Finely-turned tales of mothers, murder and love

We need a system where books that publishers really love, where it’s not mere puff, get a special sticker on the front, says John Self


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s hard to believe I know, but not all books are as good as publishers say they are. We can’t expect otherwise — that’s their job — though I recall warmly the publicist who once sent me a bundle of books, with a note attached to the third: “Don’t bother with this one.” We need a system where books that publishers really love, where it’s not mere puff, get a special sticker on the front. This month’s selection of novels would wear such a label with pride.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley, Granta, £12.99

Admirers of Gwendoline Riley know what to expect: a new novel every few years, an austere two-word title (Cold Water, Sick Notes), a first-person narrator’s intensive examination of her life with others, in prose that returns your stare. Riley was a prodigy, publishing three novels in her twenties (like Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, F. Scott frigging Fitzgerald), and now gives us her sixth, My Phantoms. It might be her best yet, but what does that even mean against a body of work as diamond-bright as this?

Riley’s recent novels have turned their gaze on family, those people we can’t get away from because we’re made of the same stuff. Opposed Positions (2014) featured one of fiction’s best worst fathers, and First Love (2017) had a terrible husband and curious mum. My Phantoms reads like a novelisation of Robin Williams’s observation that if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. Narrator Bridget’s mother is no longer with her “energised bother” of a father, who’s a lot like the one in Opposed Positions, down to having the same Dad-joke about how Giuseppe Verdi just means “Joe Green!”

The exclamation mark that ends her father’s joke measures the tone of heightened anxiety that Bridget’s mother and father bring to conversations. Riley’s other technique for this is italics, which represents not just a Bernhardian intensification of everything but a Salingeresque exertion of control over the reader: you will read the book this way!

And why not, when she has clearly put so much work into every line? I picture Riley like E.I. Lonoff, the author-mentor of Roth’s The Ghost Writer:

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around.”

Riley’s sentences are turned round and round until they shine. Take Bridget on her mother’s actions around her father: “All she would have to fit herself to then was making sure he always felt so puffed up.” No obscure words, no complex structure, but the psychology and unusual phrasing gives it a weight out of proportion to its length. The blend of blankness and force is also a good measure of a book where — until late on — nothing much happens yet it remains one of the most exciting novels I’ve read in years.

The final stretch of the book is so good it’s almost showing off, with comedy and tragedy side by side

That’s one reason why I haven’t said much about the plot. In short, Bridget meets her mum once a year for her birthday, which leads to lots of pass-agg conversation: her mother wants attention but rejects it when offered. She’s a maddening figure, but Riley is as good at turning over our expectations as she is at turning sentences around. Why won’t Bridget let her mother meet her boyfriend? And in this blasted emotional landscape, the smallest gesture acquires significance, so when we hear Bridget use one of her mother’s verbal tics, and we immediately understand that escape is not possible, it feels as if the page has been torn in two.

The final stretch of the book is so good it’s almost showing off, with comedy and tragedy side by side (sometimes in the same word, as in the Victoria Woodesque “badinage”). But what of the title? Perhaps it refers simply to Bridget’s parents, simultaneously present and absent. But I first thought of nineteenth-century French dandy and aesthetic provocateur Théophile Gautier’s My Fantoms, where the word refers to specifically female spirits: seductresses, mischief-makers. On that reading, both Bridget and her mother are the phantoms, locked in alignment, haunting one another indefinitely.

Chris Power’s debut novel A Lonely Man on the surface doesn’t have much in common with My Phantoms, but both are exceptional in a particular sense: where I start many new books and long to chuck them aside and get onto the next thing, here I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Whether you agree might depend on whether you like writing about writing. I do, on the very reasonable basis that if good writing gives me pleasure, then good writing about writing must make it double pleasure, or pleasure squared.

A Lonely Man by Chris Power, Faber, £14.99

Power’s novel is about a diversion in the life of a writer who bears many resemblances to the author: bookish chap, Scandinavian wife, ex-adman, two daughters. What tipped this surrogate for me from typical to playful was that his surname — Robert Prowe — is an anagram of his creator’s: and also I bet Power, unlike Robert, has never fallen foul of the Russian oligarchy. (I mean, he’s never even written for the Independent.)

The setup is functional: our man Robert encounters a stranger over and over until he is no longer a stranger: he is Patrick, a man battered not just by life but his own brain. He claims to be a writer too (another one!), who was hired to ghost the memoirs of Sergei Vanyashin, a rich Russian who “somewhere along the way … pissed off Putin”. Vanyashin wanted the book Patrick would write to be “a blade, and I want it in Putin’s arse right up to the hilt”. Mysteriously, Vanyashin is then found hanged from a tree and, says Patrick, “I know that whoever killed him is looking for me, too.” And we’re off!

Power is also a ruthlessly good storyteller, and the final pages are subtle, complex, and perfectly unforgettable

Robert doesn’t really believe all this, but he has a nose for a story and wants to tease it out, primarily because he could do with a ready-made plot for the novel that he’s sure he has in him but which he’s been struggling to get into the open air. And so we follow Patrick’s story as it bounces around inside both the prism of his own account, and Robert’s experience of it. There’s a nice Eric Ambleresque uncertainty about whether the consequences Robert experiences of Patrick’s story are real or imagined: “No verifiable truth,” as Patrick puts it, “just rival versions of reality.”

Do we own our own stories? the book asks. Can anyone else tell them for us? Power is astute not just on the cannibalism of the writerly instinct but its selfishness — as Robert shouts at his kids when he can’t get his writing to go off with a bang — and its self-delusions, like Robert’s belief that fluency is just round the corner. (What Alan Hollinghurst called that “sense of the masterly thing it was in his power to do the next morning”.) But Power is also a ruthlessly good storyteller, and the final pages are subtle, complex, and perfectly unforgettable.

Alan Isler could have been Philip Roth’s contemporary as a great Jewish comic novelist, but he forgot to publish his first novel until the age of 60, in 1994. Still, he managed another three novels and a collection of stories before his death in 2010, and now the debut, The Prince of West End Avenue, has been reissued as a Vintage Classic — the designation an official version of that cover sticker I’ve been looking for.

The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler Vintage Classics, £8.99

It’s a funny, rangy first-person narrative by Otto Korner, 83-year-old resident of the Emma Lazarus retirement home in uptown Manhattan, populated by “the sedentary” and “the solo-ambulant”. Otto — né Körner — has had quite a life, and sees America as “a freeing place from one’s past”. The plot involves Otto trying to find out who has stolen his prized possession — a letter from Rainer Maria Rilke — and the fierce competition for key parts following the home’s decision to stage a production of Hamlet. Otto is also in mourning, still, over his long-lost love Magda Damrosch, who disappeared decades earlier, “my heart stuffed carelessly among her belongings”.

There’s a musicality to Isler’s prose that’s familiar to anyone steeped in Jewish-American literature of the twentieth century, but he’s lighter than Bellow, less self-involved than Roth, more optimistic than Malamud. There’s horror in Otto’s past — of course there is — but it’s the zing and the bounce of his story you remember. “Old as I am, I am still pedalling, zooming downhill, my heart bursting,” he tells us. “The fact is, I cannot stop, and I am afraid to jump off.”

(Oh, and that book the publicist told me not to bother with? It was longlisted for that year’s Booker Prize. As William Goldman put it, nobody knows anything.)

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