Contemporary writing with a twist and a tug

In this month’s fiction selection, John Self discovers novels that successfully use their style to enhance rather than simply describe the story

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

I am a senior prefect of the school of thought that says a novel is not its subject matter — though at a push I’ll concede “not just”. How could it be otherwise? Our only access to a novel’s characters, ideas and subject is through the language the author chooses — four hundred decisions per page, as Martin Amis put it. Yet often the linguistic style in a work of fiction is treated, by author and reader, as just something to be fitted and flattened, like fondant icing, over the shape of the story. But the best books are built, bottom up, from their language.

Moreover, novels are sometimes received purely based on what they are about, as though a worthwhile subject matter is all that’s needed to make it a valuable literary document. One recent novel which I thought well-intentioned if clumsily written — good heart, bad head — was reviewed with high praise for its aims and no reference to how often it missed the target.

Subject as king is not new. The narrative hook, which was once central to novel marketing, is increasingly replaced with the author narrative as a way of connecting with readers. That can lead to a certain silo approach when many readers are already looking for “relatability” in their fictional characters, and the rise in the term “autofiction” helpfully makes it seem as though the thing itself is also more common. It probably isn’t: Geoff Dyer, speaking almost 15 years ago, said, “Everything I write is an inch from life. But all the art is in that inch.”

Which brings us to this month’s fiction selection, all of which to varying degrees take contemporary subjects and give them an unexpected twist or tug, and all of which — to varying degrees — successfully use their style to enhance rather than simply describe the story.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss has not been released at the time of writing, but already seems to have achieved escape velocity. When I asked on Twitter for Australian fiction suggestions, this novel had several spontaneous recommendations (only one of which was from the publisher).

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99

Such enthusiasm is not really surprising, as this is a very quotable novel, quippy and smart, though I had better say at the start that it is not really Australian, not quite: the author lives there but the characters and setting are fully English. I’m telling you this so you don’t, as I did, keep having to correct your internal reading accent every time someone in the book mentions the Goldhawk Road, Radio Times or Croydon Ikea.

The narrator is Martha, a pushing-40 food writer whose editor doesn’t understand her (“According to LinkedIn, my editor was born in 1995”), her father a poet who was once called the male Sylvia Plath (“Do we need a male Sylvia Plath?”), her mother a sculptor. Martha had a brief marriage to Jonathan, a rotten bastard straight out of central casting, who was “unmoved by my mother’s work, except on the occasions he was actively repelled by it”. Now she’s happily married to childhood sweetheart Patrick — so what’s wrong?

What’s wrong is that Martha suffers from depression — or has a “predisposition towards insanity” — or maybe something else. In fact the precise problem is an authorial decision which could go either way, and may rob the book of relatability for some, but which I think, artistically, works. Martha’s wit (and this is, to reiterate, a very funny book) is a carapace, as brittle as a beetle shell, and soon her story swings wildly in surprising directions — and not just in plot terms.

This is a very quotable novel, quippy and smart

Sorrow and Bliss asks uncomfortable questions, such as whether “victims are allowed to behave however they like”, and if, where mental suffering explains bad behaviour, those on the receiving end have to acquiesce. It also challenges the orthodoxies of parenting, or parenting writing, in several directions. “In the beginning, I told strangers I couldn’t have children [but] it is better to say you don’t want them. Then they know straight away that there is something wrong with you.”

There’s a case to be made against the ending, which is surprising only because, unlike the other developments in the book, it’s not surprising. But most of all what Mason shows is that you don’t have to like a novel’s narrator, even when they’re suffering — you just have to keep reading. And she makes that very easy for us.

If Sorrow and Bliss is bleak at times, then Natasha Brown’s Assembly has a positively nihilistic vision at its core. This is a slim, stark, effective debut from an author who studied Maths at Cambridge and worked in financial services before taking up writing. I mention this because I was interested to see what sort of novel a fellow numbers-geek might write. (OK, I didn’t study at Cambridge, but I do have three Maths A-levels.)

Assembly by Natasha Brown (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)

As it turns out, the only obvious numbers-geekery in the novel is the line “[as] obvious in retrospect as the proof of root two’s irrationality” which — well, I wouldn’t open with it. More clearly influential is Brown’s time in the City, as her book, though clearly not autobiographical, is narrated by a young Oxbridge-educated black woman (whose Britishness “could only be claimed hyphenated”) working in professional services.

The book is called Assembly partly because after a brief overture, it opens with the narrator speaking to a school assembly about how she got where she is today — socio-economically, she is a companion to Carole in Girl, Woman, Other — but mainly because, structurally, it’s a story put together through bits and pieces of experience and memory: “choice moments, flashes, summaries”.

The jury’s out on whether we need more banker novelists, but we could certainly do with more Natasha Browns

This gives it a sharpness drawn from brevity and selection, and the novel is a lesson in how to communicate much while saying little, the result somewhere between impressionist and pointillist. “Here I am, on the inside,” she reflects, referring not just to her job but her boyfriend, an old-money type whose acceptance of her allows others to do the same.

At work, she is promoted, along with a colleague. She’s affronted when someone says, “It’s so much easier for you blacks and Hispanics,” but secretly worries they’re right: “They want diversity now,” she’s told by her boss as the promotion is dangled before her. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t: “I don’t want to be a part of it,” she tells us, but what other option is there?

Ah, answering that question brings us to Assembly’s shocking conclusion, a decision by the narrator that amounts to a Great Refusal, and which the elegant prose does nothing to soften. The book’s origins lie in the author winning an award for writers from backgrounds underrepresented in publishing. Well, the jury’s out on whether we need more banker novelists, but we could certainly do with more Natasha Browns.

A recent article in the Observer suggested it was now harder in some areas for men to get fiction published than for women. I don’t know if the figures bear that out, but highly regarded short story writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh, previously published by Penguin, has his new collection Trouble out with Stinging Fly, a small Irish publisher. That is no hardship as Stinging Fly has an impeccable pedigree, and its track record remains unblemished with this book, which is the best collection of stories I have read in a year or more.

Trouble by Philip Ó Ceallaigh (Stinging Fly, £15)

Many of the stories inhabit a milieu familiar to readers of Ó Ceallaigh’s earlier collections: the solitary man (similar in age to the author), living in a city that looks a bit like Bucharest (like the author), sometimes a separated parent (ditto). Is this “an inch from life”? Well, only if the author stole a million from a gangland boss and fled the country (“Relaxing into money is an art. It takes centuries to learn”), or struggled to fix up an island inhabited by “fuck-monkeys” (“All you want is one day, beneath the sun, like a butterfly”), or shot a dog then a man from his balcony (“Maybe his mother would cry for him. Nobody born can’t make their mama cry”).

What sets Ó Ceallaigh’s work apart is his mastery of the art of the sentence

No, the story is not its subject, and what sets Ó Ceallaigh’s work apart is his mastery of the art of the sentence. I swear there is barely a flat or boring one in the book, yet it never feels forced. Which is not to say the subject is irrelevant: among other things they present a clear-eyed report of some of the ways men behave, ways that Anne Enright, while praising his first collection, described as “men’s failure to love women.”

But there is no failure here. Indeed, if Ó Ceallaigh, like one of his protagonists, does “not know how to stop making things from the junk of his experience”, then what things! The title of the collection, Trouble, runs through the stories with robust flexibility. And here’s where we see the start and the end of that “failure” Enright identified, in a line quoted by one narrator: “We want eternal love and that’s not possible,” wrote the Russian poet Lermontov. “And the other kind’s not worth the trouble.

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