Philip Hensher

Cheerful meanderings: Caret, by Adam Mars-Jones, reviewed

Now established in Cambridge, John Cromer embarks on a whirlwind of small adventures, testing our patience, if not our sympathy, with his extensive digressions

Adam Mars-Jones.

The novelistic tube or nozzle through which experience is squeezed in order to be bletted on the page in words, and in turn create the illusion of experience in the reader, is a slender one. Novelists have often perversely focused on the narrowest of lives. Xavier de Maistre wrote an entire travelogue in the 1790s about 42 days spent in his room, while Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s debut novel in 1985 was about a character refusing to leave his bathroom. 

Should undertakers ever have suntans? And when does ‘mummy’ become ‘mum’ as a form of address?

These spectacular exercises in technique present a parallel to what has always been the case, the existence that contains, as it were, few plot options. Many of the great 19th-century novels are about the way their narratives have to fall into ruts, because the lives they chronicle have so few real choices. Often these are about women, perhaps none more powerful than Margaret Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, about a supremely intelligent, able woman unable to take possession of the plot she deserves. 

For some reason these stories of limited lives are rarely about the actually physically restricted. Over the past 15 years, Adam Mars-Jones has been writing a series of colossal novels, of which Caret is the third, about precisely that. They are some of the oddest and most technically entrancing novels to be published this century. 

The narrator is John Cromer, born after the second world war in an English suburban setting. The two earlier books, Pilcrow and Cedilla, cover his childhood and young adulthood, including a realisation of his homosexuality, the development of a severe disability and his dependence on a wheelchair, the transformation worked by Indian religion and an immense bust-up with his parents. This is brought about by the discovery of a gay porn mag entitled Jeremy which, insultingly, in Proust’s phrase, ne lui plaisait pas et n’était pas son genre.

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