Authors Barbara Kingsolver, John Irving and Percival Everett

Swansongs and southern discomfort

Three new novels plough the furrow between popular and literary fiction

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

The borderland between popular fiction and literary fiction is now fertile territory. Once upon a time it was easy to tell them apart. Popular and genre fiction were in small format paperbacks, literary fiction larger: now all have been promoted to the once-prestigious size. Growing up, my local bookshop chain made it clear where its tastes lay by having a section headed “discerning novels” (with the unintended suggestion that the books may reject certain purchasers they deemed unfit).

Now everything is literature, or so it’s claimed. Thinkpieces asking why-oh-why popular fiction rarely makes the prize podium are as common as ones on wild swimming. Writers of limited talent who work firmly within their genre are reviewed with as much reverence as a Nobel laureate. 

For some it’s not enough to elevate minor work without also performing the reverse operation: one senior book retailer said Anne Enright’s brilliant novel The Forgotten Waltz was no different from “the many volumes of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ that you see on sale in supermarkets and train stations”, mistaking subject (relationships) for literary qualities.

The Last ChairliftJohn Irving (Scribner, £25)

John Irving has long ploughed the furrow between popular and literary fiction. His 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first “grown-up” book I read. It remains a benchmark for how a novel can be both eccentric and crowd-pleasing; utterly uncompromising in its vision, but reader-friendly.

If Owen Meany was the peak of a steeply ascending curve (its immediate predecessors The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp are all worthwhile), the drop thereafter has been vertiginous. His books have always been chunky — Owen Meany’s 600 pages felt satisfyingly epic — yet here we are with Irving’s fifteenth novel, The Last Chairlift, which is half as long again at a whopping 900 pages. That number is an upfront warning: here is an author who has been indulged at every turn.

The Last Chairlift is the very loose story of our narrator Adam Brewster’s life: Adam, like Irving, is a wrestler-turned-writer who grew up in Exeter, New Hampshire. Irving has always recycled his motifs — wrestling, bears, prostitutes and Vienna peppered the early work — and when reading this novel the faithful reader is perpetually reminded of other parts of the oeuvre. We have mutism (Garp), a childhood home in Front Street (Meany), tomboys (Cider House, Meany), a story within a story (Garp, A Widow for One Year), exceptionally small men (pretty much all the books) and on and on.

The details may differ but it’s all familiar, except this time the execution is baggier than ever, the quirky group dialogue flat — my whole being cringed at a scene where someone has to be told Moby-Dick is not pornography: “not a whale of a dick, a real whale” — and the moments of drama increasingly garish. (At one point a lightning flash both kills Adam’s senile nappy-wearing grandfather and lights up the scene of Adam’s mother in flagrante delicto with her female lover.) 

There are moments of goodness, but they are only moments

Throughout there is the longtime Irving interest in what the book called “sexual outliers” (he had a transsexual character in his books as long ago as 1978’s Garp), to the point that when someone says to Adam, “Your mother has balls, big ones,” we wonder for a moment if it’s literally true. 

Of course there is new stuff here too — skiing, cinema, ghosts — but the overall effect, I’m afraid, is of a beloved singer on their farewell tour, gamely belting out the hits but no longer in fine voice. And it’s all so long! Luckily for the patient reader, late in the book about 200 pages are given over to Adam’s screenplays, which are speedy to read. In places they epitomise Irving’s celebration of difference and obsession with sex: “monika: Sit in my wheelchair, Doug — I’ll suck you off.”

There are moments of goodness, but they are only moments. Adam tells us: “Outliers like going to the movies — we can see in the dark. Outliers are looking for other outliers. If you seen an outlier on the screen, it’s exciting. If you can’t find one in the film, it’s exciting in another way. When you leave the theatre, you’re even more of an outlier than you knew.”

More of that, and less of everything else, would have been welcome. The Last Chairlift has of course a hint of elegy in the title, and Irving has said this will be his last long book. Oh, John — I’ve loved you for so long and I owe you so much, so forgive me — but I’m glad.

