Mixed Up

Joanna Kavenna

  • The Optimists by Andrew Miller
    Sceptre, 313 pp, £16.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 340 82512 X

Andrew Miller’s first two novels, Ingenious Pain (1997) and Casanova (1998), were extended fantasies set in an imaginatively embellished 18th century. In his third novel, Oxygen (2001), Miller cast off the breeches and capes to write about a mother suffering from terminal cancer whose sons go to her house in the country to help nurse her. His new novel, The Optimists, describes a war-traumatised contemporary journalist who leaves the city to nurse his mentally ill sister in the countryside.

In past and present, Miller is compelled by inversions and oppositions. His novels are often hinged at the centre. In Ingenious Pain, the protagonist feels no pain for one half of the novel and an excess of pain for the other. In Casanova, the eternal lover finds his love is unrequited. The brothers in Oxygen are opposites: one is introverted, quiet, scruffy; the other is well-dressed, suave, endlessly adept. Alec arrives from his ‘small flat in London’, where he lives next door to Mr Bequa – ‘whose clothes carried their own atmosphere of black tobacco and failed cooking’ – and works as an underpaid translator; Larry from a drugs marathon in LA, where he has been a successful TV actor, though his fortunes are now faded and his marriage has collapsed. Through Alec and Larry, Miller develops a wider opposition, between Europe and America. For Alec,

Culture and Beauty and Style were European phenomena, or, more specifically, French. America was Hollywood and Vegas and rednecks. It was razzmatazz and bad food. It was helplessly vulgar. But for Larry and his friends, America had felt like the last place on the planet where things actually happened, a country where a man’s life could still have a mythic weight to it.

Despite the structural continuities, there are significant differences of style and atmosphere according to whether Miller is writing about the past or the present. In his historical fiction, he errs towards camp; his sentences sparkle, flaunting their frivolity. The novels are full of boisterous grotesques, and Miller relishes their strangeness. The pain-immune protagonist of Ingenious Pain is first put on stage as a performing freak and later courted by monarchs as a fearless surgeon. Then he meets a northern witch-queen who cures him. He ends up living with a reverend who first appears skewered by a scalpel, haemorrhaging, having been over-vigorously bled. There is a back-streets cast of hawkers and crooks, ham actors the lot of them, with decayed teeth and rasping voices. Casanova laments his lot to Samuel Johnson. He is a vividly seedy lover, Johnson a polysyllabic agony uncle; and around them whirls a cast of women for sale, rapacious aunts and mothers, and gentlemen bartering their mistresses over tea. Casanova thinks in luscious phrases:

He was looking out at the green whorls of English fields and English woods, at the enchanting chalky blue of the English sky, and wondering if this tilled and agreeable little country might not be just the place for a man to … shake off those morbid dawn vigils, those nights when it seemed some demonic lapdog crouched on his chest, panting into his face.

Writing about the past, Miller is in a holiday humour, allowing his characters flights into the baroque, spilling out adjectives and lavish conceits. In his contemporary world, everything is tautly documented, strictly confined to realism. Faced with the present, Miller becomes spartan and literal. The pace drops: the historical novels are explosions in allegro; Oxygen and The Optimists are measured and methodical. His metaphors shrivel, landscapes are observed in sparse, workmanlike prose, and his characters are smaller. They live in seamy parts of London; they eat lukewarm food in bad restaurants; they slink out to the cinema in the afternoons and cry at Hollywood schmaltz. Atmosphere depends on the accumulation of detail. In Oxygen, Miller lingers on the gruelling minutiae of nursing: ‘Some measures she had agreed to. She took sit-down showers instead of baths, had a raised plastic seat on the toilet, and on Alec’s last visit he had rigged up a bell, running the wire down the stairs from the bedroom and screwing the bell-housing to a beam by the kitchen door.’

