Thursday, August 27, 2009

Debut Novels: Truth and Lies, Innocence and Experience

I've read two debut novels this week; however one of those was Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road", written before I was born. It's a very readable novel, and having recently written a novella about a disintegrating marriage, it was fascinating to read a successful novel on the same subject, but in a different age, and from a different place. I'm not sure that its a "classic", though it certainly deserves its rediscovery. Its a dark book, almost overlaying a noir sensibility over middle American lives. The three act structure and the subject matter and setting do remind me of plays such as "All My Sons" and "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?", but Yates is novelist, not playwright, and he gives us an interior monologue which achieves a psychological depth that explains its current popularity. When I say its not a "classic", its more that it feels quite familiar to me; reminding me of Cheever, Updike, even Evan Hunter. The America of the fifties salaryman is so familiar to us from television, that the novel does seem to be of its time and place. Its a contemporary novel from just before the modern America really begins, but its themes of family, work and love are universal.

What goes without saying is what an adult novel it is. Both Frank Wheeler and his wife April are mature characters. We meet them not at the beginning of their struggles to "fit in" but at the end, as their hopes and expectations bump up against the narrow life that they live. Not for the first time I was reminded how few contemporary novels seem comfortable with writing about mature lives, or real problems. Partly I think its because we live in safer, securer times, yet its rare - in English fiction at least - to find a writer addressing such issues. Perhaps McEwan of late, but that's all that comes to mind.

Its difficult for a debutant - a young writer particular - after all what life is their to write about. James Scudamore's "The Amnesia Clinic" I picked up after his second novel "Heliopolis" has been longlisted for this year's Booker. If its anywhere near as good as the debut, it should make the shortlist. Set in Ecuador, its a story about stories, clearly owing a debt to those South American fabulists such as Borges and Marquez, but with a down-to-earth feel that you'd expect from an English writer. Anti, the narrator, is an English boy in Ecuador, who becomes friends with Fabian, a local boy who lives with his uncle, and doesn't talk about what happened to his parents. Like McEwan's "Atonement", its about how children - the boys are 15 - can make decisions that have catastrophic consequences; because of what they see, how they interpret it. The stories in the novel are very much of the shaggy dog variety, and I think, in less capable hands, the novel could have come across as too faux for its own good. Yet because we are seeing the story through the narrow perspective of an English boy, its probably the right decision. Unlike Diaz's "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" where "stories" seem more real than the horrible truth of the Trujillo regime, here the stories are like clothes used for dressing up. Anti and Fabian even have a formula for puncturing the myths of their stories, by asking "what would a really unimaginative person think."

When you are child, of course, your parents tell you off for "telling tales", as story becomes a synonym for lie. Its strange how often it comes up in contemporary fiction - because here the stories have tragic consequence, surely an odd moral for a novelist (a writer of stories!) to be giving? - and I think its partially because of that discomfort with maturity. Yates in "Revolutionary Road" has both Frank and April living a lie, or worse, believing each other's story to the point that the lie and the truth are inseperable. Only the novel's medically insane character, John, gets to speak, rather than think the truth. In the Scudamore novel I'm minded most often of Thornton Wilder's wonderful "The Bridge of San Luis Rey", where the stories are the truth - and you uncover the story of a man's life, to find his destiny. "The Amnesia Clinic", as the title perhaps suggests, is far more playful. Its also looking at memory, and how we give ourselves stories to help us remember, or to help us forget.

For debut novelists today, there does seem to be a desire to write from a position of innocence, rather than experience - whether a child as in "The Amnesia Clinic" (or Catherine O'Flynn's excellent "What Was Lost") or an adult with something missing, such as Annie as Jenn Ashworth's "A Kind of Intimacy". Experience, it seems, can wait.

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probooklover said...
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