Thursday, April 20, 2023

Atheism of the novel

"Here it comes: the information dumping..."

From section 237, page 185 of Ellis Sharp's latest novel, the part that is commentary on his attempt to write a commercially successful novel emulating "the style that The Guardian liked and promoted":

The narrator is a young woman, a publicist for a London publishing house. Her name is Jane Tain. She is trying to solve the mystery of her father's death. In the course of achieving her goal she falls in love and finds happiness which had eluded her father. The story ends on an uplifting note. The writer imagined seeing it in paperback, with a bright cheerful cover and a multiplicity of praise from the reviewers of the corporate press. [...] The novel was called The Professor's Wife.

And this is the novel we read when not interrupted by the writer's contempt for the "dull, attention seeking prose", for the back stories and the layers of characterisation he has written, for what he feels is the dishonesty of the whole enterprise. He picks up another novel, Peter Handke's The Afternoon of a Writer, which he'd seen recommended online, and discovers this is the kind of prose he wishes to read: "It has honesty." But rather than destroy The Professor's Wife completely, he disfigures its sentences. 

The car drove past and [deleted].
My heart beat wildly at what I'd just witnessed. Was this [deleted].

Curiously, in spite the writer's vandalism, we follow Jane Tain's quest with interest, relishing along the way her caricatures of the contemporary literary scene: the zombie series author pandering to an audience of "fifteen-year-olds with spots", the literary enfant terrible "McCartney" who combines "experimental physics and Joyce's modernism" and the columnist Bryony Flappe whose fans are "either ardent young fogeys in tweeds, with a penchant for luminous yellow ties, or elderly, angry men with florid cheeks and check shirts". The missing words not only fail to get in the way but somehow enhance our anticipation of a revelation, thus reviving the drowned dog of the title. As Jane points out when a friend fails to notice a discrepancy in the evidence of her father's final journey: "It's the dog," I said. "The dog that didn't bark in the night, or however it goes. Look at what isn't there." 

Does this mean that, despite the writer's contempt for his efforts and horror at what gets celebrated around the country, even the most cynical, button-pressing novel partakes of something that always isn't there? We might see this as the persistence of the life of the novel despite the insistent herald of its death, much as the assertion of the death of God is the persistence of religious energies in an otherwise entirely secular culture. 

What isn't there in The Professor's Wife is Jane's father, which enables her to discover the truth of his life. The father's death is the tain of her story, necessary for her presence just as the dark backing of a mirror is necessary for our presence before it, albeit in the inevitable dishonesty of a reversed image.  

Month of a Drowned Dog ends with the birth of the writer's daughter, an uplifting note apparently apart from The Professor's Wife, apparently resisting the darkness of the tain. She reaches out to hold the writer's little finger: "The grip is surprisingly strong" he says, leaving readers unsure whether this loosens or strengthens the grip of what isn't there.


In 2015, I wrote about Ellis Sharp's novel Lamees Najim, which in this case begins with the birth of a baby.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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