Patrick Oxtoby is 23 when his fiancée tells him she can’t marry him. He leaves home for a boarding house by the sea. He fantasises a bit about breaking his fiancée’s spine, but focuses on the people he meets in his new town. Shaun Flindall and Ian Welkin, the other two men in the boarding house, make him feel left out by talking about London, and by being carefree and confident. He gets drunk as an anaesthetic, but is not very good at it. He flirts with a waitress, but she is kind rather than impressed. His mother comes to visit and he is crueller to her than he meant to be. As Patrick’s social failures mount, his frustration reveals itself in increasingly mad ways until he takes a disproportionate revenge.
M. J. Hyland won the Encore and the Hawthornden Awards and was shortlisted for the Booker prize for her second novel Carry Me Down. In it, she used a similarly damaged narrator, but in This Is How she has stripped away the relationships that Carry Me Down explores and put her unstable protagonist in a world without anyone he knows. It’s a frightening idea, and with no one biased in his favour and no one to notice signs of distress, Oxtoby’s deterioration is rapid.
He longs for even the touch of the waitress he likes or his landlady, but nothing comes naturally; when he catches the eye of the waitress, he has to go through the thought process: ‘she’s showing me that she likes me.’ Every conversation he has is strained and Hyland’s well pitched dialogue cranks up the tension mercilessly.
Oxtoby’s prosaic tone is unsettling (unfortunately the book is in the first person present). The aesthetic of the book is desolation, and horrible things are described flatly, but Hyland seems to have taken the desolation a little too far by extending it even to the structure of the plot.
First-person tragedies tend to progress towards disaster or epiphany, or, like some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books, layer after layer of trauma is gradually revealed by a retrospective narrator. But Oxtoby’s downfall happens a third of the way through the book and the aftermath does not head towards much of an epiphany.
This Is How would be fascinating if it were a non-fiction account by a notorious criminal, mainly because Oxtoby’s thoughts in the second half of the book are remarkable only for their banality — self-pity rather than guilt dominates. But it is fiction and Hyland has defied the common decencies of fiction writing. Her rigorous realism is commendable, but it’s just not quite enough.
In Carry Me Down, the lead character was John, a 12-year-old boy whose parents find him increasingly creepy. And he is creepy, but John’s youth and the circumstances of his life give him enough appeal to arouse empathy with the reader. Only now and then does Oxtoby prompt the same disquieting mixture of compassion and repulsion. He is just a man with a surprisingly boring personality disorder.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 4, 2009