The Clothed Life

Joanna Biggs

  • We Had It So Good by Linda Grant
    Virago, 344 pp, £14.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 1 84408 637 5

Linda Grant’s new novel, We Had It So Good, begins in sunshine. There’s the epigraph: ‘He had like many another been born in full sunlight and lived to see night fall.’ (That’s from Waugh’s Men at Arms.) Then the first image: Stephen Newman in his shorts, aged nine, on the ‘most exciting day’ of his life – a day spent in the fur storage depot in which his father looks after Marilyn Monroe’s mink. The sun follows him to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford: ‘It was the summer the astronauts walked on the moon. There was nothing more glamorous than an astronaut, not even the film stars with their minks.’ ‘It was the summer’ and its variations – ‘It was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced’ (The Pregnant Widow); ‘It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbour Coleman Silk … confided to me that, at the age of 71, he was having an affair with a 34-year-old cleaning woman’ (The Human Stain); ‘That summer of ’76, what with the heat and the flies and the endless melodies of ice-cream vans, things happened in a haze’ (White Teeth) – is a useful way of doing recent history, of bringing the personal to the political and surface to depth. And even though the formula can start in the third person and slide into the first, it needn’t. As a form of words, it’s ordinary, so for it to zing there has to be some sort of voice behind it: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’ (The Bell Jar). Good ones can do ordinary and extraordinary at once; they can do the novel in miniature. Grant seems to know what the sentence can do for her but fails to do anything special with it, other than set the scene. Even the thought seems run of the mill: isn’t an astronaut already a type of movie star?

Linda Grant has known success in the 15 years she’s been writing novels. Her first, The Cast Iron Shore (1996), won the David Higham Prize for Fiction; her second, When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), won the Orange Prize over the shoo-in, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; her third, Still Here (2002), was longlisted for the Booker Prize; her fourth, The Clothes on Their Backs (2008), was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the South Bank Show Literature Award. The publicity for the fifth novel, We Had It So Good, claims that Grant ‘illuminates our times like no other’ and the newspaper reviewers have taken the bait: for the FT the book ‘perfectly matches form and content’; the Evening Standard’s reviewer feared that she ‘may not read a better book all year’ and the Independent won’t ‘be surprised to see this new novel on shortlists in 2011’. Equally, her second non-fiction book, Remind Me Who I Am, Again (1998), about her mother’s dementia, won the Mind Book of the Year award; her third, The People on the Street: A Writer’s View of Israel (2006), won the Lettre Ulysses Prize for the Art of Reportage. The only unlaurelled books are her first work of non-fiction, Sexing the Millennium: Women and the Sexual Revolution (1993) and the most recent, The Thoughtful Dresser (2009), about clothes.

Despite the praise, she seems to feel misunderstood. She was a columnist for the Guardian before she was a novelist, and accusations of lack of invention were compounded when she was shown to have lifted sentences from A.J. Sherman’s book about Mandate Palestine for When I Lived in Modern Times. She was 45 when her first novel was published because it took her a long time to find a voice for fiction: she couldn’t have a North London Jewish one because she’s Liverpudlian, and she couldn’t be Liverpudlian because she’s middle-class, she couldn’t be middle-class because it’s too much like ‘ventriloquism’ and she couldn’t do British-Jewish because the British don’t see identity the way the Americans do. She has had to give hints about the sort of writer she is: ‘Liverpool has had no chronicler in literary fiction’ (she must not be counting Beryl Bainbridge), and more recently, the ‘novels I write tend to defy easy categorisation’. She is fond of tweeting aspects of her novels she says the reviewers have missed. She became ‘really interested in the Israeli story’ between 2003 and 2006, though she regretted getting involved at the ‘time of maximum uncoolness’, but not everyone goes along with her depiction of the IDF as little boys lost. She is impatient with those who claim to be above clothes and appearances – ‘There is something shallow about asserting you don’t care what you look like’ – but patient with herself. Her full-length shearling coat was earned by working her ‘fingers to the bone in the service of words’.

