They’ve known each other, Joshua Spassky and Natalie, for five years, and have often met, as lovers. They last met at the West Yorkshire Playhouse; Joshua was over from the US rehearsing a play he’d written. But they’d not seen each other in a while. She stops off at the ladies on her way to find him: ‘I rubbed make-up onto my nose and cheeks, under my eyes. I had another drink in there, too, and then leaned back on the sinks and waited, watching the minutes pass on the clock on my phone. My heart was beating quite purposefully.’ When she arrives at the rehearsal room, the actors stop mid-line and stare. Their pause rouses Joshua:
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘hey,’ and he stood up, and bent down to put his coffee cup on the floor.
He edged out into the aisle. His hair was longer. A strand went in my mouth when he gave me a hug.
Because a love story needs a star-crossed pair, most of them start with a meeting. Joshua Spassky, Gwendoline Riley’s third novel and, however shooshed up it is, a love story, doesn’t start with the meeting described above, which comes only thirty pages before the novel’s end. And of their first meeting we are not told much more than that Joshua had been ominously introduced by a friend as ‘the man himself’. Riley is interested in a lot of things – looking closely, remembering, restraint – but is most interested in telling an old story in a new way. She tries out several ways of doing this in Joshua Spassky; withholding, dramatising and then unravelling her lovers’ meeting is the first of them.
The novel actually begins some time after Joshua and Natalie saw each other in Leeds, with this sentence: ‘Jeane came to see me before I left.’ This is Natalie’s voice. Where she’s going and why isn’t yet clear, but she’s abandoned her sofa to the Manchester rain, so she can’t be going away for the weekend. They talk about love. Jeane is in a long-distance relationship with Mick:
‘Whether we’re together or not is a piece of trivia. I don’t think love is a matter of logistics, Natalie. Love is there,’ she said, and she looked at me as she patted her hand on the floor.
‘It’s right there.’ She patted the same place, rubbed the orange laminate. ‘All the time. Like a – saucer.’
This moment, so close to the beginning of the novel that the reader doesn’t know what kind of book it is yet, is one of the most and least romantic in the novel. Despite obstacles, Jeane is saying, love persists, like the saucer beneath a teacup. Yet Jeane rubs the laminate before settling on the image of the saucer, so she might have been thinking love was like something else: the ground beneath one’s feet. And it is not romantic at all to think of saying that love is what supports our every step and then abandon the metaphor for a simile about crockery – and a pretty redundant bit of crockery at that. Riley clearly isn’t anxious for her plot as she opens her novel. Instead, she uses Jeane’s words to establish an idea (and its shadow), as well as pinning down a mood by dressing the scene with a rain-bloated sofa, an empty front room, orangey wood laminate, and a ‘tiny cloud of bent hair knots and grey fluff’. Jeane’s last question to Natalie, hanging unanswered at the end of the chapter, confirms that the beginning is also an ending: ‘Are you coming back?’
If Natalie is not coming back from wherever she’s going, there are some things to be straightened out. The paper inside a box Natalie had ‘marker-penned with “MISC”’ is being torn up and put in a black bin-liner. The ‘thin, dry’ paper is all that’s left of her family. Her father died when she was 12: ‘On Easter Monday he was admitted to hospital with his angina and on the Friday he had a heart attack and died.’ Her mother died more recently. But it’s not as if her parents were happy together:
Well, Mum had married him on the rebound, that much was true. At their wedding Grandma made a remark he overheard. Strange that Dad should tell me about that, but he had done, several times, in passing. It was strange, because, really, he used to punch Mum in the face. I’d seen it. Him cracking the back of his hand against her face. I read all the court papers, the solicitors’ letters, too, eventually. It all came down to me.
Later in the novel, Natalie says that ‘leaving had felt like snipping myself out of a thick skein. I’d been aware of that sensation particularly: cords fraying and snapping.’ Wry about school (‘Most of the girls in my class had just sat up on their desks and hair-sprayed each other for five years so far as I could tell’), Natalie has to reach quite far back for a happy family memory. There was once a photo of Grandma and Great-Aunt Elsie ‘as fat-kneed toddlers in smocks and buckle shoes, standing by a wall and each holding a stick of rhubarb like a pikestaff’. Is that a happy memory?
