Saturday, March 30, 2013

Entertaining Strangers by Jonathan Taylor

There's an unnamed subgenre of English literature which revels in the quirky, and centres itself on flawed and fascinating characters - there's something of the music hall about it, a memory of Punch and Judy, as much as the 18th century archetypes you find in Fielding and (especially) Sterne. There's always something quite theatrical about it, and not surprisingly the actor Paul Bailey and the wonderful Angela Carter come to mind when thinking of more recent precedents. I'm reminded of this picking up Jonathan Taylor's recent debut novel "Entertaining Strangers," which throws us into the life of Edwin Prince at the moment when the mysterious narrator, "Jules", arrives unannounced on his doorstep.

Jules is welcomed - if that's the right word - into the house that Prince shares with his Landlady, a virtually squat-like hovel where the main characters come and go in a twilight world of hangovers, confused sexual liaisons and personal obsessions. For Prince is an eccentric of the first order. Obsessed with the cultural significance of ants, a Withnail-like auto-didact reading out half-remembered tracts of philosophy whilst listening at great volume to the far watermarks of 20th century experimental music. As Jules relates life in the Prince household the cast of characters expands, with Prince only reluctantly giving any explanation of how he relates to an ex-wife (never named), a psychologically disturbed brother, a hated and downtrodden mother, and other "strangers" such as the pub's poet laureate, Edwin's only friend. Taylor's novel hints at something broader beneath its comic monologues, for Jules is haunted by impossible memories of smoke and fire relating to the sacking of Smyrna in 1922, when the allied ships looked on from the bay as the Armenians and Greeks on the shoreline were left to burn with the city.

Prince is a modern grotesque, an out-of-place loner who, nonetheless, is attractive enough in his erudite obsessions to gather round him a group of (mainly) women who either want to bed or mother him or both. Set in a highly specified 1997, but in a non-specific East Midlands town (presumably Loughborough), the novel's a mostly funny, but occasionally sombre fable of curtailed and unstable lives. There's a grubby sadness to Prince - a recognisable model of the highly-strung obsessive who would probably be a Professor of something or other had he managed to scrape through his degree, but instead ends up running a pre-internet chat line called "Encyclodial" answering callers randomw general knowledge questions. All of this is seen through the eyes of Jules, who slowly but surely turns into an unlikely "guardian angel" for Edwin. This mysterious waif has her own secrets, that are at the heart of the books unravelling mysteries; but despite her mysterious nature she is a welcome narrator, giving us Edwin's life unadorned, but sympathetically. The chapters are often prefaced by "ant facts" for Edwin's obsession is with ants and how much better they are than humans. In a drab small-town world that rarely goes beyond the cramped littered living room or the far-from-gastro local pub this is a book of light comic magical realism set in the unpromising terrain of mid-90s Britain.

At times, the riffs go on a bit too much, with large extracts from "ant" literature or verbatim conversations, and you realise that the stuff of this somewhat theatrical novel is mostly to be found elsewhere in our cultural life these days - in the lodging house absurdities of "Spaced" or before that "Rising Damp." Set in the first days of the Tony Blair government, the characters are oblivious to the world around them, struggling with the dank everyday nothingness of British provincial life, where casual sex, familial violence and constant alcohol are the only drivers. Taylor, who has previously published a family memoir, is at his best when describing this drab tableaux, whilst whisking the reader along with a promise of something deeper - relating back to the horrors of the Armenian genocide? How does the past impinge on the present? There's darkness here, but its told with an eye on the audience, I think, so has some of the surface brio of Zadie Smith's "White Teeth", whisking us through its non-events, rather than wanting to go too deeply into the world he's describing. The tight cast and use of a narrator who is not so much disinterested as distant from the world she's describing make it an easy novel to read though there are times when the scenes are a little too drab or too repetitive to really engage the reader, and I found myself skipping  a few sections. Though Edwin is a great creation, the other supporting characters are ciphers in a way - there is good reason for this I think, since it is through their relationship to Edwin that Jules sees them all - and for a book so heavy on dialogue, some of it is a little stock, a little sitcom - again, something that occasionally marred "White Teeth."

That said, Taylor successfully gives us a British family saga of sorts that is viable without a cast of thousands or the upper (or even middle) classes. If there's something kitchen-sink drama about its setting, the higher aims, and the links to the massacre at Smyrna are skilfully entwined, so that the book is elevated somewhat above its domestic setting. The title "entertaining strangers" is an accurate one, for that is what Edwin does in both ways - he lets Jules into his house, but he also "entertains" her and us.

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