The heroine of Lucy Ellmann’s new novel is one of an increasingly rare breed in modern fiction – a virgin. Isabel is a thirty-something art history student, prim, gauche, improbably starry-eyed, impossibly self-obsessed, a junior version of the Anita Brookner wallflower (i.e. not yet prepared to consign herself to the sad margins of singlehood). But whereas the high-minded Brookner woman is given to maundering over Balzac or Flaubert, Isabel derives her vicarious thrills from the soft-centred romantic novels of one Babs Cartwheel (373 of them, and counting). According to Ms Cartwheel, ‘when the right man appears, he will appreciate finding your virginity intact,’ which in Isabel’s case sounds like making a virtue out of a necessity. Her addiction to this junk affects not just her social demeanour but her narrative mode, a matter of breathless one-sentence paragraphs and stupefying sentiment – ‘my destiny was to love, but to love always tragically.’
Isabel is evidently bright enough to be preparing a lecture on Chardin’s brushstrokes, so why would she invoke Mills & Boon as her chapter and verse? Good question, but don’t ask it. Varying Degrees of Hopelessness is situated within a realm of farce where caricatures run the show and logic is given an indefinite leave of absence. And, in the modern manner, where farce reigns, academia abuts. The Catafalque is a fusty art institute in London’s West End, a Dickensian pile which houses the varying degrees of ‘wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, hope and despair ... and just as one tolerates a lot of nonsense in Dickens, a lot of it was tolerated here.’ Around this core Ellmann assembles a cast of misfits and oddballs that includes Sir Humphrey Basilisk, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and a notorious double-dealer; a randy old pedagogue named Splutters who likes to expose himself to female students in the institute’s garden; a Gradgrindian traditionalist named Cragshaw and the academy’s only female lecturer, Angelica Lotus, thought (erroneously) to be past child-bearing age.
Focus of Isabel’s attention, however, is the Splendid Young Man (a further Dickensian chime) whose blond curls and red socks send tremors of passion through his seminar students. Her fond hopes of being swept off her feet are scuppered when her flatmate Pol, a large and louche woman, sweeps the Splendid Young Man off his feet and into bed. Crushed, Isabel transfers her affections to the more diffident American lecturer, Robert, and dithers prissily around him until he succumbs – unfortunately to Pol, again. There is nothing rivalrous in any of this, merely a contrast of tactics. Pol is the brazen adventurer to Isabel’s cloistered romantic, and treats men with a disdain that would horrify Babs Cartwheel: The best solution would be to deprive men of distractions from their central theme and allow them to sit around all day studying their balls. Like drone bees, they could be shelved, to be used as mere genetic stock cubes.’
Ellmann keeps up a wry patter in the wings, prompting her players through some fairly low-budget slapstick and taking an occasional bow of her own as ringmaster. One chapter, entitled ‘Gail’s Mother’, is packed off in a single sentence of authorial ennui: ‘The author feels no interest in Gail or her mother at the present time.’ This sort of archness is acceptable when it supports the overall comic design, but it begins to sag in the book’s second half when Robert returns to California and his ailing mother’s bedside. Her slow decline and death occasion an awkward shift of tone, scattering the scholarly high jinks with a blast of righteous cosmic disgust:
Every day the whole show starts rolling again, all totally without significance. There can be no true tragedy or true joy in a world that is so repetitive. We try to fill these credibility gaps with painting, bits of ordered chaos; and music, noises hung on a line to dry. And love.
Such a homily would not look out of place in a Vonnegut novel, where a long lens is trained upon the pitiful wreckage of humankind. Shoehorned into an academic farce of bed-hopping and in-fighting, however, it falls on the ear with a horrible clunk. One moment Ellmann is giving Isabel and company a sly goose, next minute she’s up in the pulpit and out to talk turkey. Varying Degrees of Hopelessness is a book that seems to lose its nerve as a comedy. Of course one can be serious and raise a laugh, but Ellmann’s lacrimae rerum have smudged the wrong pages altogether.
The dust-jacket of James Buchan’s latest novel informs us that Slide is about ‘agonising loss: loss of hope, loss of control, loss of will’. This intelligence came as something of a relief, because I would never have twigged while reading the book itself. ‘Loss’ seems too emotive a word for a novel as low-key as this, but then it would be tricky selling Buchan’s real themes, which are the much less marketable ones of spiritual stagnancy and indifference. At least I think they are: the whippet-lean sentences give so little away that one is chary of making any great claims on the book’s behalf.
Structured in short episodic chunks, Slide focuses on the mid-life melancholy of one Richard Verey, a 35-year-old Englishman. Oxford-educated, old-shoe patrician, Verey is trying to recover pieces of a life that seems to have passed him by, beginning as a student on vacation in Iran. In a village outside Isfahan he buys a set of antique Russian dinner plates for £20; over the next 15 years the plates become a talisman and, with some inevitable breakages, a gauge for the erosions of time. From here it’s a whistle-stop tour around Kuwait and Kiev, New York and Barbados, Warsaw and Wareham, all within 135 pages – the snapshot collage of a diplomat turned moneyman.
Verey is inclined to keep his recollections as vague and elliptical as he possibly can, so the reader feels a kind of seismic shudder when he details something that actually happened. In one of the later chapters, for example, he and his wife are victims of a car accident in upstate New York, which rates as drama in anyone’s book. Yet before our pulse rises too sharply a curious, matter-of-fact paragraph intervenes to put a halter on the action:
We were going to hit a tree.
I was sorry we wouldn’t get up Slide and the car would be no good to get us back to the city and the $500 was lost. Ed was making himself into a ball beside me. I thought then I would he injured and I thought of Anne and our baby.
We hit the tree, which was a maple.
