||[Jul. 25th, 2018|06:13 pm]
In Saturday's Guardian, Tessa Hadley opens her review of a short story collection by AM Homes by dismissing the fallacy that you have to like characters to enjoy reading about them. On the contrary, she says, "Fiction needs some meanness in its mix; even in the most wholehearted writing, a grain of it can ward off fatuousness."
I had just finished reading Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, purchased in a charity shop in Tain because it was only 50p, it was raining heavily and I wanted to buy something, and because despite all the praise and the literary prizes, I had never read anything by Hilary Mantel. Her great Tudor novels don't attract me, but I recalled being intrigued by the reviews of this account of the working life of a medium.
Beyond that, I didn't know what to expect: and since this is a literary novel, not a piece of genre fiction, I was quite surprised to discover - gradually, but I don't think this is giving anything away - that Alison, the medium, really was transmitting messages from the dead. There was some lovely writing going on here - and I don't just mean the descriptions, though there are some splendid poetic descriptions, beautiful or repellent or both at once:
Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin's scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o' clock light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potters Bar.
That's the opening of the book, and it's all there in that paragraph: the vivid but rather sinister visual description, the suggestion that nothing good can be expected from Enfield or Potters Bar. I should have been warned by all the endorsements ("As black as a tar barrel and very, very funny" - The Times) because as we know, I am not good at humour - but as we also know, I don't read cover copy, so the warning was not received.
I did, in fact, like the central character very much - or perhaps, I enjoyed reading about her: Alison onstage, creating her illusion, working her audience, aware that she is creating an illusion, that the messages she transmits create a false impression of what she receives. If this were a genre novel - as in a sense it is - I would call this 'worldbuilding'. There is a world after death, beyond black. Not all those who claim to be in touch with it really are: Mantel comes close to having her cake and eating it in her depictions of her 'psychic' characters, and if - as I was - you are reading this wondering whether it will turn out that everyone is a fraud, this may delay your decision that Alison does see and hear what the passages written from her point of view depict her as seeing and hearing (is this a spoiler? since that uncertainty reduced my enjoyment of the book, and my decision to trust the narrative in this respect increased it, I regard it as the opposite of a spoiler. Your mileage may vary.) I sympathised with Alison, I wanted things to turn out well for her, I accepted the hints that she has dark secrets with a sense that this was only to be expected, and if the slightly twisty ending made me think of Fay Weldon (whom I have also not read), I could live with that.
But if Alison is not herself mean, she walks down some mean streets. I'm with Tessa Hadley on the value of a pinch of meanness, a squeeze of lemon to sharpen the mix. As it happens, I have also just read (an advance copy of) Ann Cleeves's Wild Fire, so she was in my mind. Ann tends to be classified among the writers of 'cozy crime', a category that tends to be spoken of dismissively, though like every other genre and sub-genre it contains both good and less good; is it coincidental that it's a description applied predominately to women authors? (This is a diversion: file it for another time.) But how cosy, how snug and comfortable are her books? Some authors enjoy reading their work aloud; Ann isn't one of them, which is a pity, because something in her tone when she reads expresses a coolness, a critical appraisal of the point of view she is voicing: once you have heard it, you start to see it for yourself. It's part of the crime writer's stock in trade, I suppose, to make the reader feel that any of the characters could, in the right conditions, have committed the murder. The books aren't mean, but there is something beady-eyed about them.
Beyond Black, though, is mean. Its depiction of men is horrific: one particular group of men, in particular, and they are dead throughout most of the book, but there is no countervailing positive portrait - maybe one minor figure, who appears late in the book. The world they inhabit is meanly depicted: the roadhouse venue of a psychic fair, the aspirational housing development where all the houses are named after admirals, the modern world is mercilessly skewered. It's satirical, it's funny, but it's mean.
So here's a book by a very respected author, which I found very readable but did not like. And after this inconsequential ramble, I feel I've established why.
This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.