Grousing

James Francken

  • Finding Myself by Toby Litt
    Hamish Hamilton, 425 pp, £14.99, June 2003, ISBN 0 241 14155 9

It was Bridget Jones’s Diary, published in 1996, that marked the arrival of ‘chick lit’; the phrase appeared in the OED late last year. If the dictionary definition brushes the genre aside – ‘(chiefly derog.) literature which is perceived or marketed as appealing to young women’ – it is not the fault of Helen Fielding’s comedy of manners. Fielding’s blundering, know-nothing heroine, ‘rudderless and boyfriendless’ at 32, has been imitated in any number of opportunistic rip-offs, in which the incidental comic details that made Bridget Jones an effective character have hardened. The chick-lit narrator must worry about her weight, croak for a drink, tot up the cigarettes she smokes, mix in a crowd with improbable names – in Bridget’s case, Una, Piggy and Desdemona – and be hampered by an awful, overbearing mother (Fielding dedicated the novel to her ‘mum … for not being like Bridget’s’). Chick-lit novelists have stuck with this style, and their books continue to sell.

Finding Myself, Toby Litt’s pastiche of chick lit, leans heavily on the familiar model; the novel’s sassy, stuck-up narrator, Victoria About (pronounced ‘Abut’), cheerfully sticks to type. She is 32, tries to pass herself off as 29, counts the calories (‘think of the weight I’m losing’) and grouses about giving up smoking. Her relationship with her winsome boyfriend is tricky, and there is something odd about her reluctance to discuss ‘mummy’. But her career is going well. The author of five get-rich-quick novels, she has made a bundle from chick lit, even if the critics remain unconvinced: ‘I have been interviewed over two hundred times but I have never written a confessional newspaper column. I have been on Woman’s Hour but I have never won a literary prize. (I’m not bitter.) (Am.) (Am not.) (Am.) (Am not.) (Am.)’ Neurotic and self-obsessed, Victoria makes cynical use of her relationships: ‘I make my living recasting the splurge of my friends’ emotional lives into the symmetry of fiction.’ So there are misgivings in her circle when she sends out an unusual invitation. Victoria wants to bring together a group of firm friends and some total strangers for a holiday in the country:

You can come and stay, completely free, for a month, in this lovely seaside house I’ve rented. (Good food and plenty of alcohol will also be provided, gratis.) But you must allow me to write up the events of the month in a semi-fictionalised form afterwards. (In other words, you promise not to sue.) My publisher’s lawyers have sorted all this out. Disclaimers and that sort of thing. Copyright issues. However, at the end of the proposed book, you will get three full pages (approx. 1000 words) to say exactly what you like.

Litt may use the conventions of chick lit, but Finding Myself is not arranged like a trashy novel. Presented as Victoria’s manuscript, it has a dizzying construction – notes towards a work of fiction rather than the work itself. An early draft, it comes with marginal comments and amendments written on post-it notes – the interventions of Simona, Victoria’s editor, who is also a guest at the house on the Suffolk coast. There are pages crossed through in blue biro, and indications that sections of the manuscript have been cut out. An account of Victoria’s earlier holiday in Greece is included, along with a ‘journal’, which details her life in the weeks leading up to the get-together, and a ‘synopsis’ of what she predicts will happen in the house. Victoria wants the synopsis to be sealed and notarised so that it can be cross-referenced with her day-to-day diary of the holiday. ‘Then people, by which I mean readers, can see: how wrong or right was I? Do I know my friends as well as I think I do?’ The textual high jinks continue to the end. It is Victoria About, not Toby Litt, who is described on the jacket flap, in a fluffy biographical note: ‘Victoria . . . is the author of five fantastically entertaining bestselling novels . . . she lives in North London with many, many pairs of shoes.’

A strain of metafictional game-playing runs through Litt’s work. Corpsing (2000), his loose-jointed interpretation of a psychological thriller, turns on a shooting in a Soho restaurant. A crop of documents related to the incident is introduced before the plot begins to heat up. An advertisement for the murder weapon (‘As this catalogue goes to press, the .40 ESP has testfired over 37,000 Smith & Wesson rounds without malfunction’), the central character’s hospital records and a tabloid report of the crime make their way into the early pages of the novel. The reader is expected to fit together the pieces of the puzzle.

deadkidsongs (2001), makes use of a similar bag of tricks. It sets itself up as a manuscript made up of five hundred sheets of A4 paper discovered in an unlocked filing cabinet. The pages detail the terrible events that overtake a group of boys one summer at the end of the 1970s: three children die by the end of term. Matthew, Andrew, Paul and Peter form a gang to escape the torpor of school-life and the boredom at home, the ‘bedroom-tidying, shoe-polishing, wool-holding, jigsaw-doing’. The gang members take turns telling the story. But the reliability of their accounts is called into question by an additional document, the ‘archives’; its ‘foxed and brittle’ pages, reprinted at the centre of the novel, cast doubt on much of what has come before.

