How do you describe novels written by a Fellow of All Souls, laced with extreme post-modern self-consciousness and lavish with cultural references, but revolving almost entirely around graphic permutations of the sexual act? As a genre, it can surely only be called clever-dick-lit.
This is Adam Thirlwell’s second foray into this exclusive terrain. His first work, Politics, hit the news when he was included as the youngest writer in Granta’s 2003 list of Best Young British Writers before the novel was even published, which may or may not have affected the reviews. A sour note of envy was certainly struck by some.
Often, a clever young author will show off by writing a completely different sort of second novel: a fine way to advertise that one’s original narrative voice was only a brilliant, fooling, illusory persona. But Thirlwell’s second novel ticks many of the same boxes. It begins with an aging libertine watching through a crack in a cupboard door as a young girl has sex with an abusive boyfriend; climaxes in a sex-scene which, as readers of Politics will almost expect, begins with micturition and bondage and goes on quite a long way from there; and ends with a postscript which boasts that the author has included quotations from 48 alphabetically listed sources (from W. H. Auden through to Virgil, but without footnotes).
Can Thirlwell really not see how irritating such a postscript is for all and sundry? If you like spotting references (and I am afraid I very much do) it is annoying to have signposted what you know already; and we would-be know-it-alls will always want to know the provenance of those quotations we do not recognise. For readers who simply don’t enjoy this vile elitist sport, however, quoting will always remain a form of one-upmanship. I have a strong prejudice that to be enriching in literature quotation should be embedded, discreet and unflaunted.
The anti-hero of The Escape is Raphael Heffner, a self-avowed practitioner of ‘cowardice, obscenity, charm, moral turpitude’. Charm is the hardest quality to convey; and Thirlwell perversely makes it hard for himself. Heffner is ‘mediocre, unoriginal’; and even his best friend says that the only loveable thing about Heffner is that ‘Heffner always thought there was so much more to Heffner than anyone else ever thought.’
So why should one be drawn into reading about a selfish, morally squalid and sex-obsessed old man, who in the course of this novel half-seduces a vulnerable middle-aged woman, and then heartlessly dumps her to dangle after a much younger yoga teacher? Thirlwell’s answers, such as they are, do not lie in old-fashioned notions such as sympathy, or indeed plot.
Yet there is plenty to enjoy, as well as irritate, in this looping, deliberately digressive book. There are plenty of excellent ideas: many clustering about the urge to escape from the traps of culture, race, and even morality — an urge which is both essential, if one is to define oneself, and yet impossible and even potentially vile. Heffner is a non-practising Jew, and a would-be hedonist who sees his ‘only hope’ to lie in the fact that with his many mistresses he has always been the ‘one to leave’.
Heffner has arrived in a spa town to lay claim to a legacy from his dead wife, which had been appropriated first by Nazi, and then by Communist regimes. All too symbolically, Heffner — a war-veteran and libertine who lives by divesting himself of all emotional and cultural baggage — finds his suitcase has been lost in transit; and has to dress in temporary and ‘clownish’ sportswear.
The Escape raises swarms of interesting questions: when does escape shade into desertion? Does becoming oneself involve betrayal of others, or paradoxical self-betrayal? How can one believe a new love to be the only true one, even if one is aware that one has believed this before (and is such a belief a betrayal of the past, or of oneself, or is it somehow true)?
These are just the sort of questions that resonate through some of the greatest works of literature; but in The Escape, all too often, they tend to buzz around the heads of the characters in externalised and irritating paradoxes, which the reader is increasingly tempted to swat into banality. Too many of Thirlwell’s aphorisms do not bear close inspection. ‘Desire is the ultimate in the improvised. This is the normal theory of love … But I am not so sure,’ chirps the narrator. ‘The true libertines are the geniuses of repetition.’ But on the next page, Heffner’s ‘genius of repetition’ is only that of amnesia: ‘he forgot so much. And since he forgot so much, he always repeated himself.’ So a monogamous goldfish is the true Casanova?
Perhaps it is an attempt to enact the virtues of repetition that Thirlwell repeats so many of the tropes and mannerisms of his first novel, from the pretentious aphorisms that often mean less than meets the eye (‘…every zenith was also a nadir, as usual’) to the winsome knowingness of the narrator. ‘And me, I might add something else’ has all the faux-coy inflections of Miss Piggy’s ‘Moi?’ All of these quirks are less charming than first time around. As Thirlwell himself wittily observed, you can slather your girlfriend’s orifices once in chocolate mousse, but ‘the next time one moves doggedly to the refrigerator, then the prone and lovely woman will experience in her soul a tiny qualm.’
It is, doubtless, missing the point to wish that Thirlwell would embed his themes in characters and explore them through plots, since this is simply not the sort of novel he wants to write. There are however strong and tantalising signs that he would be quite brilliant at it. The few moments of unexpected tenderness or unexpected fidelity are powerfully moving in The Escape, as in Politics — though truly unexpected moments are rare in Thirlwell’s fiction, given the all-controlling voice of the narrator.
Thirlwell, however, is still in thrall to Kundera, and his ‘soft gleam of the comic’ (to which the degradations of Heffner offer a sour postscript): Thirlwell believes, evidently, in the importance of the digressive, ironic and tricky. But true post-modernists also believe that art is validated by literary style. At best, Thirlwell’s often all-too-chatty prose crosses Kundera with Updike and Craig Raine. He can do a good vivid throw-away ‘Martian’ image: ‘the coiled roulade of the fire-hose’ offers purely enjoyable, disposable novelty (suitable for Heffner’s universe). But for every image that works, there are others that don’t. ‘A tree leafing through itself, anxiously,’ strains and misfires.
Thirlwell is a writer of undoubted talent to watch, though at present perhaps through a metaphorical crack in the critical cupboard door.