Such a clear shift in tone is not an inevitable result of moving from one period to another. Roughly speaking, Pynchon in the present is as maniacal as Pynchon in the past: The Crying of Lot 49 is as outlandish as Mason & Dixon. Miller is entitled to switch anything he likes; they’re his novels and he can romp it up in ruffs or sober it up in jeans, as he prefers. But the question of why he does it is an interesting one. Miller is loquacious on the theme of historical fiction. In one article, ‘The Power of the Past’, which appears on his website, he confronts a belief he perceives to exist among ‘critics’ that ‘novelists … have a duty to deal with the Now, renewing for us our sense of the present rather than turning over … the world of our ancestors.’

The problem of relevance is a persistent one. Writing almost any kind of novel can feel as though you have dedicated your life to the building of jewelled, intricate machines whose ultimate purpose is mysterious, remote, hard to defend. But setting a novel, say, two hundred years in the past can feel especially perverse. The difficulty, I think, is that relevance becomes confused with its thinner sister, topicality, which is the Now in its most superficial guise. Relevance in fiction writing is a far more fundamental virtue than being merely up to date. It comes from fidelity to the truth about the lives you are trying to uncover and fidelity to the necessary language. By comparison, topicality is a feeble kind of virtue and belongs more properly to journalism than to fiction.

Historical fiction, for Miller, ‘is never a turning away from the Now, nor a symptom of some kind of cultural enervation eating away at our literature like Dutch Elm disease, but rather one of the ways in which our experience of the contemporary is revived’. The reader can be trusted to discern parallels between past and present, and the writer can relax into the creation of a world with ‘its full measure of difference, of weirdness, even; an understanding of both the continuities and of what is now deliciously alien, anthropologically remote’. In this way, ‘the best historical fiction plays its part in rescuing the past from the heritage barbarians who would have us believe that it is just us with different hats on.’ History, Miller suggests, is a place in which we can linger on the odd, the implausible, without being summoned to account by the priests of realism. Relevant in broader theme rather than faithful in precise detail, historical fiction allows an escape into archetype and symbolism.

If history permits fantasy, Miller’s writing suggests that the present must stick with realism. The Optimists opens with a distressed photojournalist, Clem Glass, flying home to London after witnessing a massacre in Africa. He returns to urban disarray, the tawdry backdrop to life in London.

It was May, and already more summer than spring. The leaves on the roadside trees were dustless, vivid, part luminous. Until late into the evening cars crawled in the traffic, windows down, music thudding. Children out of school squabbled in the street, kicked balls against a wall, sang singing games their grandparents must have known … The people in the house next door were substance abusers. They played tinny radios. In the small hours of the morning they sounded as though they were being dragged down to hell.

And this is just Ladbroke Grove. The rest of the city stretches out, a sprawling mass of distress and frenzy, and Clem becomes a disconsolate flâneur:

In T-shirt, jeans, old brogues, he went on walks that lasted most of the day. The direction was not important. Turn left and he came to the houses of the rich; to the right was the railway bridge, the canal, the council blocks, the supermarket. Under the green girders of the bridge the rails ran like a firebreak through the heart of the city.

He is aimless and distracted, eating ‘wherever he happened to find himself, whatever he was near … He ate, paid, spoke to no one other than the waiters.’ He suffers from sudden flashes of temper, an urge to commit violence. Running the gamut of fetid urban encounters, he visits a prostitute, but leaves embarrassed and forlorn. He thinks about drugs: ‘He might even ask Rose to sell him some junk. He had not taken it before … but now the idea appealed to him powerfully. What was he saving himself for? Wasn’t hedonism as good a way as any?’

Half-hearted whoring, fighting and dissolution don’t make Clem feel any better. The city is ‘haunted by the grief-stricken, the chronically lost’. Walking on a Sunday evening along Portobello Road, he hears a woman crying. She speaks Spanish, and seems to be saying she has been raped. He leaves her in the street. ‘He, who had once assumed himself to be sided with the decent and brave, what was he to think now? What duty could be plainer than the care of the stranger attacked in the street?’ And later, under the light of a bright half-moon, he is tormented by memories of a survivor of the massacre speaking French in a slow, toneless voice.