The pleasures of the novel’s elaborate structure quickly evaporate, however: deadkidsongs is cluttered with prankish devices. There are deliberate hitches in the pagination, for example: the final chapter, a reworking of earlier events, uses the same page numbers as the chapter preceding it. The arrangement is frustrating. Peter, the square in the gang, is cornered into keeping the records up to date. To avoid getting roughed up by his friends, he files details of their ‘operations’: the boys make fires, sharpen knives and dream up war games in the woods. What was meant to be an ‘accurate and truthful record’ falls short – photos of the gang and of Andrew’s tree-house go missing, ‘removed from the archives at some stage’. But the novel tries not to become mired in complexity: ‘further reference to excluded material has been avoided, out of a desire not to tax the reader’s patience overmuch.’

Finding Myself, with its many narrative excesses and slow-grinding textual games, is intended to make the reader work. Litt has described it as ‘a novel in kit form’, but the satisfactions of his flat-packed fiction are hard-won. Victoria’s account has its moments, and the editor’s commentary in the margin is enjoyably caustic: ‘This is all PBB (from now on PBB = Pretentious Beyond Belief).’ There are long interludes, however, which are stale and effortful. By the end, Victoria is reluctant to see her novel in progress appear in print (‘despite what the lawyers say I will not, under any circumstances, allow this book to be published. This is my final word’), concerned that what will end up on the shelves is a rough draft and not ‘a proper, finished book’. The lawyers get their way, but Victoria is right: the novel is incomplete. There is nothing to rope together the different bits of her narrative.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is written in the shorthand of a day-to-day record, its half-finished sentences full of hesitations and doubts, but it is never slapdash. On the contrary, it is a tightly coiled novel whose plot is borrowed from Pride and Prejudice: whatever Bridget comes out with – and she has a flair for digressive wordplay – the novel keeps its shape. Finding Myself is less taut: the story drags when Victoria holds the floor. She knows that her book must carry a ‘precious cargo’ of gossip, but she fills her diary with bland truths: ‘When one has nothing to worry about, one starts to worry about nothing’; ‘the thought of marriage and children is unbearable but the thought of no marriage and no children is unbearable’; ‘jogging, push-ups . . . the problem is, exercise may prolong life, but the parts of life spent exercising are very boring.’ These attempts to satirise chick lit’s empty-headed attitudes are too crude to succeed. Litt establishes Victoria’s vapid character, but his novel is short on jokes.

His send-up of her diary persona is equally off target. ‘The house was looking most splendidly something something, that fine summer day – tall brick chimneys red against the blue sky. (I think an opening passage like this will probably be necessary – though I don’t really feel like doing it right this moment.)’ She doesn’t get any less lazy: ‘I realise that I’m not writing very elegantly, but I’m feeling a bit rushed for time.’ This will just about do when nothing is happening in the house, but when interest in the goings-on hots up, the reluctance to elaborate is counterproductive.

The story picks up with the introduction of Victoria’s sister, Fleur, invited on the holiday as an afterthought, a potential match for the hollow-chested writer Alan Sopwith-Wood. They make up one of several misaligned couples in the house. In the first week of the holiday, the guests are too discreet to be of use to Victoria. But she isn’t worried: before anyone arrived she had a surveillance expert fit hidden cameras in all the bedrooms, and she turns them on when things remain dull. For eight days, Victoria has the whip hand; she spies on her housemates from the privacy of the attic and sees ‘Fleur and Alan coming together, Henry and Ingrid under pressure, Simona and William falling apart’. Her novel will be based on their pillow talk.

In the second week of the holiday she suffers a reverse. The cameras are discovered and an angry guest contacts the press. A tell-all story – headlined ‘BIG SISTER’ – appears in the Mirror and gives details of Victoria’s project to ‘expose’ and ‘exploit’ her friends. Litt uses events in the house as an opportunity to reflect on the humiliations of reality TV. But chick-lit novelists have covered this ground before. Adele Parks’s Game Over is narrated by the ‘single, successful, attractive 33-year-old’ producer of Sex with an Ex, a ferocious game show which uses CCTV footage to catch contestants redhanded: ‘It has everything! Voyeurism, trivialisation of sex, manipulation. It’s brilliant.’ Victoria’s wrongdoing seems tame by comparison.

After her subterfuge is exposed, Victoria falls out with her guests and splits up with her boyfriend. She is hurt by the separation and decides to change her ways. Finding Myself turns into a syrupy account of self-improvement:

I miss his being here in the same room as me, changing the weight of things, making the air denser; I miss the prickle of his chest hair against my nipple, as I lean over to kiss him; I miss how good I could have been for him; I miss the good I could have done him; I miss the opportunity, now lost, to do him good.

Litt is indulgent to Victoria’s sweetness and self-pity, although these qualities are out of place: the stock heroines of chick lit have no time for navel-gazing in their rush to get to the altar. Their successors – and the best chick-lit novels have moved beyond the constraints of boy-meets-girl romance – begin the story once the honeymoon is over. The introduction of marriage, children and divorce into these plots has changed the assumptions of the genre. Finding Myself fails to recognise this. Victoria wants to write ‘the best beach book in the world’, but she has lost sight of the competition.