Prize-winner reprises and rediscovered tales
From Young Mungo to The Candy House: three new novels to read this month
This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Last month I wrote about the risk to new writers of growing up in public. Douglas Stuart, whose first novel Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize in 2020, has found a neat way of minimising this: by the time Shuggie won, he had already written his second novel, and so the pressure of following a bestselling prize-winner — it sold half a million copies in its first six months — is, if not eradicated, at least kicked into the long grass.
When I interviewed Stuart after his Booker win, his second novel was to be called Loch Awe. Its retitling to Young Mungo may be an attempt to make it chime more familiarly for fans of Shuggie Bain. And it’s true that there are enough overlapping elements — from Glasgow housing estates, gay teenager, alcoholic mother, social conservatism, the 80s and 90s, violent men and rape — that from a distance the new novel seems not so much a companion piece as a remix. Young Shuggie. Mungo Bain.
But this is a more developed novel in both subject and style. Whereas Shuggie Bain in the first book was a bit “soft”, implied to be gay, 15-year-old Mungo Hamilton in the new novel is clearly queer to himself and others, even if it takes him a while to act on it. And if Agnes, the floridly tragic mother in Shuggie Bain, was as close to the centre of the book as Shuggie himself, here Mungo’s permanently stewed mother Mo-Maw is off to the side — not least because she’s rarely home to look after her three kids — and less sympathetic to the reader.
The plot proceeds in parallel lines: one from “the January before” and one from “the May after”. Those prepositions carry a doomy weight: before and after what? We’re about to find out, in excruciating, affecting detail. The after period shows Mungo going on a fishing trip to the lakes with a couple of men his mother met at her AA scheme: one obliterated by tattoos, the other by dependency. The reader gets a bad feeling from the moment one of them puts his arm round Mungo as they leave for the bus station; but it’s going to get much worse than even veterans of Shuggie Bain could predict.
The “before” is Mungo’s life, where the details (Lada cars, John Major, phone sex lines) tie the scene to the early 90s, while the activities surrounding him — glue-sniffing, car-torching, wife-beating — are all too timeless.
When it comes to the good stuff, the book is oddly coy on sex
Mungo’s sister Jodie does her best to bring up the family in Mo-Maw’s absence, while brother Hamish is the local “Proddie” gang leader, ever up for a scuffle with “the Fenians”. (An aside: this makes him Hamish Hamilton. Could this baddie-naming be a swipe at one of the many publishers who short-sightedly rejected Shuggie Bain? Perhaps not, as the book does not feature sidekicks called Jonathan Cape or Harper Collins.) There is sweetness to come, as Mungo finds something like love, but it will not be straightforward: the object of his affection is not only a Catholic, but another boy, James.
As if Mungo didn’t have enough stacked against him, he also suffers from facial tics, which is in line with Stuart’s taste for keeping things on the nose. (Shuggie Bain had a scene where the hero sang Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” aloud while being sucked down into a swamp.)
But this lascivious gift for feeling produces one of Stuart’s greatest strengths: his minor characters like gay neighbour Poor Wee Chickie, whose scenes with Mungo were for me the most moving in the book. And he has a fine way with imagery, from pigeons’ “heads swallowed by neck feathers” to a longed-for kiss that’s “like hot buttered toast when you’re starving”.
Stuart seems uneasy with maintaining viewpoint: we see mostly through Mungo’s eyes, but slip from time to time into secondary characters’ thoughts for no clear benefit and sometimes to the detriment of the story, like a scene from Jodie’s viewpoint where her lover is described only as “the man”, purely to enable a reveal on his identity later. (I would have liked to see more development of this storyline, too, which is abruptly curtailed midway through.)
When it comes to the good stuff, the book is oddly coy on sex — why not call a cock a cock? — particularly when you see how explicit some of the violence is, including a reading-through-fingers scene where one character tries to get another to induce a miscarriage by punching her repeatedly in the stomach.
But in a way it seems invidious to quibble about this book at the micro level. This is big, Dickensian fiction, with characters drawn broadly and where feeling is never far from the surface. Stuart writes with sincerity, which gives the book an integrity that’s rare in the irony-laden world of literary fiction, and the occasional implausibilities, like how the fishing trip finishes, are soon forgotten when the ending comes — as neat, messy and satisfying as we could wish, which makes it another progression from his debut. There are greater things still to come from Stuart.
Also making a comeback this month is Jennifer Egan, whose new novel The Candy House is a sequel to her barnstorming breakthrough 2011 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. That book made waves with its structural novelty — was it a collection of stories or a novel? — and its mutating forms, which included one chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation.
After a hiatus into straight storytelling (Manhattan Beach, 2017), Egan-the-restless is back again with a book that takes most of Goon Squad’s characters into the future, themed this time around technology rather than music. That in itself tells you what sort of book this is: the sort that, by engaging with the world outside our window as energetically as possible, has designs on being a New Great American Novel. (The opening of the final chapter even seems to nod toward an Old GAN, Don DeLillo’s Underworld.)
This is such a busy book that it’s impossible to summarise it adequately, but at the centre is Bix Bouton, an entrepreneur who has devised Own Your Consciousness, a gizmo that allows people to upload their memories and view other people’s: in other words, like most social media, it’s a stalker’s charter. The novel’s title refers to that other social media saw: if the product appears to be free, you’re the product. “Nothing is free! Never trust a candy house!”
It’s impossible not to be impressed by Egan’s virtuosity as she spins her plates, but it’s also hard not to be exhausted by it, not least by the style which involves a lot of backstory — filling in the gaps since Goon Squad — and relatively little narrative of the here and now.
When she does slow down, as in a long chapter recording numerous parallel email conversations, it’s much more satisfying. After zipping as far forward as the 2030s, the book ends in 1991, when (self-evidently) “a lot of things that are about to happen haven’t happened yet”, and the air is evocative of a time that, if only in retrospect, seems a lot less maddening than today.
All sad stories should be this much fun to read
From the fake past to the real past. Here in The Critic’s fiction pages we always welcome new entrants in the rediscovery business, and none is more impressive than McNally Editions, which launches its list with a handsome reissue of Han Suyin’s 1962 novel Winter Love. This intense, atmospheric novel set in wartime London — all silvery sheen and cigarette smoke — rivals Alfred Hayes for the clipped gloom it brings to the subject of mankind’s greatest trial: love.
Our narrator, Bettina — known as Red for her fiery hair — is one of the “smart girls” at Horsham science college (the opening pages show some exquisite power play between female friends) who takes a fancy to new student Mara. Her interest is as pure as can be: she loves Mara for her beauty, and is quickly consumed by her obsession. But Mara is married and sees Red just as a friend — to begin with.
The reverses and switchbacks are too rich to spoil here, but Winter Love blends erotic passion with chilly nihilism, all the more doomy because Red is narrating her story as a memory, and although we know there is no happy-ever-after for her and Mara, we don’t know why. The wartime setting applies an extra layer of grime to the romance, as buzz-bombs fall so that “[we] could not stop [kissing] though there was dust between our lips”.
There is a focus throughout on identity and essence, on “why I am as I am”, as Red puts it. “How few of us really try to find out what we’re like, really, inside?” For Mara, more bluntly, “I suppose we are what are called lesbians.” This being a mid-20th century novel, of course, there can be no consummation of such love without corresponding social death, and the final outcome delivers satisfaction to its readers through bold eradication of hope for its characters. Not incidentally, this new edition of Winter Love, with its fine binding, good weight in the hand and exceptional design, is a delightful book-handling experience. All sad stories should be this much fun to read.
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