Tales of helping and helplessness

This selection of new fiction is marked by both novelty and tradition

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

If there is nothing new under the sun, at least the shadow may be cast differently as time goes on. We begin our new year — featuring books that follow but also subvert literary traditions — not so much by looking back as by filling in a gap. 

On one reading, 2021 was such a good year for fiction that it was too short for all its books, and some had to spill over. On another, a publisher releasing a new work of fiction in November creates a hostage to fortune, with insufficient time to build up momentum before it is crushed under the wheels of Richard Osman’s pitiless juggernaut.

The gap we are filling in is small but big, in the form of an arguably perfect short novel which — to place a literary-critical bent on Kenneth Williams’s words when diarising a new piece of furniture — exactly fills a recess I have got. Irish writer Claire Keegan, who first published in 1999, doesn’t release fiction very often: before now, we’ve had two collections of stories and one novella, the last of which was twelve years ago.

An issue, especially an important one, does not make a book

Keegan insists that her new book, Small Things Like These, is a novel and not a novella (though its brevity, circa 20,000 words, makes it ineligible for the word-counters at the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and that seems right. It has an amplitude, scope and range that marks it out for the big time; and the fact that much of this range is hidden, not written on the page, is just one of its special tricks.

Aside from anything else, Small Things Like These brings to the fore the question of what a novel is about. On the face of it, this is easy to determine: it opens with a dedication “to the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes” and comes with an afterword about the suffering of the women incarcerated in these homes and the Magdalen laundries (“Some lost their lives. Some or most lost the lives they could have had”).

But an issue, especially an important one, does not make a book (it can indeed undo a book). That is why Keegan is equally insistent that Small Things Like These is not “about” the Magdalen laundries. “It’s about a man.”

She is right again, or almost. Small Things Like These is about a good man, the sort that is hard to write about, hard to make interesting. The man is Bill Furlong, living in rural Ireland in 1985 with his wife and five daughters, making a living from his fuel business. 

He has, we’re told, “come from nothing”: his mother had “fallen pregnant” at 16 (the book adopts the time’s own clichés of judgement) but was taken in by her Protestant employer, Mrs Wilson, in the locality’s “big house”. Then his mother died when Furlong was 12, but Mrs Wilson kept him on, in doing so helping him “believe he mattered as much as any other child”.

Having been the recipient of kindness in childhood, he is now inclined to grant it to others, unlike his less succumbing wife. “Maybe the man’s not able,” he suggests in one bedtime exchange when they discuss “small things like these,” to which she counters, dismissively, “Always there’s one that has to pull the short straw.” 

But his is a life of doing, not pondering: “What would life be like if they had time to think and reflect over things?” And this comes to a point when Furlong, delivering to the convent, is begged by some of the girls working in the laundry there to assist them in escaping: “Mister, won’t you help us?”

That sets up a handy tension, but this isn’t a sentimental book. It’s a quiet one, in the wake of John McGahern or Colm Tóibín, populated by the awareness that “if you want to get on in life, there’s some things you have to ignore, so you can keep on”. Keegan keeps the mood tight with a nice balance of internal reflection and external action, never going too far in either direction. 

Her confidence — the confidence of a writer who breaks an 11-year silence with a 110-page book — even allows her to reference Joyce’s “The Dead” (“snow coming down timidly, dropping from the sky on all that was there”) without coming a cropper.

The conflicting impulses in Furlong — one of the subtlest but most memorable of recent characters in fiction — are exemplified in two of his thoughts. The first — he “could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for” — was addressed by Philip Larkin 70 years ago: “Ah, solving that question / Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields.” The second speaks for itself: “Was there any point in being alive without helping each other?” Well?

Herbert Clyde Lewis’s Gentleman Overboard is not, as the title and even author name suggest, a modern pastiche of Golden Age detective fiction, but the first new edition of a gem dropped in the sea and abandoned since its original publication in 1937.

It’s a book that doesn’t so much fit into a tradition as help to create a couple of them. The first is the literary survival novel, where it sits somewhere between Barry England’s Figures in a Landscape (external action, the strain of continuing to live moment by moment) and William Golding’s Pincher Martin (a more metaphysical approach, focusing less on where the survivor is going than how he got here) — and it predates both by decades.

The other tradition is the novel of middle class despair that peaked in the mid-to-late twentieth century, kicked off by Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (which celebrates its centenary this year) and continued with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Revolutionary Road and even Heller’s masterpiece of misanthropy, Something Happened.

Our survivor is Henry Standish, an American businessman who “had the best of everything without realising it was the best”. As the novel opens, he is on deck on the cruise ship Arabella, where he slips on a spot of grease and is immediately delivered into the waiting ocean. 

And as we, in alternating chapters, go forward and back in his life, we discover that the title is a pun. Despite his enviable life, Standish had lately been “assailed by a vague unrest”, and took the cruise as an escape from descending ennui. And so it is his act of self-saving which leads to his downfall.

The tone, accordingly, slips between irony and sincerity, as the author efficiently pulls the strings on all available devices: Standish’s expectation that all will be well in his life as it had been until recently; jump-cuts to the other passengers on the ship as they make their own conclusions about his disappearance; and the symbolism of Standish in the water shedding his clothes to better remain buoyant.

Saying more than that would of course ruin the surprises, but one revealable detail is that the author, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants and a screenwriter as well as a novelist, was a man overboard himself. He was blacklisted as a suspected Communist in 1950, and died alone, in a hotel room in New York, at the age of 41.

Sara Freeman’s debut novel Tides might have been called Woman Overboard, and the literary traditions it pursues are so new they barely justify the term. First is the novel of the unnamed narrator following a plot that is dictated internally as much as externally. Second is the novel of short sections, paragraphs separated, one or two to a page rather than running together consecutively.

Other writers who have popularised this approach — Jenny Offill, Patricia Lockwood, Sarah Manguso — are typically mimicking the staccato isolation, the ongoing moment, of social media posts. With Freeman the intention is more to reflect that her central character, 30-something Mara, has seen her identity become so dissolved that her present has no connective tissue in it — until she begins to “feel it, the past, grabbing, pulling”. It is, if nothing else, interesting to see a style become more and more embedded as a standard for contemporary fiction.

In style as well as subject matter, literature just goes round and round and round

When we join Mara, she has just walked out on her husband and is heading for a new existence by the sea; and the torpor of an out-of-season holiday town that they forgot to close down has the perfect ambience for her story. Mara drifts here and there, shifts from job to job, acts more by default than by intent — “this”, she tells herself, “is not about that” — and is incapable of making decisions except in the negative: to leave, to go, to abandon.

This, of course, turns out to be precisely about that, including her own abandonment (“You could have tried harder to get your father to stay,” she recalls her mother telling her in childhood), and while backstory psychology is often the last refuge of the uninspired, here it’s done with plausibility and complexity. 

Not the least interesting element is Freeman’s use of repetition compulsion as a device; that is, a traumatised person’s need to obsessively reenact a defining event. I last saw it used as effectively as this in Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder, which reminds us that in style as well as subject matter, literature just goes round and round and round.

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