Natalie is headed for the US. In the days before she leaves, she visits the fourth floor of the Manchester Central Library, to sit among Salinger and Fitzgerald in the American literature section: ‘That day, resting my head on my folded arms, it was Joshua Spassky that I thought about. It wasn’t a memory, or a speculation; just that as I blinked at the old book spines, I saw him blinking back at me.’ This is the first time Joshua is mentioned in the novel named for him. He is suddenly there, a saucer among the spines, as Natalie’s family recedes. Later, when Natalie says to Joshua, ‘Remembering is a kind of pornography, don’t you find?’ it’s just another way of allowing herself to leave her family behind. The heroine in a love plot always has to switch allegiance to another’s family; here there is no misty-eyed nostalgia for the cosy family bosom, but clear-eyed recognition of a way out and a refusal to turn back.
A train and a plane later and Natalie has met Joshua at the Greyhound bus station in Asheville, North Carolina. He’s behind a ‘rather wide old lady’ who was ‘blotting her slick forehead, looking around for someone she knew’. ‘The first thing he said, after our hug’ was that ‘he needed a coffee.’ (Perhaps Riley chose to write about love for all the opportunities for bathos it could offer.) At this point the reader doesn’t know where or under what circumstances they last met, which lends a surprising newness to their meeting, given that they know each other well, have slept together even. It is as if Natalie is seeing Joshua for the first time: ‘He looked like the last chunk of ice-lolly, about to fall off the stick.’
And so the love story begins. They sit opposite each other in a booth over coffee. Joshua protests that the journey to Asheville has cost him thousands of dollars (‘What’s that, in therapy?’ Natalie replies), and they talk about his plays and her novels. His new play is called The Box of Bad Endings, which he describes as having ‘a certain sense of pointlessness . . . I guess the way I’ve been putting it is like this: that there are a lot of lines in the play, but you could paraphrase most of them as “I’m fucked,” “I’m fucked too,” “We’re fucked,” “We fucked it up and there’s no way back.”’ Natalie’s novel is called A Shag on the Horizon: ‘It’s a book about hope. Everyone who reads it is going to vomit with grief. Hopefully.’ Joshua inquires further:
‘And is that set in Manchester, again?’ he said, looking back at me now.
‘No. Not really. It’s not that kind of book. It’s set – in my head.’
‘Oh. Well. I’ll look forward to reading that.’
‘I wouldn’t go that far. Manchester. I had to get away from there. Everything had reached an odd pitch. In concert. It was deranging me, but slowly. My book opens like that. The first line is: “Every building drips with the thrush of failed love.”’
‘With the . . . ?’
‘With the thrush. The thrush of failed love.’
‘I see,’ he said.
Riley has herself written two novels set in Manchester: her first, Cold Water, appeared in 2002, followed in 2004 by Sick Notes. Both books were praised for their sense of place; Riley was the sulky hymnist of the North. Critics also thought that her novels portrayed the life she lived and the people she knew. She addressed this charge in a recent interview for the Independent, stating that she’d hate to be read with a such a prurient ‘mindset’, though she admits it would be ‘unnatural’ not to draw on her own experience. So Joshua and Natalie give their work florid, off-putting titles and even worse first lines. Joshua is dour and self-pitying as a writer, while Natalie is self-aggrandising and po-faced. They are at their worst when they talk about their writing, so it’s interesting that Riley chooses to face down criticism by bringing a part of herself into her novel at this particular point – and does it in the knowledge that she’s pretty serious herself.
It’s April in Asheville, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald once lived (Zelda died there, too, in a fire in a mental institution), and Joshua and Natalie leave the café and go back to their hotel room. Natalie has stopped drinking, but takes a swig anyway when Joshua passes her the bottle of whisky: ‘No, I don’t like this, I thought, and so I just leaned forward, letting the drink flow out and back into the bottle. It was then that I felt the soft prickle of Joshua’s two-day stubble as he kissed me under my right eye. Various thoughts went through my mind when he did that. Various competing impulses.’ There is an elegant restraint to this moment. It’s not particularly pretty, with the swigging and the spitting, but that means the kiss isn’t anticipated, as the moment is about as un-cute as you can get. And no saccharine stuff, just ‘the same old sour tang, the taste of old coins’. (Natalie wondered about putting ‘a coin on my tongue’ the day she saw Spassky among the book spines.) They lie in bed ‘inert’, shower and take a walk, ending up on a bench next to a middle-aged man and a soldier on compassionate leave. The soldier’s father has died and the middle-aged man insists that he must call on him if he needs anything:
‘I figure if you can help George I can help you. George, who I’m a big fan of, incidentally.’
‘Oh, yes, sir, me too.’
‘He’s great, isn’t he?’
‘I have some photos.’ The boy leant down to his bag, before sitting up again. ‘I sent them home, though. From Thanksgiving? You know he came out on Thanksgiving.’
