Small, but perfectly formed
John Self examines three varied, emotionally satisfying novels that together come in at less than the length of a single Mantel
This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
When I was coming of literary age in the 1990s, I stuffed myself with the back catalogue of the prominent writers from Penguin’s Twentieth Century Classics series: Greene, Woolf, Waugh, Nabokov. In those happy days, the world was young and everyone knew that a novel was 224 pages long. Where did it all go wrong? What mania of page-fill and word-bloat seized the minds of our novelists so that last year, the average length of each title on the Booker Prize shortlist was 530 pages?
But every age has its heroes, and luckily there are writers who have resisted the empty thrills of logorrhoea and can tell a story, pull the reader inside out and put the tin hat on it in under 250 pages.
Sarah Moss is one of them. Her last novel Ghost Wall was a slip of a thing but — in common with her earlier books — was received critically with a blend of joy and envy, and — in common with her earlier books — was short- listed and longlisted here, there and everywhere without finally snatching a prize. Her time is long overdue. In an interview to promote Ghost Wall, Moss said she was working on “a mad little rainy thing” — and here it is.
Summerwater is set in the middle of a disappointing summer (a timeless concept): a handful of families are staying in a row of holiday cabins in Scotland while the rain beats down unceasingly, and we drop in on their stories one by one. Given that we spend no more than 20 pages in each person’s head, we get to know them pretty well.
Take Justine, a mum in her forties who slips out of the cabin before anyone else is awake, to go running: her husband thinks she’s addicted to it and is probably right, because it frees her from the daily drudge and the Mumsnettery of modern parenthood (“making memories and making sure to photograph them in case they turn out not to be memorable after all”).
Or Mary and David, a retired couple whose drive to a café is a full-on adventure in the face of Mary’s dementia. (I hardly need to state their ages, as in Summerwater the names carbon-date the characters almost to the month of birth.) Or Milly and Josh, the thirtyish (see what I mean?) couple where she fantasises about Don Draper from Mad Men while he, with puppyish enthusiasm and terrier-like tenacity, tries to make her come.
One cabin we don’t see inside is occupied by a Ukrainian family, who are neighbours from hell, disturbing everyone else with loud parties through the night. It’s a bold choice by Moss not to let the reader into their lives, to make us see them as “others” just as most of the holidayers do. However this also gives us the only part where we sense the author’s thumb on the scales, when a young girl, Lola, lashes out at the Ukrainians’ daughter in a way it would be unfair to reveal.
But overall the internal monologues are expertly done: full of realistic digressions without impeding the flow of each character’s story, and full of wit as well as a beady intelligence that feels like humour even when it’s not being funny. There are nice details like the youngest and oldest characters having the shortest chapters, as their inner voice is either not yet developed or beginning to fade away. And there is a plot too, with teases dropped in our path — a man in a tent, a girl on a swing—but the final conclusion arrives entirely unexpected, and has a stark, visual memorability.
Colson Whitehead had been slowly building a reputation as a satirist of aspects of American society for years before he went stratospheric with his last novel The Underground Railroad, the sort of literary phenomenon where you don’t read the rave reviews; you weigh them.
His new book, now out in paperback, is The Nickel Boys, and has made him the only author to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for two consecutive books. (Richard Ford, a subject of this column in June, became notorious for spitting on Whitehead after the latter gave him a bad review. But for Whitehead, writing well was the best revenge, and he now has two Pulitzers to Ford’s one.)
After the expansive ambition of The Under-ground Railroad, The Nickel Boys feels smaller, simpler: like a coda, almost. You can imagine it as a play: two or three locations, a core cast of characters. We can tell from the first pages that it would be a tragedy: it opens with the discovery of a secret burial ground at the former Nickel Academy in Florida, a segregated reform school for juvenile delinquents in the 1960s. This is a smart move on Whitehead’s part: freed from the need to keep secret what happened at Nickel, he can focus instead on how to hammer the story into the reader’s heart. That is done by inverting Kurt Tucholsky’s maxim — if a million deaths is a statistic, then one is a tragedy — and focusing on a single character.
That character is Elwood Curtis, an angelic black boy who suffers a chain of events — encyclopaedias, bullying, bicycle, hitchhiking — that drop him into the clutches of Nickel’s demonic masters. The unflappable tone keeps the story grounded and plausible and makes it all the more powerful when Elwood — and we — wind up in the White Room, where misdemeanours are beaten out of the boys with a leather strap which, Whitehead tells us with masterful understatement, “had to be repaired or replaced every so often”.
Elwood ends up in Nickel’s hospital wing, which exists primarily to deal with the injuries inflicted in the White Room. You could call that Kafkaesque comedy, just as you could call it dramatic irony when the reader hears Elwood’s plans for life after Nickel, but only if you were desperate for something to smile about.
The Nickel Boys succeeds emotionally because the clear writing, and Whitehead’s pursuit of Elwood’s story with minimal diversion or subplots, means there’s nowhere to hide; it’s hard to read because it’s so easy to read. Look at the economy of phrasing: when a character’s father has a heart attack, all we get is “his hand a claw on the bedsheets, mouth wide, eyes wide” — but it’s all we need. The urge the boys have to escape Nickel comes from the desire “to write one’s own story for once”. But having Colson Whitehead write their stories will do, for now.
Richard Francis is not widely read these days, an assertion I make with confidence as 100 per cent of my sample (me) had never read him before his new novel. But he’s always been here: in 1995 Booker judge Adam Mars-Jones, no pushover, said he wanted Francis’s novel Taking Apart the Poco Poco to win. (His fellow judges didn’t agree.) In 2010 Booker judge Tom Sutcliffe praised Francis’s “excellent” pub novel The Old Spring, but it wasn’t longlisted.
Francis is now on his twelfth novel and it’s hard to see, short of abbreviating his name to Dick and going for subterfuge sales, how he can get a wider readership. But he should.
Laura Laura is a slightly old-fashioned novel, about a man in late middle age working out what his life has really been about, but it’s delivered with such imagination and chutzpah that it feels freshly minted. Gerald, an academic, is accosted by a young woman who wants someone else to see her jump off a bridge to her death, but after trying to dissuade her, he loses sight of her.
He finds himself poring over his own past and his wife’s too, and the crisis it creates is made worse by his learning from a colleague about quantum theory, where every life decision not made spins off into a series of alternate universes. “Everything that can happen, does.”
Add to this a pottery instructor who loses a hand, a putative affair with his sister-in-law, and a woman who drops dead in front of Gerald in a pub, and it’s little wonder that he feels that “sitting here, I’ve lost my bearings.”
The pleasure of Laura Laura is in its robust — even fun — approach to serious stuff. It’s playful too, in the way it upturns certain traditions of literary fiction, like the professor who has an affair with a student. Francis’s backlist is wildly varied — science fiction, family stories, politics — and I can tell with a sense of anticipatory pleasure, and a glance at my watch, that I’m going to have to read some of them at last.
So there you have it: three satisfying novels that in total come in at less than the length of one Mantel. Here’s what I propose: an ad in the colour supplements reversing the Charles Atlas beach-bully ads of the 1940s, where the 97-pound weakling got sand kicked in his face. The ad shows a selection of slim but not weedy novels like those above, laughing at the doorstops that can’t fit through your letterbox.
AUTHORS, the wording goes, IT CAN BE DONE!
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