The Optimists is a series of retreats, attempts to escape from awareness. Fleeing the city, Clem gets on a train to the north, and travels through a Britain defined by incongruities: ‘Hills, hay fields, a motorway, a caravan park; a spire topped with a knot of light where the sun flashed off a weathervane.’ His father lives in a monastery. His sister Clare has recently had a nervous breakdown and been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. With his father unable to leave the monks, Clem decides to take his sister with him on another retreat, to a house in the West Country. Their journey takes them along quiet roads, ‘past banks in shadow, fields of blue corn, pubs called the Waggonwheel, the Plough, the Wheatsheaf’. In a house with terminal subsidence, Clem and Clare sit it out, waiting to become well.

As in Oxygen – in which the mother declines slowly in the family’s West Country house – Miller makes much of the contrasts between the reasonableness of the quiet country community and the turmoil of the central characters. Aunt Laura, brisk and helpful, fans herself with her hand, and walks around in ‘woven leather sandals, the kind boys used to wear in picture books’. She speaks in a patchwork of words like ‘nice’ and ‘chat’. There are consoling tea parties with Thermos flasks and chocolate bourbons on a plate. Meanwhile, Clare is a jarring presence, ‘holding the cup as though they were huddled on some out-of-season beach in Norfolk’. The book veers at times towards parody, aping the clichés of Englishness: country people in summer frocks and hats, sipping tea and talking about the weather while Clare shuffles around in dark glasses talking about drowning and the power of the sea. As in Oxygen, Miller builds up atmosphere with inventories of the mundane: ‘The pie was made with white fish, peas and boiled eggs, a crust of mashed potatoes on top’; ‘Clem crouched on the hearth-rug, balled sheets of newspaper, made a pyramid of kindling, and snapped a flame from his lighter.’ Yet this is all froth, and is acknowledged as such by Clem. Talking maniacally of ‘water-heaters, light-fittings, the state of the chimney flue’, he understands he is ‘taking refuge’ in details.

Clem has rushed his sister out of the asylum to join him in a ‘project’, ‘something more than just running away from whatever dogged him in the city’. He is struggling with ‘fantasies of aggression, minute-long cartoons of havoc that poured the adrenalin into his blood and left him dizzy’. He is trying, the reader starts to understand, to find a way of surviving modern life. He is hoping to gain access to understanding, or acceptance; he comes cap in hand to the world spirit, or God, or the divine in nature, searching for revelation like a latter-day Romantic. Yet the transcendent proves elusive; the epiphany evades him. Deprived of any great moment of being, Clem starts to feel disappointed in his retreat. The city is a crazy battleground, where people cry out in the night and the neighbours consort with Mephistopheles; but the countryside is a painful reminder of better times, a hinterland, semi-resistant to change, semi-colonised, losing its identity. In the village, Clem finds ‘a chip shop, a garage, the British Legion building, the little estates of postwar housing’. There are ‘no quaint traditions’, Clem notes mournfully, ‘no hunt meetings or mummers plays, no village green even. A curious lassitude prevailed … The village could have been the suburb of some undistinguished county town. Its charms were incidental. There was no interest in the picturesque.’ Its trappings disturb him: he buys bread ‘sliced and sealed in plastic bags’, and eggs ‘from Kent’. The freezer in the local shop is stocked with ‘Chicago-style’ pizza. Clem thinks longingly of ‘his local shop in the Grove, the garlic and fresh chillies he could buy there, the sweet potatoes, bell peppers, home-made hummus’. Stricken with indecision, Clem finds the countryside just as sketchy and faded as the town.

Slowly, Miller directs Clem and Clare to a slightly improved state. Clare regains a semblance of sanity; Clem begins to forget, and wonders if ‘forgetting might, in some way, in accordance with some law of paradox, be memory’s truest function, a means of great necessity and ingenuity for the slow erasure of experience and knowledge.’ As in Oxygen, the domestic drama of The Optimists culminates in a country lunch party, the neatness of the ritual set against the raving confusion of emotional life. Over tea and cakes and ices, over bourbon biscuits and poached salmon, the people of the village drown out the crisis.

