A Taste for the Obvious

Brian Dillon

  • The Escape by Adam Thirlwell
    Cape, 322 pp, £16.99, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 08911 1

The Escape is Adam Thirlwell’s third book. His first novel, Politics, was published in 2003 and won some acclaim for its energetic smut and (less frequently) for its alternately faux-naif and overreaching prose. He followed it in 2007 with Miss Herbert, a vagrant disquisition on the nature of style in the novel that had the feel of a lot of flashy undergraduate essays determinedly tacked together to make a passably book-like structure. But the source material was smart enough (it was often very clever indeed) to make this seem a project perversely worth pursuing. The book enraged so many middling and middle-aged reviewers – some of whom actually took Thirlwell to task for the crime of being young – that one badly wanted to warm to its refreshingly callow, hectoring and capacious take on the history of fiction. Sadly, Miss Herbert was not what it seemed, and over the long (600-page) haul Thirlwell’s mild nostrums about the primacy of world over word, story over sentence, often undermined his formal ambitions and traduced his declared admiration for stylists such as Flaubert and Nabokov.

Something of the same disparity between fizzing surface and still depths is evident in The Escape, Thirlwell’s second novel. His earlier style is for the most part intact, which is to say that it remains conflicted: lurching between seemingly sincere aphorisms and tricksy interjections that suggest (or do they?) that those moral, metaphysical and historical aperçus are not to be trusted, that his narrator is in fact a pretentious and immature fantasist. The most obvious stylistic hangover from the first two books is Thirlwell’s stubbornly flat insistence on repeating elements of a sentence in close proximity, like Warhol silkscreens. The pretended erudition is still extant too, and apparently (even admirably) designed to infuriate the ill-read reviewer: Thirlwell appends a list of authors from whom, more or less accurately and overtly, he has quoted in the text.

We shall have to return to all of the above formal paraphernalia, and especially to the provenance of this last trick, which points to a taste for the 20th-century avant-garde that all three of Thirlwell’s books have insisted on without themselves exhibiting all that much by way of experimental or even minimally metafictional tendencies – this despite some critics’ continued belief that the problem with Thirlwell is his gauche excitement at the confectionary pleasures of a belated postmodernism. If only. Quite the most peculiar thing about The Escape, at least to begin with, is rather to be found at the level of plot and character. For his new novel Thirlwell has turned, surprisingly, to the conventional if contested motif of the elderly sybarite – best known from the fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike – whose declining sexual picaresque is set against historical or social forces which leave the ageing roué flummoxed and rueful. The Escape, or rather its protagonist, evinces a worldview that is best described as aspirant Rothdike: all raging self-justification and would-be poetic observation of the world one is about to abdicate.

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