiny by Tim Parks
    Secker, 249 pp, £15.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 436 22088 1

‘Can this beautiful young model be thinking?’ Tim Parks asks at one point in this book. ‘One hopes not,’ the argument continues, as Parks’s narrator looks through an airline magazine, ‘You do not think, I thought, seeing pictures of people pleasure-making on the beach, perhaps in an advertisement for rum or Martini ... that for all the beauty of their surroundings and indeed themselves these fortunate people are nevertheless obliged to think, obliged to be conscious.’ Once said, it’s so obvious, isn’t it: people like to look at pictures of models because they imagine the models’ heads to be empty, which allows them to empty their own heads as they gaze. Some go for pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow. Some prefer that ad on the television with all the joyously bounding dogs.

Tim Parks is a strange and difficult writer. I remember him from when he was on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1997 for Europa, his novel before this. He was fortyish, scruffy in a nice way, estuary English, except that he lived in Verona and worked at the University of Milan. He came across as serious and interesting, in a down-to-earth good-bloke way. So then I tried to read Europa and I hated it. Too many long, bad-tempered sentences. Too much ‘tottie’ and ‘shag wagon’ and so on. A lot of the prose was terrific, concrete and modern and particular. But there was a sourness which made me put it down for keeps.

So I started Destiny expecting to hate that also, but I didn’t, I really liked it at first. There’s a bit, a page or two in, in which the narrator decides not to order a kipper while thinking about his ‘potted version of Montesquieu’. There’s a bit about Tony Blair wanting to ban the use of calculators in Britain’s primary schools. And yet, Destiny is, like its predecessor, a curiously blighted book, though in a subliminal, difficult-to-place way. Bits of it, like the idea about the models, are captivatingly clear-headed. But other bits are much, much darker. And under the cover of that darkness, there is something going on.

Both Destiny and Europa share key signifiers with the modern masculinist tradition of Bellow and Updike and so on: naked women, hotel rooms, a lot of phoning and phones. They also contain a great deal of transportation – a man betraying his wife needs must travel a lot, between home and assignation – which makes you wonder whether the reason for starting the affair in the first place wasn’t so much about sex as it was about hanging around in stations, looking at the nice trains. Europa was set on a luxury coach driving from Milan to Strasbourg. This one goes from Heathrow to Genoa by plane, Genoa to Turin on the autostrada. It then goes down to Rome by way of the overnight express.

Like Europa, Destiny is structured as an interior monologue, with the narrator’s head always in the extremest close-up, reflected in the window of the train or aeroplane or car. This narrator – whose name is not a secret, but is hardly ever used – is a man in his fifties, an Englishman who has been living in Italy for most of his adult life. He is prosperous and well thought-of, a top journalist and expert in Italian affairs, and he is about to give up on journalism in order to write a book. To this end, he and his elegant Roman wife are staying in a London hotel. Which is where they are when the call comes, announcing that his son has killed himself:

Then replacing the receiver and before anything like grief or remorse could cloud the rapid working of my mind, I realised, with the most disturbing clarity, that this was the end for my wife and myself. The end of our life together, I mean. There is no reason, I told myself ... entirely bypassing those emotions one might expect on first impact with bereavement, no reason at all for you and your wife to go on living together now that your son is dead.

The action follows this man, this mind, over three purgatorial days and nights, during which he doesn’t drink or defecate or pass water. He has eventually to go to hospital to get his kidneys tapped.

The narrator’s main interests, in descending order of intensity are: his wife, his beautiful, ‘unbalanced’ wife, whose nail polish always matches her lipstick and whom he thinks he hates. His son, Marco, a 25-year-old who had been living in a home for chronic schizophrenics. And his book, which is to be about national character, the English and the Italian, from Machiavelli and Hobbes on. The novel shuttles between these poles of obsession, attempting to connect them in ways that might make sense. Was Marco mad because of his mother? Or did he lose his reason in the gap between English and Italian ways? Is the wife unhinged, or is she just an Italian mother? ‘Was it when I ... went inside my head that my son’s head went to pieces?’ Or, in its most simple form: ‘What did we do to him? What did we do?’