For most of the book, The Optimists seems to be another of Miller’s structurally immaculate narratives, the elements neatly balanced, drawn to a tastefully indeterminate conclusion. Yet something strange happens at the end, or at what the reader is expecting to be the end. There is the climactic meal, then something that looks like an epilogue. Clem, having succeeded in a way with his sister, is still disturbed by memories of the massacre. He decides to go Belgium to confront the perpetrator, a man called Sylvestre Ruzindana who has fled from Africa and gone into hiding. Clem has a pile of gory photographs which he has been carrying around with him, and he packs them up and flies off to Brussels. ‘He had picked the hotel from a sheet supplied by the tourist desk at the airport, selecting it because it was close to Matongé and because its rates were reasonable,’ Miller informs us, in the deliberate style which contrasts so acutely with Clem’s confusion. He has a contact in Brussels, a woman called Laurencie who is, he thinks, a relative of Ruzindana. After he has called her a few times and threatened her a little, she agrees to meet him in a café. Surprisingly, Laurencie brings Ruzindana with her, an old man ‘gaunt and grizzle-bearded, who sat with his head bowed, gazing at the table-top through black-framed spectacles’. Their encounter is brief and unsatisfying: ‘The whole interview,’ Clem thinks later, ‘this long-imagined confrontation, had played out as a failure of a kind he had not prepared himself for. Why had he not climbed on to his chair and announced to the whole café that there, sitting among them, among the Warhols and the Lichtenstein prints, was one of the génocidaires?’ He was, he realises, perplexed by Ruzindana’s crushed appearance:

No suavely turned-out politician on the make any more; more the demeanour of some retired academic, some dreamy former expert on quasars or Babylonian dynasties, the type who regularly leaves the house without his keys. Depravity should not appear in the guise of someone’s elderly relative who has spent the afternoon food shopping. It was as though the man he wanted to grapple with no longer even existed.

After this anticlimax, Clem might have sloped off back to Britain, ending the novel on a lifelike note of irresolution. But Miller moves to a further semi-ending, a curious twist. After a short courtship, Clem ends up in bed with Laurencie, enjoying a release into enacted fantasy. When he wakes in the night and walks through the flat, he smells a scent he recalls from the café and realises that Ruzindana is staying with her. Apparently shocked, he leaves immediately – another fitting moment for an open-ended ending. Yet the novel doesn’t close here either. Instead, we find ourselves back with Clem in London as he sits in a still seedier flat, wearing his coat indoors, sleeping in his clothes. He writes short stories. Then he calls the police and accuses himself of rape. In the police station, he bursts into tears. The policeman delivers a short speech: ‘You’re what I call a sins-of-the-world type. Obsessed with thoughts of moral chaos. Everyone guilty because everyone’s the same. All of us with the mark of Cain on our brows. Confessing gives you some relief … Pricks the boil?’ If there is anything like a culmination in this book, it is provided by this implausibly eloquent policeman.

In The Optimists, Miller suggests that the gulf between past and present manifests itself in our sense of responsibility for the world in which we live. We like to think we would have done things differently in the past had we been there; we like to imagine we would have stood up and raised an objection to slavery, war, or the oppression of women. But it’s all safely confined to hypothesis. In the present, we are implicated yet broadly powerless. Events are murky and impossible to resolve. We can sift small details, as Miller does, but an imagination too receptive to the horrors of the world will destroy us. Idealism is impossible to sustain; wounded pragmatism seems to be the only option. Walking out of the police station, Clem realises: ‘He was not a criminal. He was not a saint. He could not take refuge any more in the purity of extreme positions.’

The painstaking process by which Clem is drawn to this realisation seems to suggest an authorial working-through, a testing of method. While Miller’s historical novels create elaborate and artificial ‘dreams’, and Oxygen is social realism in a formalist straitjacket, The Optimists is structurally chaotic and, as a result, more interesting than Miller’s previous work. He appears to have sensed the problem with his clear-cut distinction between opulent past and spartan present: it succumbs to a literary convention about the novel of the Now as much as vibrancy and colour conform to a literary convention about the novel of the Then. In The Optimists, Miller grapples with these conventions, and produces a mixed-up novel, full of conflicting impulses, and all the better for it.