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Odd characters

Cedilla picks up where Adam Mars-Jones’s previous novel Pilcrow (2008) left off.

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

Cedilla Adam Mars-Jones

Faber, pp.733, 20

Cedilla picks up where Adam Mars-Jones’s previous novel Pilcrow (2008) left off.

Cedilla picks up where Adam Mars-Jones’s previous novel Pilcrow (2008) left off. That book described the early life of John Cromer, a boy whose joints are fused by arthritis. Most of it saw him bed-bound, whether at home in Bucks, at hospital, or boarding at a school for the disabled, where, sizing up the bulges in his classmates’ trousers, he wowed his dormitory with an unrivalled ability to talk filth after dark.

The new book gets out more. Over the course of the 1960s, John has corrective surgery (painfully botched), passes his driving test, flies to India for five weeks to learn about Hinduism (two unlikely milestones teasingly flagged in Pilcrow), sits A-levels at a mainstream grammar school and gets a place at Cambridge. Family life is still vexed: a rift opens with his ever-fretful mum when she finds some mild porn while rooting round in his bag one vacation (young men in ‘socks and not a lot else’).


It seems that dozens of characters waft through these pages: a Falangist Spanish teacher, a hippyish ad exec, Michael Aspel … Sometimes you want them to stick around for longer. I could have done with more from the bolshy vegan Rebecca, one of the few characters in the book who seems a match for John’s psychic grit. (As she points out, he’s a mere vegetarian.) But Mars-Jones gives his narrative a clever alibi that manages to be emotionally persuasive while taking an axe to the trappings of realism:

I don’t shine at this sort of description. The truth is that I resent having to do it. Why should I sift through the various individuating traits — precise shade of eye colour, stature, mannerisms — to convey a vivid impression when all anyone needs to say to pick me out, apparently, is ‘John’ and then ‘You know, John in a wheelchair’.

Typographical marks are more the sort of character John likes: acutes, circumflexes, diaereses (‘coöperation’) and digraphs (‘never write hæmorrhage or cœlacanth, anæmic or fœtid without remembering to blend the vowels’). ‘My tutor’s name was Graëme Beamish,’ he tells us. ‘I think he was ill at ease with the rôle.’ It’s a neat way to personalise John’s language without recourse to tedious Dickensian verbal tics, and this reader, at least, will admit that he was tickled the first time ‘maëlstrøm’ appeared (in Pilcrow; in Cedilla John seems to like ‘mælstrøm’ better).

Laughter is never far away. A lot of unlikely comedy flows in particular from Mars-Jones’s careful thought about the nuts and bolts of his narrator’s physical engagement with the world. Sometimes this is a matter of warmly executed slapstick, as in the sick-and-piss-streaked calamity that befalls John in a pub urinal after a rowdy bunch of students rope him into a bender. Usually it’s more subtle, as when he complains of being unable to gossip (‘only a pleasure if you’ve got supple vertebrae … I can’t turn my head to deliver an aside’), or when we learn of his unwanted familiarity — because wheelchair-bound — with the underside of kitchen units.

It’s Mars-Jones’s expert control of tone that makes all this funny as well as sad. Cedilla isn’t a hymn to beating the odds — John finishes the book having to kip in his Mini, homeless and friendless, with a third-class degree — but neither is it a tale of woe. ‘I think I can say with confidence that this has been a life without short cuts,’ John tells us at one point. No kidding: after 733 pages — nearly two kilos of print — he’s only 23. Can’t wait for the next part.


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