Each of the supporting characters directly elaborates the central pattern, like the minor curls on an iron gate. There’s Gregory Marks, the BBC correspondent, with whom the narrator’s wife likes to flirt and who has just published a book called Italian Traits. There’s Giulio Andreotti, politician, crook and three times Prime Minister of postwar Italy, whom the narrator interviews as the final flourish for his book. And there’s Dottor Vanoli, the psychiatrist in charge of Marco’s treatment, who says that ‘every Italian man is either made or broken by his mother.’ ‘A certain and very particular kind of schizophrenia among males in their early twenties’, he adds, is ‘one of Italy’s current specialities’.

The structure of this book is elegant and dynamic. Chapters move from location to location in a flush-edged Modernist way. The narrator’s obsessions are like a series of rants, each written out on different coloured filing cards, then shuffled and fanned out. And it all moves smartly towards a point of relief and closure, in a sort of exploded version of the classic murder-thriller form. ‘When somebody dies young, it is somebody’s fault. You know that, I told myself ... Always. Especially when somebody kills himself young.’ Is this true? Is this a useful way of thinking? Whether so or not, this is the way the narrator thinks, in his shock and his exhaustion. It’s his fault, no, it’s his wife’s fault. It’s his fault, no, it’s his wife’s fault. It would never have happened if we’d moved back to England like I’d wanted to. Until, in the surprising last chapter, an unexpected source of comfort is found.

As a person, the poor dead son is remembered mainly at the tail-ends of sentences, deftly tucked in and under, so you hardly notice him before he has gone. It’s rather his trouble which fascinates the narrator, as a clinical reality and as ye olde illnesse as metaphor. At one point, he remembers reading that after four years or so of suffering a serious psychiatric disorder, a person will tend to settle into a chronic state: ‘Any approach to sanity, at this point, merely makes the patient aware of how much he has lost ... A return to sanity, this book ... suggested is a return to the reality of irretrievable loss, a truth so frightening as to be quite unbearable.’ Marco had been diagnosed as sick for five years when he died.

But the figure who does spring vividly out of the pages is the dead boy’s mother, the aristocratic, melodramatic Italian woman who is the narrator’s wife. ‘You fell in love with your wife for her vivacity, her vehemence,’ the narrator considers. ‘My wife’ is left completely nameless until the book is almost finished. She isn’t allowed to speak for herself either, not a word. And yet she’s a commanding presence, far more so than her shapeless, disembodied husband. She causes dramas, she makes things happen. She ‘move(s) heaven and earth’; she’s ‘an expression of pure will’. The effect is mannered but also heroic, like the gestures of a statue. And she herself is the first to know it, as she strides around in what Parks, very sweetly playing the bloke who knows nothing about fashion, calls ‘her red coat and green hat’.

A dreadful tale starts emerging in fits and glimpses as to why this family’s story may have gone so wrong. It’s stuff like stuff we’ve all heard about before, a dysfunctional family system, complicated and subtle, an accumulation of little things sliding out of true. But I’m not going to list these things, because the minute you do so, it starts looking like you’re collecting clues to solve a paper mystery, which under the circumstances, seems glib and voyeuristic. The trouble with all these dysfunctional-family stories – and there are a lot of them around at the moment, in books and films and on TV – is that we all think we are experts on the topic. It is to Parks’s credit that he doesn’t even try to account for Marco’s illness with some big production number of a primal scene. But he does have a weakness for the aesthetically pleasing psychoanalytic parallel: ‘How incessant the words are,’ poor Marco is remembered as saying at one point. Which is for so many reasons a handy thing for a mad person in a novel to say.

