It is difficult for me to write that I don't like Patricia Wood's debut novel Lottery. It is such a sweet, generous, kind-hearted book, with such an inevitably happy ending, that saying you don't like it is a lot like saying you don't like puppies, or cookies, or sunshine. You're apt to sound cynical at worst, disingenuous at best. But, here goes. I don't like it. Or, I do, but only because it is cute. I like it against my will. It has tricked me into liking it with narratorial whimsy and a simplistic moral view of the world in which the bad guys are always punished and the good guy always gets the girl. But I can't bring myself to like in a deeper, more meaningful sense, because it doesn't sit comfortably in the company of great novels and I don't think Wood ever meant it to. Lottery is novel writing at its most innocent and optimistic - the fictional enquivalent of a hot water bottle and a glass of milk. It wasn't written with literary prizes in mind and, having read it, I find its place on the Orange shortlist frankly bizarre.*
The book begins as it means to go on. That is, with a glib, witty abruptness that Wood uses as a function of character:
My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded. Gram always told me the L stood for Lucky.
'Mister Perry Lucky Crandall, quit your bellyaching!' she would scold, 'You've got two good eyes, two good legs and you're honest as the day is long.' Se always called me lucky and honest. Honest means that you don't know any better.
Thus we are introduced to our hero and narrator, a 32 year old man with learning difficulties who has lived his whole life with his delightful battle-axe of a grandmother. Abandoned by his mother and father as a baby, and estranged from his 'cousin-brothers' John and David, he has grown up entirely in the glow of her love and educative influence. And, as she says herself, she hasn't made a bad job out of him. Although Perry is 'slow' (his IQ is 24 point below average), he is clever in his own way - often eloquent, always understanding and innovative too. By the time the novel opens he has independently maintained a job at a marine supply store for over fifteen years. He has a long-established routine. In the mornings he eats his oatmeal, learns five words from his dictionary under Grams' direction and then cycles to work; at lunch time he eats 'fake crab' sandwiches and goes to the marina Handy Mart to moon over Cherry, the punk checkout girl; in the evenings he cooks a meal by following Grams' close instructions. He isn't without friends. His boss, Gary Holstead, is an old acquaintance of the family and very kind to him, while his colleague Keith is a constant companion. A war veteran who has turned to drink, Keith is the quintessential diamond in the rough - a geezer with an old drafty truck, who belches, farts and curses his way through life meanwhile possessed of a heart of gold. He drives Gram and 'Per' (as he, infuriatingly, insists on calling him) around on errands, and joins them for spaghetti nights and to play drafts. All in all, Perry's is a happy, pre-lapsarian existence.
The Fall comes (of course!) with his grandmother's sudden death, which leaves him essentially orphaned and victim to the whims of his uncaring natal family. They swoop in to steal her assets out from under him (against her express wishes), selling the only home he has ever known and then abandoning him to his fate with nothing but a £500 cheque. Luckily - because he is always lucky - his friends come to the rescue. He moves in to the flat above Gary's store, and lives frugally, missing his Gram but maintaining the routine she had spent so many years instilling in him. And then, he wins the $10 million dollars on the Washington State Lottery. Gram had always bought a ticket, and so he does too. What happens after that is inevitable: his mother and brothers realise that they always loved him after all, and all the people who ever rolled their eyes at him for being slow, or looked away when he talked, want to be his best friends. Perry finds himself endlessly writing cheques, with more zeros than he can fit in the little amount box, just to make them all go away.
Lottery is, essentially, a book founded in its plot. Structurally linear, although with some well integrated flashbacks, it revolves around its sole big event - the lottery win - like a carousel that you can't dismount. There is no denying it: it is mentioned on the first page, and then on nearly every page thereafter until the end. After a while you realise you're passing the same landscape time and time again, and that nothing is really happening or changing. Events are just repeating, over and over. It is obvious that Perry will be taken advantage of and, time and again, he is; it is inevitable that Perry will be happy nevertheless and he is; it is clear that his friends will continue to love him, as much because of his disabilities as in spite of them, and they do. There are no great moral revelations on offer, no astonishing insights to speak of. What we expect is what we get.
In of itself this isn't a fault, but it does mean that the book is sadly lacking in tension. It is clear from the outset that Perry is never in any real, sinister danger. At one point Wood hints that his brothers' are contemplating killing him for his lottery winnings, but this could never actually happen, or even nearly happen, and the reader knows it. Lottery simply isn't that kind of novel. Keith will always turn up in time; or Gram's memory will always stay Perry's hand. The book deals in 'home truths' - it seems wrong to call them cliches, but I suppose that is what they are - rather than in death blows. It doesn't help that Perry's family are the worst kind of caricatures - John, the grasping, sweet talking lawyer; David, the business man faintly embarrassed by his greed; Louise, the mother, a feckless, aging slut. It is difficult to take them seriously. They may as well all have twiddly black moustaches. They're Bad with a capital 'B', like the villains in Victorian penny dreadfuls.