Irving’s key literary hero is the great grandaddy of popular-literary fiction: Charles Dickens. Or not quite — Dickens was popular, then was accepted into the canon through longevity and brilliance. I say brilliance advisedly, because although you can clearly see why he’s so well-loved, Dickens’s combination of comedy, big characters, passion and sentimentalism has never done much for me. (Curious, I know, that Irving’s brand has.)

Demon CopperheadBarbara Kingsolver (Faber, £20)

Dickens’s shadow is long, and the latest writer to be explicitly influenced by him is Barbara Kingsolver, the American A-lister whose new novel Demon Copperhead chimes with David Copperfield in title and theme. Like David, Demon — real name Damon — is an orphan whose life has its deck stacked unevenly from the start. It’s 1990s southern US, and Demon is of Melungeon ethnicity (“dark skin and light green eyes”) with red hair. 

He’s “born to wish for more than he can have”, but what he has isn’t much anyway: his mother is in an abusive relationship with a central casting bully, then she overdoses and dies. Demon is off to a series of foster families of varying quality (he ends up involved in tobacco farming and meth labs) and a confederacy of nicknames — Maggot, Fast Forward, Swap-Out. He gets a lucky break — or makes the break himself — when he finds his grandmother.

Despite the assurance by his girlfriend that “life is a wild, impetuous ride. There could be good shit up ahead”, the final story of Demon’s life is opioid addiction. Painkiller OxyContin, the drug indelibly associated with that epidemic, is in the late 90s “a shiny new thing … God’s gift for the laid-off deep-hole man with his back and neck bones grinding like bags of gravel”. After things start to look up for Demon, a sports injury leads him to dependence on Oxy.

This is an angry book, outraged over the way “hicks, rednecks … hillbilly, trailer trash” are “the dog of America”, the only people it’s still OK to hate. It’s angry about teachers and social workers needing to take a second job to make ends meet, and saddened about how — in a rare metafictional moment that throws us out of the story — Charles Dickens might have been from “around here”, so well did he “get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass”.

Demon Copperhead is a big novel, full of life but much of it ugly — yet Demon’s voice gives it light and colour. It uses the old technique of a personal story to tug the heartstrings on a social issue in the way a book like Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain might not. Above all, it’s an indictment of the fact that in modern America, “the wonder is that you could start life with nothing, end with nothing, and lose so much in between”.

The TreesPercival Everett (Influx Press, £9.99)

Percival Everett’s The Trees — shortlisted for the Booker Prize — is a different kind of literary-genre hybrid. It adopts the form of a crime novel, but at heart is the blackest of comedies about race in America. In Mississippi, a white man is found dead next to the body of a black man — who is holding the white man’s severed testicles in his hand. “His balls ain’t on him!”

Then it happens again, and again, and again. Mysterious enough, but what makes it worse is that the dead black man — who seems to be the same one each time — keeps disappearing from the morgue. “Someone said there was a Black wizard or ghost running loose around town is the conclusion, and soon people believe the killings are revenge for the (real) murder of Emmett Till, a black boy who was lynched in 1955 for supposedly making suggestive comments to a local white woman.

Pursuing the mystery are state detectives who are treated with suspicion by locals, not just because of their skin colour. The driver here is both plot and jokes, with absurdism, silly names (Cad Fondle, Hickory Spit, Helvetica Quip — an Englishwoman, of course) and snappy dialogue. “What’s your dog’s name?” “Oh, he ain’t got no name.” “Why’s that?” “I don’t like names.” “How do you call it?” “Call it?”

The Trees is enormous fun, and valuable for its insistence that horrible things are not trivialised by being included in a comic narrative. It is not perfect: characterisation is slight, the investigation over-stretched, and the riffing that Everett does so well sometimes feels like he’s making the whole thing up as he goes along. Nonetheless Everett deserves the attention the Booker has given him, and his most apt insight comes right in the middle of the book. “History,” observes one character, “is a motherfucker.”

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