Eccentricities and obsessions

Novels that say a lot without making lots of noise

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Lorrie Moore (Faber, £16.99)

Lorrie Moore is one of those writers who seems to shift whichever way you look at her. She’s the archetypal “writer’s writer”, acclaimed by her peers and a serious shoulder-to-the-wheel artist who, we sense, never forces the work, lets it come and publishes slowly as a result. (In four decades there have been four slim novels and four even slimmer collections of stories.)

She is also a reader’s writer, with a following well beyond cult level and an absolute commitment to giving the reader a pleasure on every page. Typically this pleasure comes in the form of wit: she is a very funny writer, but — that shift again — also one whose emotional content can be so intense as to border on sentimentality, without ever quite slipping over.

As the parenthesis indicates, she has divided her publishing life equally between short and long forms, though it’s the stories for which she is remembered, the best-known being “People Like That Are the Only People Here (Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk)”, which matches the ripeness of its title in its subject matter (a baby with cancer: a perfect Moorean blend).

Even by Moore’s standards, her new novel — her first in 14 years — is eccentric, from the title on down. I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is stamped with a vision as unique as that of George Saunders (on whose own brand of silliness-meets-satire-meets-sentimentality Moore must surely have been an influence).

The bulk of the book is set in 2016, that Year Zero of American liberal nightmares (the occasional Trump-Clinton chat in the novel seems quaintly periodic now that his second coming is a more pressing concern). A man named Finn is sitting in vigil at the bedside of his terminally-ill brother Max in a New York hospice: “not in a hospital but in a hospice — the place where one dies, when all hope and hospitals are done”.

They make small talk, and Moore is good at small talk, cross-talk — all types of talk. Dialogue is how she tells her characters’ stories and addresses the world. “People talk about ‘conspiracy theories’ — Pizzagate and bullshit like that,” Finn tells Max. “Those aren’t conspiracy theories. Those are psychotic mirages.”

At one point Max asks Finn how Lily is, and Finn “cleared his throat as if it were full of notebooks and paper scraps”. Lily was his girlfriend for “a lot of years”, a professional clown with mental health issues. “Each of her meds had a generic name and a brand name, long and completely dissimilar to each other like characters in a Russian novel.” Lily for Max is in the past (“but hey that’s where everything he wanted was”), until she’s suddenly news again — Finn hears that Lily has committed suicide, and he races off to see her hasty grave.

This is where the book takes one of its many turns — with perhaps a reciprocal nod to George Saunders’s afterlife comedy Lincoln in the Bardo — as Finn turns up to Lily’s grave to find the undead Lily there waiting for him, still in her clown costume. “I guess death’s kind of a spectrum,” she shrugs. Then she solemnly informs him: “They might have found my organ donor card. I might not have a liver,” adding, “I guess I better not drink.” Finn persuades her to accompany him to a “body farm” where what’s left of her organs can be used for medical research.

So we’re off on a road trip, Finn and his zombie ex, who’s “in fine fucking fettle for a dead lady”. I haven’t mentioned yet that there’s a whole other storyline alternating with Finn and Lily’s story, set in the 19th century, where a landlady of a boarding house writes to her sister about an unusual tenant who may be Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

The two storylines ultimately converge, with plenty of Moorean vision on grief and loss along the way, like Finn’s observation that the “photos of [him and Lily] together — smiling, entwined, behatted, insouciant — were like all photos: weak lies at the time but full of truth and power later on”.

There is a more satisfying convergence in the book, between the mockery of sentiment and the enactment of it, and the final scenes — with Finn and Lily, then Finn and Max — achieve an almost symphonic sense of closure. This comes as a surprise in a book that, for so much of its length, follows a path along the lines of what Finn tells Lily he’d like to have carved on his headstone: “well, that was weird”.

August Blue, Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

Sometimes the schedule of the read-and-run critic damages our responses to a book. In particular, I am thinking of unclassifiable fiction like that of Deborah Levy, who began on the fringes 40 years ago and is now in danger of becoming a thing she would probably hate to be called: part of the literary establishment.

By that I only mean that the mainstream has moved toward her idiosyncratic vision, rather than the reverse. Reading her new novel August Blue feels like an experience out of time. There is the spirit of someone like Milan Kundera at work, which felt richer as it matured in my mind as the weeks passed after I had finished it.

The story is told by Elsa M. Anderson, a pianist in her thirties (“no lovers, no children”) who was such a child prodigy that her parents “gifted” her, at the age of six, to the great Arthur Goldstein, who took her to his music academy in Richmond. Now Elsa is peripatetic, travelling as a piano tutor from Greece to London to Paris to Sardinia, as a global pandemic descends.

The trauma that Elsa must have experienced in being uprooted from her home as a child is not addressed explicitly — except insofar as it informs her personality, and therefore her decisions, entirely. She moves from place to place. She dyes her hair blue. She becomes aware of a doppelganger who seems to appear everywhere she goes. A stranger who approaches Elsa in St Pancras station is adamant that she knows who she is, but Elsa herself is not so sure.

Of course, Arthur Goldstein, Elsa’s creator, is there, too, and Levy uses him to both propose and puncture grand statements. “He says love is more possible in the south,” Elsa tells her friend Rajesh. “He’s preposterous” comes the reply. Arthur is also a foil for Levy’s sense of absurdity and comedy.

Late in the novel, as Arthur fades with age, his self-important neighbour-cum-helper Andrew asks, “Is it time for a piss, Maestro?” “No. Please. My egg,” replies the Maestro, demanding his breakfast — and afterwards, when Elsa offers to buy him a sausage roll at the shops, Andrew demurs. “There are no sausage rolls as Maestro understands them in Sardinia.”

Reflecting on Isadora Duncan, Elsa says, “Isadora was certain that if she could tell you all about what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.” August Blue has a similar effect. It works because it combines novelty — even eccentricity — with patterning and repetition of motifs, so that what was strong and strange in the beginning begins to seem familiar and recognisable — without losing its strength — by the end.

It needs time to settle in the system. Some readers are likely to dislike it for the same reason, mistaking its avoidances for evasions, but for others it could easily become a firm, even lifelong, favourite. There’s only one way to find out which side you are on.

Western Lane, Chetna Maroo (Picador, £14.99)

If debut novels traditionally suffer from the author trying to put everything in, then Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane benefits from her leaving everything out — except what absolutely needs to be there. This is ostensibly a novel about squash, and how refreshing that fact alone is. Has anyone given the sport decent fictional treatment, aside from one scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday?

Here we are closer in spirit to Howard Jacobson’s table-tennis novel The Mighty Walzer, where the child of a minority community finds another community through sport. Eleven-year-old Gopi, living in an unnamed town near London (possibly Luton), takes up the sport at her father’s behest following her mother’s death. “I want you to become interested in something you can do your whole life.”

Gopi finds much in the single glass cell of the squash court — proximity to her training partner Ged, but also solitude. She finds a world of obsession where the whack of the ball on the court wall is hard to distinguish from the beat of her heart. She finds how to think without thinking.

That seems a good allegory for the book as a whole: it is a novel that says a lot without making lots of noise, that speaks volumes on family and grief without assuming that the reader needs everything to be spelled out. It is a fresh debut, of championship standard, from a writer who understands the power of a strong first serve.

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