Tim Parks is a writer of some very fine books indeed, which makes it even more of a shame that his most recent novel is flat, grim and (like its narrator) interesting only to itself. His main theme is adultery, a subject he explored in his wonderful novel Europa (1997), in the short story collection Talking About It (2005), and in the thoughtful essays of Adultery and Other Diversions (1998). But in recent years he has become the laureate of a certain kind of seedy, middle-aged infidelity, and In Extremis is single-minded to the point of obsession: anorak and dirty mac in one.
The problem might be that he is simply too productive. In Extremis is a loose sequel to Thomas And Mary (2016) a novel that explored the breakup of a marriage from a range of narrative perspectives. But where that book sustained your interest, and rewarded it, by playing with narrative focus and ways of exploring the fallout of adultery (though, strikingly, never from the perspective of the cheatee), In Extremis concentrates, exclusively and tediously, on the thoughts and feelings of Thomas, the unfaithful partner.
Thomas is an academic in his fifties. Divorced from his wife after years of cheating, he now lives in Spain with his girlfriend Elsa, 30 years his junior. As the novel opens he is attending a conference on ‘Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome’ (Parks has written about his own struggles with the condition in Teach Us to Sit Still (2010), his weirdly compelling book about yoga). At the conference he meets a groovy Californian doctor who talks him into undergoing anal massage therapy. It’s a setup that Parks seems to think is ripe for toilet humour, but he doesn’t manage to squeeze many laughs out of it.
During the conference Thomas finds out that his mother, a cartoonishly drawn devout Christian, is dying, and so he goes, somewhat reluctantly, to her deathbed. Thomas has a friend called David who also likes to have affairs, and David and his wife have a son named Charlie who has assaulted his father with a chair after discovering a cache of his explicit emails to Thomas. Charlie’s mother is despairing, and turns up at the hospice to ask Thomas to speak to him.
Thomas is a common-or-garden monster: a gently unlikable middle-aged man. His observations, presented as searing confessions, tend to the banal. ‘Was my aversion to the iPhone and the iPad partly to do with the fear of having internet porn constantly and alluringly available,’ he thinks, ‘so that one would always be tempted to impose pleasure on one’s body?’ As a linguist, he harrumphs at the infelicities of contemporary speech. ‘“Bathroom”, I should say, like “impact” is one of those Americanisms I resisted for years,’ he thinks, ‘determined to go on using the ugly but somehow more correct, I felt, “toilet” — for how can one speak of a bath on an aeroplane?’ But at times he is himself jarringly idiomatic: ‘What could be more intimate than a massage through the butt?’ At times he is banal to the point of parody: ‘sitting on the train from Gatwick — not the Gatwick Xpress by Southern, for my immediate destination was Clapham Junction,’ he thinks. The overall effect is of Karl Ove Knausgaard channelling Alan Partridge. By the end of In Extremis you feel that Parks is in danger of disappearing up his own passages.