‘Yeah. What a thing to do. You were there? That’s great. I mean, what’s that other fellow, that other guy, you see him doing that?’
Joshua and Natalie don’t speak to them, they just listen; the soldier and the middle-aged man don’t become part of their story. It isn’t clear why Riley has included this episode unless it’s to hammer home that Thomas Hardy matters more to Natalie and Joshua than Dick Cheney, because they are types of the self-absorbed young writer; there’s no need, really, to interrupt their story in order to compensate for it.
Back at the hotel, Natalie and Joshua lie in bed, having conversations about the terror of ageing, leavened (slightly) with bitter wisecracks. It is a sort of negative honeymoon: they’re here, together, but haven’t yet decided if they’re a couple. The peculiar mood of the second half of the novel isn’t established by what they say to each other but by what Riley, closely and exactly, observes them do. They go to the cinema and walk back in the rain. Natalie wrings out her wet dress, and brings Joshua the last of his whisky in a flimsy plastic cup. Riley’s narration is filmic: ‘He took the cup and held it . . . on his sternum, watching me with one opened eye, as I sat up next to him and rubbed my wet legs. I rubbed his legs too, fluffed up the hair along his shinbones.’
There is more at stake in this honeymoon period than may at first appear. Riley has a poetic way with a line (a Manchester sky is ‘dimmed white, like clean bone, or old wax, or Tupperware’, a description which puts you in mind of Plath’s ‘Daddy’), but there is something dangerously earnest about opening a chapter with the words: ‘Under the mild yellow glow of the bedside lamps I was lying with Joshua Spassky’; the unpunctuated 24-beat line is very like the opening of a ballad. It is at this rapturous point in the tale that Riley has Natalie return to her personal pornography, and the story flashes back to their last meeting before this, the one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. They were together for three days then, being bought gin and whisky by the director of Joshua’s play, downing their own doubles when he went outside to smoke: ‘We were horrible. We were quite horrible.’ And then there were the last things they said to each other, discussing how they would be if they were together. Natalie offers:
‘How about this: it’s an early winter’s morning like this one, but we’ve kept the curtains closed, and we’re both sat up in bed writing on our laptops, and our faces are lit up by the screens, and you’re having a cup of coffee and I’m having a cup of tea, and our feet are touching under the covers.’
Joshua shook his head. He turned around. After a while he came and sat down next to me. Already I felt like a dead tree that someone kept hacking at with an axe.
‘Natalie, listen,’ he said.
The repetition of ‘and’ allows Riley to pile up Natalie’s sentences hopelessly, breathlessly, so that Joshua can’t get a word in to say no. It hasn’t been clear before that Natalie has been so brusquely rejected. (Riley is fond of raising a doubt early and only settling it later; it’s a way of knitting the novel together with ideas instead of consequences.) Natalie’s coolness had seemed a novelist’s archness: has the entire trip been nothing but ‘an exercise in . . . narrative fulfilment’ (as Riley describes the same notion in Sick Notes)? When Joshua had tentatively asked her about the first time they made love (‘Did you feel something then, like, I don’t know, transcendence?’), Natalie had replied: ‘Transcendence . . . Yes, of course. That was the whole problem.’ It’s a remark to make you believe Jeane was right to suspect the trip had been made for ‘the sake of rhetorical excitement’. In any case, knowing about Joshua and Natalie’s history gives some shape to the final chapters of the novel: their meanderings around Asheville have been formless; now that the trip is drawing to a close, they must have a version of the final conversation they had in Leeds. But there is more to lose now, because there is no easy way back to Manchester for Natalie.
Joshua Spassky being the sort of story it is, it won’t ruin the novel to show how it ends. They are having their talk, when he ‘turned to me and smiled’:
I didn’t say it, but I thought it so strongly it was as good as saying it. I saw him understand me. I thought, Oh, I’ve done it now.
We sat in silence for a while. And then Joshua nudged me and pointed across the street.
‘You see that,’ he said, ‘that apartment.’
Joshua Spassky has never really been about plot. Riley is much more interested in finding new ways to wrest the world she knows into fiction than in the pleasures of the well-made novel. She chooses a familiar environment and peoples it with characters she could have been or known, fully aware of the complications involved, and she brings a certain sort of energy to her female protagonists. And she can turn a phrase (a chef in a bar has a ‘face like an old apple that someone took a bite out of and then left’). All three of Riley’s novels have been stylish and fresh; and she’s shown courage in sticking to her subject and whittling down her novels to the most suggestive essentials. She is not of a type.