And the strand of the book about national destiny is indeed an act of ‘hubris’, as the narrator suspects. ‘There is always a paradox at the heart of character’: what exactly does that mean? ‘Some contradiction that ties the knot, holds two conflicting halves together ... A sort of stable schizophrenia you could call it, an enigma at the core.’ Write that one out as an equation, and watch it cancel out to zero on both sides. ‘This is a man,’ the narrator writes of Andreotti after he has met him, ‘whose lies to himself are utterly convincing, whose schizophrenia is perfectly stable ... What is the point of talking to such a man?’ Sometimes, Parks seems to be implying that there is indeed a distinctively Italian form of emotional disorder – overbearing mothers, ancestor worship, the Mafia, the Pope. But he never quite comes out into the open about it. He always leaves himself the get-out that such thoughts may only be fumes from an overheated mind. His decision is understandable but disappointing. Everyone who reads this book will have suspicions about the distinctive screwedupness of the present-day Italian, in the way one wonders about guilty Irish Catholics or repressed Presbyterian Scots. We’d love it for someone to make sense of such issues, or else to make light of them, showing us how not to worry about things we can do nothing about. But they seem to leave Parks ambivalent and burdened. We are left with a phew-it-was-only-a-dream-or-was-it shimmer which makes us feel like his narrator feels – uneasy and confused.

Tim Parks is an amazingly prolific writer. Destiny is his tenth novel, and his 14th book. He is 44 years old and grew up in Manchester, the son of an evangelical preacher. He has lived in Italy with his wife and children since 1981. His novels of the Eighties are set in the England of the Eighties, and bear the authentic marks of lower-middleclass Protestant depression: congenital disorders, religious nuts, untreated schizophrenia, domestic DIY jobs begun and botched and left to rot. They are honest books, and they are solidly put together, but they are not a lot of fun.

Then Parks started writing about Italy as he sees it, in reader-friendly Englishman-on-the-Veneto journals – Italian Neighbours (1992), An Italian Education (1996) – in thrillers (Shear, Cara Massimina, Mimi’s Ghost) and a collection of essays, Adultery and Other Diversions (1998). These books have the same downbeat, gloomy, rather rancorous – to use a favourite Parks word – personality behind them. But they also have sunshine, shiny flooring and European civilisation. There’s visual pleasure in there, a bit of glamour, freedom, air.

Destiny is a tremendously attractive book. It is charming and compelling, handsome and often droll. It has a wonderfully theatrical sense of space and Sixties-movie sophistication to its locations, airport, pasticceria and finally Rome, a whole city dedicated to dead people, to obelisks and tombs. It’s full of ideas and turns of phrase and aphorisms. And the prose is sharp-eyed and vivacious. It springs and bubbles with what Parks in Destiny identifies – borrowing from Goethe – to be ‘the greatest happiness’: ‘the life of the mind’.

But it is also head-bound in a way which spoils it. Everything is too much about the same thing, as sometimes happens to a person in times of crisis. You know the way that a person might have a problem with a useless father, and so she gets herself a useless boyfriend? If she tries to deal with one or the other, she just bounces like a superball between the two. And Destiny is a bit like that, by design. Too much of it is strictly relevant to the crisis at the centre of it. It echoes through the incidentals, like fractals. And too many of the words are like academic variations on a theme. There’s little of the curiosity, the affection, the recognition that other people exist independently of your projections of them, that you get in the superficially similar James Kelman. It’s a bit static and solipsistic.

One reason for this might be that Parks writes so much. The going-on-and-on problem – writing stuff that looks like nice prose, but doesn’t really mean much – does tend to happen when you work to deadline. Another reason is that Parks seems to like writing about troubled families. And troubled families, pace Tolstoy, aren’t easy fiction material – every one I have ever been acquainted with has had stasis and solipsism at its very heart. If I was Parks, I’d try to write about something completely different. But this may not be a choice he has it in his power to make.