Clothes, appearances and surfaces are where her novels begin. Sybil Ross in The Cast Iron Shore knows she is grown-up when her furrier father and lilac-gloved mother decide what her first fur will be (‘Persian broadtail?’ ‘Too sophisticated. Chinchilla.’ ‘Divine!’) and give her a dress allowance. But her clothes don’t fit her for prewar Jewish Liverpool: ‘It was late summer, 1938, and I wore a lilac shantung jacket over a mauve box-pleated skirt.’ The sentence is primly balanced, specifying the year and section of the summer and matching each garment with a colour and a multi-syllable technique or finish. Sybil goes to New York after a gay boyfriend and some depth, ending up in the Communist Party with her autodidact black lover (‘It was the summer of 1948, the summer of the presidential campaign, the summer, also, of Alger Hiss’). In dowdy disguise on the run from HUAC, she almost can’t try on a pair of ‘dust-grey suede’ shoes because they might not have been made by a unionised worker. At the end of the book Sybil can love clothes alongside politics but she falls on gowns with the relish of a prodigal. A red dress can no longer be described as made from ‘some clingy fabric’ but from ‘crêpe or crêpe de Chine or satin’ in ‘blood-red or maroon or pillar-box red’. But even when she wasn’t supposed to care about shoes, she noted their dust-greyness.

It’s a habit of Grant’s first-person female narrators to follow the changes in the way things ought to look. And it’s especially useful to Evelyn Sert in When I Lived in Modern Times, who emigrates from anti-semitic postwar London to Mandate Palestine with a bottle of cold wave. Tel Aviv is the city of the future where Evelyn can be a new type of Jew, and her job as a hairdresser isn’t chatting and snipping, but chemistry. A new identity will sell perms as well as having the happy side-effect of making it easier to extract information from the officers’ wives for her boyfriend ‘Johnny’, a member of the Irgun: ‘I bent over the sink and dyed my hair platinum blonde. I shaved my eyebrows and pencilled in a fine arc. I looked in the mirror and now I was Priscilla Jones … Priscilla, Evelyn, they were just names. If I was to pass myself off as a non-Jew, this was all to the good.’ They tell you on writing courses to show not tell, but Grant does both at the same time. It’s another way of having surface and depth together. So we see Jewish features being transformed but we are also told what we are seeing. It seems inevitable that after Priscilla/Evelyn is caught passing addresses to her boyfriend, she will be forced to hide from the Mandate authorities in a disguise that makes plain her political sympathies: an Orthodox wig and ‘the kind of garments I had sometimes seen for sale and wondered who would ever buy them’. An Irgun girl laughs at her: ‘If Efraim could see you now.’ Clothes can mean escape or capture, life or death. Or are they just an opportunity for your rival to laugh at you?

In Still Here, Joseph, a married American property developer, and Alix, a single Liverpudlian cleansing cream heiress, very slowly fall in love. The wife, Erica, would be an obstacle, but in a plot twist a middle-aged feminist can glory in, she nips and tucks her way out of her husband’s affections:

  ‘You told me that you were ethically opposed to all cosmetic surgery on feminist grounds.’

‘That’s the kind of thing you say at 25. It all looks very different when you get to 50. Anyway, the techniques have hugely improved.’

‘I just don’t understand how you can be so superficial.’

‘Well, honey, you know you can’t have depths without surfaces.’

Joseph’s remade wife leaves him ‘limp as a banana skin’, as he puts it (Grant’s men are constantly worrying about their penises when they’re not admiring someone’s breasts; Stephen Newman is concerned about ‘waking to find a frozen drop of semen at the end of his penis … would it damage his precious cock?’). Alix gets her man because the wife’s new look turned out to be a sort of death. (Evelyn/Priscilla’s new look brought life, her Irgun lover’s baby.) Grant’s dialogue wouldn’t seem out of place in a women’s magazine (‘Anyway, the techniques have hugely improved’) but you would hope even Carry On Up the Ostfront would avoid saying what Alix does when she discovers that Eva Braun was devoted to her face cream: ‘The Nazis were fond of cleansing.’

