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August 03, 2006

Is This the Way You Said? - Adam Thorpe

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Is This the Way You Said?
by Adam Thorpe
Pp. 278. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, £14.99

Adam Thorpe's first novel, Ulverton (1992), is concerned with history, memory and speech. Twelve loosely connected episodes trace 350 years in the history of a rural village and its inhabitants, employing a range of narrative forms from dense prose written in thick dialect to light and snappy modern film script. It is a major achievement for a debut novelist in that it isn't a virtuoso's calling card – a Dave Eggars trying on different voices. Thorpe's prose ensured that each voice had a heart and sinews attached, and the quality of his observation brought revelation with each narrative manoeuvre.

Thorpe is middle aged with several novels under his belt now. In this collection of short stories he describes the travails of his generation. He knows the score when it comes to the literary world and this is demonstrated admirably in the title story. The other stories demonstrate that other worlds are open to him, too. Corporate culture comes in for a well-deserved bashing in "Heavy Shopping", in which the hero's wife gives birth prematurely while the hero is at the other end of the country bonding with his fellow executives. He wants to drive to her, and yet, under pressure from his boss to remain for the "key-note presentation", can't quite bring himself to.

Instead he sits through the conference, outwardly concurring, inwardly bridling, he gets drunk with his colleagues, extracting sympathy where he can get it, and fantasises about the glamorous women who are floating around the hotel. He is caught in the clutches of a culture he despises but he has nothing with which to replace it. Sexual fantasy is his only get-out. His wife, angry with him in her hospital bed, is someone to be avoided although duty tells him otherwise. He feels helpless in the face of his new baby's struggle for life. The cliché-ridden language and the ghastliness of a hotel masquerading as, in turns, a French bistro and an ancient Roman temple highlight the artificiality of his world. It is entirely recognisable, and the banality of this hero's dilemma and his responses to it are par for the course. He has the grace, at least, to have some kind of breakdown - and that honest response to conflicting pressures provides the note of poetry without which Thorpe cannot be doing.

Thorpe has also had several volumes of poetry published, and that economy with language and liberality with epiphany is evident here. In "Preserved" he describes a holiday in Tuscany. It is with such middle-class preserves that he highlights the emptiness of our lives; the barn conversions, trendy Japanese restaurants, wholesale removals to rural life, and musical societies that tell us who we are. A protagonist in "Dead Bolt lives "in the oldest house in the village". The pronouncement brings him close to the caricatures of Little Britain, though Thorpe's seriousness could never descend to farce. Sometimes one wishes it would; his gravitas can be ponderous. But in "Preserved" he does puncture the bubble of artistry.

The narrator, a 73-year-old gay choreographer who lives in California, is sharing a holiday villa with three young couples. He doesn't like being old and does everything in his power to deny the remorseless inevitability of this incontrovertible fact: he is not getting any younger. Quite the opposite, in fact: he's getting older. Thorpe uses the enactment of this despair as a mechanism for narrative. So often life is just that: the acting out of unwelcome emotions. Instead of being expressed verbally, we stifle them. But the unconscious will speak and our suppressed fears and anxieties are mimed by our actions.

As a piece of self-delusion, the following passage speaks volumes:

I appreciate young people. Youth is important to me. I regard myself as a young man in an old man's body, and even that body amazes people with its supple elasticity. It is not just the exercises: it is also the meditation. To transcend, daily, one's cares for fifteen minutes is to smooth out one's skin. I pin my soul on the washing line and let it billow and freshen. Except that no one has a washing line in the States.
His self-awareness catches up with him in the last sentence - caught up in the hyperbole of "mind, body and spirit" cod philosophies, the vocabulary of spirituality, his metaphor runs dry and irony triumphs. He should hang out with people his own age, where the ironies of growing older would be appreciated. But he doesn't, he pursues one of the young men of his party as remorselessly as death is pursuing him. In the telling of his story, we see that he has always fed on youth - as distraction and inspiration. He contrives a dance from the story the young man tells him of his dead mother and university career in palaeoethnobotany. It is a fascinating story, and when it peters out, with the description of the dance, the anti-climax is as mournful as our narrator's dawning realisation that there will be no more young men.

Artistic delusion of a more heart-warming kind is the subject of "Karaoke". Here, Greg is a worn-out poet who happens upon a Latin epic poem written by an obscure, 19th-century English scholar. It turns out to be a sham, but not before Greg has devoted himself to its translation at the expense of everything else in his life, for years. He is a true poet, concerned with the purity of language. What he has in his hands, he thinks, is:

An English unsullied, purified, shorn of its sensuous accretions, somehow disantced from its soiled roots, objectified and therefore able to regard itself freshly. The dry flower of a dead language swelling into life at his touch, more beautiful than the compromised speech of its - or our - present.
This reader got as carried away as Greg with such a rich, and yet abstemious, text. But it is the very compromises of life that make speech our present. Thorpe makes that abundantly clear.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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