One of Perry's defining characteristics is that he is inert, and for me this is the novel's real downfall. His lottery win is a thing that happens to him, but it doesn't change him. It can't, because he hasn't the imagination to be changed by it. He understands that it changes the way other people perceive him; in this he is (as Keith puts it) 'F**king wise for a slow guy':
'It's just that, before, people didn't like me when they didn't know me. Then other people decided they didnt like me even when they did know me. Now its just the opposite. People like me and they don't even know me at all. Sometimes they haven't ever met me and they like me.' I am thinking about all the letters I get now. All the letters that people write asking me for things.
'It is the same thing, only opposite of before,' I say. 'The opposite of before.'
But he doesn't have a character trajectory. He is essentially the same at the beginning of the novel as at the end, and so Lottery ends up telling us a dead-end and obvious story. The moral message, the one we can all see coming from a mile away - something along the lines of Money Isn't Everything, or Money Doesn't Buy You Happiness - is made flesh in him, and becomes leaden. Perry doesn't learn the book's 'message' from experience. He is just being what he is: honest and carefree, because he doesn't know any better. When, eventually, he gives most of his winnings away, he explains it in his usual charming manner:
'You gave it to them? Why?' Her mouth is open. She does not look like she believes me.
'Because they asked, because it was fair, and because they were my family,' I say. 'Because people should get what they want.' Those are the reasons. Then I say something she does not understand. Not one bit. Nobody does. I have to say it twice.
'Because I didn't need it,' I say.
'Because I didn't need it, and they did.'
Such earnestness tells us nothing about being rich and human that we haven't already grasped from reading Enid Blyton or watching Blue Peter and Sesame Street as children. I'm not fond of novels with a 'message' as it is; I'm not in the habit of reading fiction for explicit moral improvement. If morality is to be part of fiction's remit, and I think it can be, then it must be dealt with subtly and deftly. In this case I think Patricia Wood is in danger of idolising innocence and sanctifying simplicity, rather than actually confronting what it means to a) have learning difficulties, and b) be selfless. When Perry, sagelike by the closing chapter, extols his views on truth I felt I'd lost touch with the narrative altogether and stumbled into a Coelhoean nightmare:
Truth is many things. Sometimes truth is what we want or maybe what we have. It may be what we choose to believe. Sometimes it is something real. Something echt. Something genuine. Sometimes you know the truth when you speak it. I am slow, but I know this.
But I'm beginning to sound more critical than I feel, and am in danger of disparaging Lottery for not being what it was never meant to be. I should mention, for example, that Patricia Wood has done a fine job of capturing Perry's narratorial patter - the way he explains difficult words; the way he mixes his own expressions with those of him Gram and Keith - and that the novel is often witty and funny as a result. Take, for example, his reporting of Gram's lectures on alcohol:
'I swear if you [Keith] give my grandson any alcoholic beverage I will lambaste you from breakfast to Sunday!' Whenever Gram called me her grandson in front of Keith, we both knew she was serious. Lambaste means beat up. It does not have anything to do with lambs or with cooking. I do not drink alcoholic beverages because they taste like crap, Gram said.
And because Gram was full of natty maxims, so is Perry:
If you drink too much and are rich, then you are an alcoholic. If you drink too much and are poor, you're a drunk. Being an alcoholic is a disease and being a drunk is because you're weak and have regrets. Our friend Keith is a drunk.
Overall the voice is convincingly done and Perry is many of the things Wood seems to want him to be. Infuriatingly loveable; irrepressable; charismatic. Admittedly, at times he sounds more autistic than slow, with his encyclopaedic memory for words and his love of patterns, and I would imagine that he is partly inspired by the likes of Mark Haddon's brilliant The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. At other times he is terribly frustrating. Repetition and reiteration is one of Perry's most annoying tics and thoroughly infests the novel. Throughout there is a sense of deja vu as Perry repeats certain words and phrases - 'I listen. I am an auditor' or 'That is so cool' or 'Don't be smart!' It starts to wear after a while, but in a realistic sort of way.
I find it particularly hard to rationalise Lottery's place on the Orange Prize shortlist now that I am reading Lauren Liebenburg's The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam. It was also on the longlist, and is a debut. And it is twice the novel that Lottery is. A striking, gorgeous and dangerous book that also uses the voice of an innocent to explore corruption, it has none of Lottery's thematic flaws. Why wasn't it on the shortlist instead? Once again, the Orange Prize judges have me stumped.
*Of course, that means that it will probably win.