Vivien Kovaks in Grant’s next novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, reaches the pinnacle of her clothed life walking along the Baie des Anges in ‘her cream bouclé wool jacket, short navy crêpe skirt, two-tone shoes’: ‘You’re dressed just right for the setting,’ her public school-educated husband tells her. But in the next chapter he is dead and, to distract herself, Vivien hunts down her disgraced uncle, a convicted slum landlord. He came to London from Nazi Europe with nothing but the clothes on his back and a ‘“look out for number one” quality’. He sheds and acquires clothes, family, whatever at will; he does what he needs to do to survive. Vivien copies him in romantic comedy mode: she cuts her hair punkily short, wears a biker jacket and hands out Anti-Nazi League leaflets (to her uncle’s bemusement). ‘Looking back over that summer, I remember almost everything I wore’ seems a rather narcissistic summer sentence, but when it matters – the first date since her husband died – her clothes aren’t memorable: ‘I can recount my whole wardrobe, but this night is a blank.’ Grant sometimes seems to question her faith in clothes, but at the end of the book Vivien, like Sybil, asserts that ‘the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie.’ As she puts her new dress on she is touched by ‘our vulnerability … our terrible, moving weaknesses contained in a jacket, a skirt, a pair of shoes’. And we are back at the beginning.

The most exciting day of Stephen Newman’s life in the new novel, We Had It So Good, has to do with clothes. As he stands sniffing the furs in cold storage, one slips off its hanger and onto his shoulders: it is Monroe’s champagne-mink stole, and he admires himself in it. Next he is on the boat to England, making friends with ‘Clinton of Univ’, who seduces the girls in first class and brings them to Stephen’s berth after dinner with a linen napkin of petits fours. And now he is in the Dyson Perrins lab in Oxford, making LSD from pages torn from a library book. He meets Andrea, his future wife, over the garden fence. Stumbling into Highgate Cemetery after a party, they conceive their first child on Marx’s grave.

We overhear Stephen telling parts of the story to his children. ‘I know him! That’s Bill Clinton … now the bastard’s going to become president,’ he shouts at the TV. His eldest child, Marianne, tells her brother Max that ‘you cannot rely’ on parents for truth. ‘Parents, by definition, are liars.’ Marianne is made to sit through the story of her conception: ‘Your mother woke up and touched me, I touched her back. What can I say? That, we both believe, is how you were conceived, Marianne. On a sweet summer morning in the grass below Karl Marx’s monument.’ The narrator tells most of Stephen’s story in the third-person present when Stephen isn’t reminiscing in the first-person past to his children. He is given room to prance around in front of the mirror in the stole, his Americanisms are allowed to seep into the prose but his children don’t have much of a voice, they have to sit and listen in the here and now, where their children will have to pay £27,000 to go to university (they themselves didn’t even go), you don’t bump into the prime minister socially unless you went to Eton and both linen napkins and petits fours are about as relevant as grape scissors. They don’t get golden sunshine but buzzing ecobulbs. Their way of seeing things is hidden; their demeanour seems causelessly sullen because Grant won’t allow them their reasons.

Things continue swimmingly for Stephen and Andrea: they get a foothold in a Canonbury terrace and start to dabble in journalism and psychotherapy. On a trip to California to see if their lives could be even better there, Stephen’s notion that he can go back to scientific research is snorted at by the UCLA professor who helped him get the Rhodes Scholarship: ‘Well, we always need science journalists. Have you thought about trying Popular Science?’ It is the first gleam of failure. Stephen blames it on his happy-go-luckiness (he ‘has turned out to be one of those hippies whose eyes have never been on the prize’) but as with other baby-boomer sagas – Amis’s Pregnant Widow or Franzen’s Freedom, for example – his trajectory hasn’t been as smooth as it’s made out to be, not that Stephen has really noticed. He wasn’t free to romance the first-class cabin with Clinton because his father made him work his passage, and he’s sent down from Oxford for tearing those pages out of a library book. Andrea isn’t his true love but a girl he married to avoid the Vietnam draft. If it seems that the baby boomers had it good, it’s an accident. Fecklessness seen by the golden light of the late 20th century is just falling on your feet; or as Stephen’s best friend puts it, ‘we’re all condemned to live in our own times,’ so it can’t be our fault. And when Stephen gets back to London, he lands a job making science programmes at the BBC, meets Carl Djerassi and Linus Pauling, has a fridge full of the chocolate he used to eat in his American childhood. He’ll keep the job until retirement and use the mortgage it pays to acquire, room by room, every high ceiling in the Canonbury terrace.

