[N.B. The title of this blog post says it all really.]
I received an ARC of Edward Docx's second novel, Self Help, from Picador back in May; I accepted it because little birds told me it would probably be on the Booker Prize longlist and, lo, they were right. But I didn't pick it up, not until now. Why? Because I knew from the very moment I read the blurb - I just knew - that it wouldn't be quite my cup of tea. I guessed it would indulge in my pet hates in contemporary fiction - solipsism, pretention, forced similes, cringing dialogue and philosophising ad-nauseum. Everything, in fact, that makes me flinch and squirm. I was right. What I didn't realise is that I would love it almost as much as I hated it.
Gabriel and Isabella Glover are thirty-something twins, moneyed children of the 80s; half-Russian, half-English and insufferable narcissists. You know the type - beautiful, faux-scruffy but expensively dressed, floppy-haired, charming, creative, feckless. Picture the former:
'He was dressed half scruffily, in cheap jeans and scuffed boots, and half elegantly, in a dark tailored pure-wool suit jacket and fine white shirt - as though he had not been able to make up his mind about who he really was or which side he was on when he set out. He had the figure of someone thin through restlessness...he had liquid dark eyes and his hair was nearly black and kicked and kinked at the ends, not so much a style as a lack of one...'
Both are scarred by their difficult relationships with their parents, Masha and Nicholas, the one a Communist defecter - politically idealistic; philosophically inclined; and frustratingly oblique - the other, a selfish, promiscuous bisexual. (Mostly, you come to suspect, because 'toxic parents' are a necessary adjunct t0 their lifestyles, i.e. you can't be properly f**ked up unless your parents are to blame.) As the novel opens they live on opposite sides of the world - 'Gabs' in London, 'Is' in New York - working crappy, 'until-something-else-comes-along' jobs and tolerating their imperfect lovers. They repeatedly assert their desire to 'sort things out', to make time to get their 'lives in order'. Gabriel wants to leave his post as the editor of Self-Help, a therapy newsletter for the terminally guilible, and become a theatre director, while Isabella yearns to start her own business organising classical music concerts. Neither shows any sign of taking the initiative towards change.
Until, that is, their mother dies suddenly and alone in her flat in St. Petersburg. Ripped from their cosy solipsism and reunited in Mother Russia to arrange the funeral, the twins are forced to confront both their stagnation and their bitterness. Their father also re-enters their lives, unwanted and unwilling, but desperate to reveal family secrets and share his guilt. In the language of the blurb, Self-Help goes on to: 'examine the bonds and strains that history imposes on siblings and their parents, and the traps they unwittingly create for themselves.' In a manner of speaking, at least, and in the most infuriating style imaginable.
The novel is told from five POVs (albeit, in the omnipresent third person), Gabriel, Isabella and Nicholas' being the most frequent, and the most unbearable. Docx brings the maximum quota of cringe to their characterisation, revealing them to be pompous, self-indulgent, whiny, cryptic and boring. Merrily rejecting the language of therapy culture in one breath, and embracing it in the next, they epitomise the sad credulity of the incredulous. They stand to represent the very worst excesses of individualism.
They made me want to fling the novel across the room.
Now, I can accept that style reflects character and that character is a function of narrative; and I know that, on some level, the Glovers are meant to be pompous, self-indulgent, whiny, cryptic and boring. It's who they are and the rhyme and reason behind their whole story. It can be both clever and funny, verging on the satirical. But, how to tolerate it, apparently straight-faced, over 500+ pages? I mean, I ask you:
'Meanwhile, she [Isabella] absented herself entirely from the situation and returned to the troubled Kremlin of her mind...'
The 'Kremlin of my mind'?! Or, how about Gabriel digging himself a grave with similes:
'But deeper than this, at the very bottom, never spoken, never admitted, there was the loneliest war of all: the war against Despair. This last a solitary staggering struggle that took place in the freezing darkness of the polar night, a struggle from which he could not rest but must instead be forever on the lookout, perpetually exhausted and perpetually tensed, peering hard into the blizzard...'
It is this forced literary posturing, satirical or not, that I cannot really stomach; that I have to hate. Whether Docx is being ironic by ventriloquising the genre that his title envokes or not, I can't enjoy reading it. It's a terrible trial in the long run and if Self Help had been all Glovers all the time I don't think I could have made it through.
But then, there is Arkady Artamenkov (a pitiless, penniless classical pianist) and Henry Wheyland (a former Catholic priest turned junkie), both drawn into the Glovers' orbit by fate, who together manage to redeem the whole enterprise for me. When Docx writes Arkady and Henry, he writes like he deserves to be on the longlist for the Booker prize*: without guile or pretense, but with passion and his gut. It was Henry's description of Arkady playing a concert (on page 103) that woke me up to the novel's potential:
'He was playing as Henry had never heard him play: back and forth across rhythm and time signature, the first beat of the bar long ago discarded (though hiding somewhere, Henry could sense, in between notes). And yet the Russian seemed determined that no single person be left behind; so he kept doubling back to the almost-forgotten tune, sounding echoes in adjacent registers, raising finger posts, urging the whole club along with him, stragglers too, all bound, faster and faster.... And then, just as Arkady seemed lost for good, here he came once more - racing back with his left hand to greet the momentarily beleagured audience, a wide grimace spreading across his face that became almost a grin...'
By the time Docx had gotten around to Henry's terrible withdrawal from heroin and Arkady's despair at the loss of his piano, I was hooked and converted, and continually disappointed when the story veered back to the Glovers.
Fundamentally, the Glovers just don't feel right; they think, talk and act too much like strawmen. All pretension and style, no genuineness. It isn't just because Docx is making a commentary on the perverse self-harm of the self-help culture (although he is, of course), but because he himself is engaged in some serious authorial therapy. Never was there a novel more clearly written as autobiography or as psycho-analysis via fiction. Go here and read this (or, alternatively, don't if you don't want to be spoiled) and you'll have a pretty good summary of the plot of Self-Help, not to mention its apparently dramatic ending.
I'm not sure how I feel about authors exploring their own lives so explicitly and determinedly in this way; certainly I find it discomforting. Partly, I think, because it makes me feel like a voyeur (too intimate for a start), but mostly because it makes me feel like I'm reading an exercise in the revelation of personal demons. It disappoints me. I felt strongly, and throughout, that the best parts of Self-Help were Henry's and Arkady's, when Docx was moving away from his own family's history and towards imaginative fiction. The worst were Gabriel's, when he was flogging a thematical horse with limited appeal. In doing so he sidelined some of the most potent content and promise of the book: the musical leitmotif that connected all of the characters was left to wither in silence towards the end, while generational and geographical conflict were underused in preference of the torrid and emotional (even though they were so clearly highlighted in the first chapter). The narrative voice, switching between the perverse extremes of the Glovers and Arkady/Henry, was an interesting experiment (assuming it was meant, and I think so), but so thoroughly frustrating.
Hence, I love, and I hate.
* In my humble opinion. ;-) Of course.