Its taken me too long to get to Gwendoline Riley's fourth novel, "Opposed Positions", considering I heard her read from it in Bolton even before it was published. Her protagonist is Aislinn Kelly, a novelist struggling with the fractures that have always defined her life, particularly a violent father, whom her mother finally divorced and took the children away from - albeit with him seeing them on alternate Saturdays. Drifting through a poverty-stricken but somewhat successful career as a novelist, Aislinn struggles with coming to an understanding of her own tendency to being solitary, her depression and the failed relationships in her life.
Yet its a subtle novel that eschews a straight narrative to go backwards and forwards through memory, Kelly's commentary throughout being suitably wry and self aware. Here is the reliable narrator occasionally taking on the guise of the unreliable one, as she struggles with understanding the key relationships in her life. She asks her mother why she married her father and gets back "it was what people did". Her own estrangement from those "close relations" and a motley crew of the accidental friends we accumulate in our twenties and early thirties, is part self-preservation, part destructive. Much of the "action" of this carefully constructed novel takes place from a distance: through emails, phonecalls and recounted conversations. There's something new in Riley's work here, as her always striking observational skills is matched with a keen ear for the unsaid nuances of conversation. Her characters harbour a very English reserve that justs gets on with things, but also spills over occasionally into violence. Her brother Liam comes back from one of his trips with their father with a black eye, apparently for daring to show the slightest bit of sarcasm to his father. Kelly, quietly reading away in the corner, makes occasional attempts to lessen the hurt in her family, but she is no heroine, and her timid attempts to let Liam understand her mother's lack of money, or to draw out her mother's sense of entitlement to a happy life, are quickly rebuffed. Kelly retires into the solitude that feeds into her writing.
Drawn back to the family home by a variety of reasons - poverty, guilt, loneliness - she has disconnected herself from even her mother, a clever, practical but endlessly stoic woman who accidentally ends up in another dreadful marriage with the depressive, self-absorbed Howard. Given these archetypes Kelly's own struggles are ones that she acknowledges as deep-rooted. Constantly berated for looking miserable, it becomes her default position. Yet, in burrowing deep into the misunderstandings of those closest to us, Riley gives us a powerful, sceptical, and sometimes darkly humorous portrait of modern emotional mores. Aislinn's infatuation with an American singer, "Jim", turns out to be as equally a dysfunctional non-relationship as her familial ones, that comes to a head when they meet up after a gig in Birmingham. Drunk and angry, but not even sure about what, Aislinn turns on Jim, with whom she's barely slept with, but harboured hopes of a relationship that he's kept away from (whilst going out with other women as less complicated surrogates for her.) The "opposed positions" of the title is about the misunderstandings; not so much between men and women, but between people who are trying and failing to connect. She sees in Jim a simplicity of thought and conversation that she comes to discover is just as much an affectation as any other.
The book dances around familiar Riley locales. Real venues - the Castle, the Temple - in Manchester's sodden streets are mentioned, and she touches on a disaffection with the city, a city where so much of her fiction has been set, as a "terrible failure of the imagination." Rather than being a betrayal, this seems an appropriate farewell to a city, almost as an ex-flame to which it would be a mistake to go back to. In Riley's fiction, so often a real-time depiction of the contemporary city, its almost a growing up of her earlier heroine's lives in a demi-monde that never changes much. There's always someone who knows your name, who will have a drink with you. No wonder that Manchester refusenik, Morrissey, is the one musical reference who crops up in the novel.
Escaping England, Aislinn escapes - not to New York or San Francisco - but to a tiny town in Indianopolis. If this is the weakest part of the novel, its perhaps because the going away seems to serve little purpose, other than to distance the character and make a break. Alone in a sublet apartment she writes and takes late night phone calls from friends across the Atlantic. Communication is the novel is curiously stilted, as our modern connectedness is contrasted with the disconnect that modern lives have even amongst close families. A series of emails from her father to Aislinn's college email address feels more like stalking than familial love; and later, Aislinn the writer's Wikipedia entry is viciously edited by him as another attempt at cyber-control where all his real world attempts have failed. In an interview in the Independent, Riley talks of the importance of writing a novel where the parents aren't conveniently killed or shunted off stage. Here it family rather than lovers and friends which are the main source of the novel's conflict.
At times, as ever, the writing is breathtaking. On landing in the US there is a page and a half of tightly observed description, that is notable because she is so sparing with such skills elsewhere. Yet she's brilliant on the tiny details of family life, noticing things about her characters which are more nuanced than their sometimes evasive conversations. Yet it is a conversational novel, and in parts, particularly with a number of conversations with friends or acquaintances, the novel becomes a little fragmentary - you get the sense that some of these scenes, anecdotal, are either pared down from a longer work, or a sign of how the novel developed. Yet Aislinn is a more grown up narrator than Riley has previously written of, and she is decidedly literary at times; often to the frustration of her family. Yet this doesn't feel an affectation - the writer adding their own intelligence to their characters - partly because Aislinn is also a writer of short books that mirror her own life. Like Coetzee's recent works, Riley's "playing" with the autobiographical in fiction is consummate and powerful, and the skill is that it becomes meaningless to look for the join.
What I've always like about Riley's work, and its here more than ever, is that sense that its not necessary to create an artificial framework to make a novel work. The plot is less important to her than the character's journeying. Its a psychological novel in many ways, even if inevitably with its fair share of distancing, but seems particularly acute in its handling of the fallout from a broken home. A surprising omission from Granta's best novelists under 40 list, reading this, her most recent novel, makes the absence even more perplexing.
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