Stephen and Andrea seem less like characters in a novel than adjuncts to an argument. Grant doesn’t so much ‘illuminate our times like no other’ as chase the zeitgeist. Her novel made the Channel 4 News in early January – ‘Did the baby boomers ruin it for the young?’ Jon Snow asked – and is full of zeitgeisty things such as the rise of the Gaggia (‘The highlight of their dinner parties in the 1980s was the coffee they made in their restaurant-size Gaggia’: you can almost see the narrator drooling over the machine, carefully qualified as ‘restaurant-size’). So many trends are noted: rooms painted in ‘dragée-coloured pastels’, trolling in internet chat rooms, dog portraiture, ‘green beans with almonds’ and guerrilla gardening, but it seems random and déjà vu and, what’s worse, often déjà écrit in the morning paper. Perhaps Grant’s experience of being in the ‘time of maximum uncoolness’ with her Israel reportage makes her care more about being in the cool moment.

The right shade of dead salmon to paint the walls is knowledge Stephen doesn’t have; so this moment of Granitafication belongs to his wife. Though a psychotherapist and so the novel’s patron saint of talking, she is also its source of imagery – well, she is the one with the colour swatches. At Oxford, she was seen as the ‘plump carroty one’ against her best friend, blonde willowy Grace, who dressed them both: Andrea was put in an ‘ankle-length green velvet robe’ over green stockings (the dress will end up being sewn into the seams of Stephen’s jeans to make flares). Symbolic of the green of their youth, it will keep on being remembered by Stephen. Grace travels the world, living in Vietnam, Harlem and Paris in similar robes and kimonos (even trying to flog New Yorkers an ‘origami dress’ which is meant to be high concept but is just a bolt of fabric and various ways of wearing it as a dress) while Andrea graduates to ‘expensive jeans and white T-shirts – my uniform, she said – and a cashmere cardigan in winter’ at the same time as she turns her red hair to honey blonde and her zaftig body to lean. Grant is interested in extravagant clothes – green velvet robes, mauve box-pleats and shearling coats – but not middle-class uniform. We don’t know what cut, wash or label the jeans are; whether the T-shirts are baggy or just loose, crew-necked or scoop-necked or v-necked; what colours her cardigans come in and whether she ignores buttons altogether or only fastens them singly. Grant doesn’t seem all that interested in thinking about the words she uses, something you might put down to being more interested in clothes, in the visual. The last thing we see is Stephen mourning his wife by putting on her rabbit fur jacket and hat. The sunshine and champagne-mink are gone.

The plots, the names, the summers change but Grant’s fictional world largely doesn’t. She has a number of ideas that she tries out in different combinations for each novel, like a capsule wardrobe. Still Here’s Alix says: ‘Everyone imagines that the worst happened to them. Not me … Our parents adored us. Everything under the sun was striving and seeking and toiling and succeeding or going under, and I had three million dollars in the bank.’ Stephen describes growing up ‘awash with love’ instead of ‘adored’ like Alix, with the same long ‘a’ sound. You can’t have depths without surfaces, survival doesn’t make you a better person, good cake is important; the lessons are repeated without variation. This might seem puzzling until you read the family memoir, Remind Me Who I Am, Again. It’s the key to all Grant’s mythologies; the original telling and the best. The model for the many eau de nil and gold rooms, the Jaeger suits, the smuggled bottle of cold wave are there, as is the belief in keeping up appearances, smudging the past and the pointlessness of cheap shoes. Once you’ve read that book you needn’t bother with the rest, whatever the weekend papers say.