It is somehow typical that he should note the type of tree. This blasé, slo-mo reaction to danger recurs towards the end of the novel when lie goes for an innocent paddle on a Barbados shoreline. Lost in reflection (which certainly isn’t typical), he is caught unawares by the treacherous riptide. Upended and suddenly gargling salt and sand, he confronts a watery grave with the apparent resignation of one already condemned:
I thought: I am drowning in thigh-deep water. Invito Ricardo Verey. Amante nihilominus munditas. I am gabbling epitaph Latin. Aqua nimium inundante. Calm!
One is reminded of Conrad’s Marlow and his brush with the Grim Reaper: ‘it is one of the most unexciting contests you can imagine.’
Buchan has a deft touch that would be a pity to miss beneath the apparent aimlessness. He catches exactly the blank insouciance of a man who has had things too easy. Verey is simply unable to ‘raise his game’ when the situation demands, as it does during an awkward arms negotiation in pre-glasnost Kiev. Posted as press attaché to the Foreign Secretary, he is called upon to make some last-minute adjustments to an official statement; unfortunately, his attempts to concentrate are unsettled by a ravenous hunger. There is a delightful moment when the minister and his aide are clucking over Verey’s lacklustre performance, to which he unhelpfully responds, ‘Do you by any chance have any biscuits?’
As the temps perdu of an English toff (perhaps ‘loss’ does figure in this, after all) Slide is an amiable entertainment, though its cultivated brusqueness in the end leaves a little too much unsaid. In the wake of the l987 Stock-market crash Verey finds himself one of the few to land on his feet, though he feels ambivalent about his good fortune (somewhere in the region of $368,000). His lightning flash of self-knowledge – money is ruining him and his marriage – quickens our interest only to choke it. One hopes for further honesty in this vein but instead the book narrows in its final chapter to an inconsequential vignette of old-school snobbery, on which Verey has this to say: ‘I don’t mind this English thing ... It’s just that I never thought until now we would end up just like our parents.’ A lame and impotent conclusion, but then it sorts well with this narrator’s dim sense of underachievement.
‘Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,’ wrote John Updike in Self-Consciousness, a metaphor which gives a startling tilt to our assumptions about fame and its consequences. In a bravura feat of imaginative reconstruction Gordon Burn has taken the idea of celebrity-as-affliction a step further and pursued one of its victims beyond the grave. Alma Cogan, ‘the girl with the laugh in her voice’, was Britain’s most popular chanteuse of the Fifties; she went into decline following the emergence of the Beatles, and died of cancer in October 1966. Alma Cogan erases that death and reinvents her life as a middle-aged woman enjoying tranquil, self-imposed obscurity in a coastal cottage.
From the vantage point of 1986, Cogan looks back on a career that took shape at the end of ration book austerity. As if bringing new definition to the drained black-and-white photographs of the era, Burn re-creates these pivotal years through a detailed inventory of period clothes, period decor, even period simlies (‘they twanged like tram wires, boiled and bubbled like kitchen geysers’), trawling the sleazy showbiz milieu of cabaret bars, cocktail lounges, speakeasys and night-clubs. Fictional characters jostle for space with real-life celebrities – Doris Day, John Lennon, Sammy Davis Jr – as Cogan traces her dramatic arc from fledgling performer through VIP glamour to eventual flame-out. After years of living at the point of a flash-gun, it is appropriately a photograph which persuades her to say goodbye to all that:
The chipolatas clamped around I chipolata turned out to be my finger. The meaty midgets head-butting each other were my knees. The red tones had been brought up in the printing so that all available flesh (too much – very much too much) looked flayed; it was mottled, purple-on-purple, like hung game ... That picture was all the prompting anybody could need. I was out of there already. I was already gone.
In this spectral memoir, however, Cogan discovers the sinister and ultimately horrifying ways in which she has not ‘gone’ at all. Her fate is to be the carrion of memorabilia cranks and monomaniac collectors, the obsessives who pay homage to a life by hunting down and hoarding its debris. In the book’s climactic sequence she visits Francis McLaren, the country’s premier Alma Cogan fetishist, who ‘has made himself the clearing-house for the minutiae of my life and career ... He’s a statistics gobbler. A relics sniffer. An information junkie.’ It is also the culmination of another story which first grabbed the headlines just as Cogan was relinquishing them. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady had been in prison for more than twenty years before Hindley confessed in 1986 to the murders of several other children, whose corpses they buried on the wastes of Saddleworth Moor, near Manchester. The spliced accounts of the couple’s hideous activities lends the narrative a ghoulish (and undeniably powerful) charge, but its relevance to the book’s ostensible subject is not at all clear: Burn has referred in interview to the black Alma Cogan-style wig Hindley wore as a disguise, yet despite their contemporaneity the link between Fifties icon and Sixties demon feels rigged. He does pick up on a bizarre tangent, however, that makes for a single, genuinely macabre scene.
At one point Cogan glimpses the familiar mugshot of Hindley, who looks like ‘a composite, an identikit, a media emanation, a hypothetical image’. Here is novel transfixed by the processing of images and sound, by the artificial and the manufactured – the whole tyranny of technology. Old singers never die, it seems, they just get digitally remastered. The promiscuity of nature and technology is neatly pointed up in the simile-clotted prose: a complexion can be ‘like the threadworn fibres in a clean sheet of paper’, while a fruit machine’s display panel ‘flutters for a few seconds like a heart in its syrups and juices’. At considerable risk, Gordon Burn has turned over the furniture of modern iconography – ironically his book may well consolidate the phenomenon it seeks to condemn. Alma Cogan tears off celebrity’s mask and examines what lurks beneath: not the fear of being forgotten, but the dread of not being allowed to die.