John Cromer is never a banal narrator, but he does cherish the daily banalities of his existence, and Mars-Jones certainly wants to list them. ‘Once I found my way into a broom cupboard full of mops and buckets and couldn’t get out again. It was a surprisingly long time before anyone came looking for me.’ In hundreds, perhaps thousands of small descriptive sections, each given its own title, we learn about how John’s mother develops a passion for budgies, and how the family acquires Charlie, the blue budgie; we learn about how John likes to roll his own snot and smell his farts in the swimming-pool. He likes cereal, too, especially Rice Krispies: ‘I particularly liked the three elves on the packet. I wanted to have elves like that, to keep as pets. Snap, Crackle and Pop would be useful little helpers for me.’ Sixty pages later, John has discovered Liquorice Allsorts (‘I was going through a Liquorice Allsorts phase at the time’). His parents get a television: ‘We had a television at Trees by this time, although Mum didn’t let us watch ITV on it.’ ‘A tricycle was the next adventure.’ He visits the zoo: ‘A more important occasion for me personally was a visit to Whipsnade Zoo.’ And John loves songs, and wants to tell us about them:I liked ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush, You’re a Blue Toothbrush,’ because the guru Max Bygraves helped me see that love doesn’t mind if you’re different. I liked ‘A Windmill in Old Amsterdam’ because there was no resisting the idea of mice in clogs. I liked Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ because it meant I could sing in Cockney . . . I liked ‘Little White Bull’ for the same Cockneyphile reasons . . . I liked Rosemary Clooney’s ‘This Old House’ . . . I loved ‘Dem Bones Dem Bones (Dem Dry Bones)’, for reasons that had nothing to do with the words.One is reminded of the joke about the Oxford don, heard walking across the quad, intently saying to his interlocutor, ‘Ninthly’.
There is an important difference between Cromer’s inability to select detail and his creator’s inability, but at times the two sicknesses coincide. There are dull patches, when the narrative – such as it is – is worn to a perfect sheen of boredom by the chafe of daily detail. But it is impressive, given the odds stacked against it, how lively most of the book is, and how funny, too. Mars-Jones is challenging us, rather as Harold Brodkey did in his enormous, microscopically narcissistic novel, The Runaway Soul, to keep up with the book’s massive deceleration. Unlike Brodkey, Mars-Jones is witty. So the novel displays an amusing self-consciousness about the sluggishness of its project; time and again, Mars-Jones seems to be nudging us to laugh at Pilcrow. Look at the delighted way John describes his grandmother making scrambled eggs: ‘Nothing seemed to happen, and it kept on not happening for a very long time . . . Her activity seemed designed in fact to protect the contents of the pan from any changes that might be brought about by cooking.’ This is a funny description of watching eggs not cook, and an even funnier description of watching a novel not cook. Mars-Jones knows how to ration his revelations: ‘Two things happened towards the end of my years of bed rest which had a knock-on effect on my future, although I wasn’t really party to their importance at the time. One was that my dad sat down on the bed, and the other was that Mum picked up a magazine.’ Later, John acquires a cactus, which is about as exciting as those scrambled eggs: ‘I had a cactus on the ward. It did nothing. It did nothing in a really big way. It was inert even for a cactus, and cacti aren’t the most entertaining of plants.’ Which takes us back to John rolling his snot: ‘The privilege of my situation, in which boredom lay so close to over-excitement that there was hardly any space between, was that snot qualified as a toy.’ Substitute ‘the novel’ for ‘my situation’, and you see what kind of fun Mars-Jones is having – not so much at our expense as at his own.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Peek Freans and Fray Bentos
At the LRB, James Wood has an interesting piece on Adam Mars-Jones' appealingly titled Pilcrow: