Saturday, September 01, 2012

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

"Hawthorn & Child" is Keith Ridgway's 6th book, but I must to admit I'd not really heard of him before. It has been heavily promoted on the web by book blogger John Self, as he points out in his blogpost, he is even credited in the acknowledgements. The last time there was a similar internet buzz around an experimental novel was for Tom McCarthy's debut "Remainder." Zadie Smith posited this as one of two directions for the modern novel, opposing it against Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland", however I said at the time I felt this was a false opposition. In some ways "Hawthorn & Child" would be a better choice. But I'll come back to that.

"Hawthorn & Child" begins with what appears to be a police procedural.The two detectives are on a particularly dull surveillance job when they get a call that something has happened. The tone is flat, they exude ennui. It's not all that easy to tell the two detectives apart, and the use of dashes rather than quotation marks for their conversation emphasises this. There is little description, little scene setting, but this is set in a contemporary London (albeit, in chapter that is titled, confusingly "1934"), with recognisably named streets and districts. This seems to be a contemporary default - you find it in "Remainder" but also in Lee Rourke's "The Canal" or Nicola Barker's "Clear" - a realism based around real London streets and place names; but like those novels, that's about as far as the realism goes. In Ridgway's police case, you're not ever convinced that policemen ever actually talk or act like this, though there feels a patina of truth about the boredom, about their interchangeability as individuals, and about their role as pawns in the service they work for - taken off one case to work on another as priorities change. The crime that they are investigating is a shooting. It may be gang related, it may have a gay subtext. We don't know, they don't know. The trail goes cold, then goes hot again - but away from their patch, as colleagues chase a suspect up North. Somehow it has a connection (or may not) with the surveillance case they are investigating.

Yet the fragments of these cases aren't about to be resolved. The novel shifts to a series of vignettes, short stories even. This too is a contemporary trope, and perhaps the oppositional approach that Smith was struggling to identify. Not that its that new an idea - Brett Easton Ellis's "The Informers" did it - but more recently we've had the novels of David Mitchell,  Jennifer Egan, and even, in some ways, Kate Atkinson. Hawthorn and Child don't particularly interest Ridgway, he is drawn to the fragmentation of city life. That we are all connected, but disconnected. Only in a couple of chapters are one of the detectives at the heart - For instance in "How to have fun with a fat man" the gay Hawthorn finds himself switching memories between the sexually promiscuity of the gay sauna, and the adrenalin rush of being in a riot situation. Both give him a hard on. The all-male scenarios are brilliantly juxtaposed. It feels a genuine piece of art.

This is a book of stories then: stories of the city, only loosely connected with these two detectives, who, on their beat, can be faced with anything - keeping a regular tab on a petty thief, called to a terrible suicide. The connections between the stories are there; as they are in "Ghostwritten" or "A Visit from the Goon Squad" but they are often minimal. There's no arching narrative. We come back to Hawthorn and Child but we hardly know them. When we do have a chapter with a policeman and his family it is their divorced superior Rivers. It turns out he knew the dead woman; yet it is the chapter from his daughter's point of view which is most striking. She's having her first teenage love affair with a boy who might actually be gay, and having strained conversations with her out of touch father who meets her in a cafe by her school. Rivers is interrupted a couple of times by unnamed policemen - Hawthorn and Child again.

It feels that our detective duo, whom we hardly get to know (or even differentiate, other than their sexuality) are not so much Vladimir and Estragon but Rozencrantz and Gildenstern as reimagined by Tom Stoppard. The "attendant Lords" whose destiny is out of their hands - and possibly never was in their hands. There's something here, I think, about the powerlessness of the individual man in a large organisation, or in modern life. The "power" that a policeman has, is only within the context of his daily rounds; that he can be redeployed at a moment's notice. The modern hero is not the anti-hero of the post-war period, but an inert character to whom things happen. In that there's a similarity to the Rourke and McCarthy novels - and to Magnus Mills, who, in his dark humour seems to do this kind of inert male friendship somewhat better than Ridgway does here.

For though there is much to like about the book, I found it both a difficult book to get into, and a novel that, finally, I don't think entirely succeeds; and given its fragmented nature, it does need, I think, to have a much better grasp of its material. Having not read him previously, I don't know if the sense I got that the author himself wasn't entirely convinced about where the book was going, or what his characters were about, is a deliberate thing. In itself, this uncertainty wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but thinking of writers who have done similar things, this tentative nature seems a failing. It reminds me a little of the tentative character-building that B.S. Johnson does, only then to belittle it as being a fiction. The early parts of the novel have such a flat tone, and such an undifferentiated voice, that the powerful poetry of some of the later chapters comes as a surprise. Like Micheal Cunningham or David Mitchell he can change register when needed, but the general style seems to lack conviction. "I don't know how to write" he disarmingly says in an article in the New Yorker, and that confusion actually comes across a little in "Hawthorn & Child." I'm thinking he perhaps thinks too much about this. The often underrated Kate Atkinson, in her early novels like "Human Croquet", was particularly adept at pulling different stories out of a city or a town, and somehow linking them together. Her recent move to the somewhat accidental detective Jackson Brody, finds her addressing the issue of how to "pull together" the chaos of the modern city - a detective of some kind or another is an obvious interlocutor. Hawthorn and Child aren't really believable as detectives, but they lack a reality as well, and in a book that has black comedy, and mock noir at its heart, this reader at least, found it difficult to give Ridgway the full benefit of the doubt.

I've read a lot of portmanteau novels, and this one didn't quite manage to achieve the unity the form ultimately requires. That Ridgeway is perhaps unconcerned about this means that it will probably be a matter of taste whether you like this digressive novel or not. From Twitter and elsewhere, John Self's campaign has brought in quite a number of readers; and I hesitated about writing a review - for though I personally don't think it lives up to some of the praise it has been given, it's in no way a bad book. I'll certainly be interested in reading something else by Ridgeway as I think the flat, occasionally throwaway style of some of his prose, more than the fragmented nature of the narrative, was what I couldn't quite get over - yet in certain chapters he surprises you with a more fluid style that is much more powerful.

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