Sunday 1 February 2004

Cherry - (Man Booker Prize 2004, Longlist)

Matt Thorne

Sex, violence, moral confusion and narrative uncertainty. Matt Thorne may be an erstwhile New Puritan and sometime children’s author, but Cherry is anything but a novel of moral instruction.

Steve, a lonely teacher, meets a seemingly pleasant old man in a bar, and gets to talking about happiness and love and such. This leads to an increasingly bizarre series of events during which Steve finds Cherry, the woman of his dreams, and, soon after, finds himself risking everything to hold onto her.

Steve’s story is implausible, but it’s hard to tell whether we’re dealing with a sci-fi novel or a delusional narrator, or both (or indeed whether our narrator is even reliably delusional). Steve is a sympathetic character, though, whose 12-year celibacy and willingness to believe in an imaginary girlfriend seem charming rather than creepy, as they might in the hands of a more conventional author. But it is his own professed uncertainty about who Cherry really is, and his apparent scepticism about the only explanation we are offered, that keeps us from suspending our disbelief.

The name Cherry is a reference to the dodgy 1980s sci-fi film Cherry 2000, in which, having broken his android wife, the protagonist embarks on a dangerous quest to find another one of exactly the same model. The reference is Steve’s, rather than Thorne’s: he chooses the name when he’s asked to complete a form giving the specifications for his ideal woman. He’s pretty sure it’s a joke, of course, but he comes up with the specs all right.

The moral of Cherry 2000 is that love isn’t something you can just dream up in your own head; it comes from engaging with real, imperfect people, and it never happens the way you plan it. Of course, the protagonist ends up falling for the woman who guides him in his search for the android - it’s a bit like Gregory’s Girl, come to think of it. Fortunately, Cherry offers no such deflatingly twee moral. Having found the perfect woman, even if he can’t explain how, Steve is determined to keep her.

Thorne does offer at least one way out, in the shape of a friend’s wife with whom Steve seems genuinely to connect. Admittedly, that would be complicated, but it would at least be familiar, ‘sensible’. The problem is that, for whatever reason, Steve refuses to accept a more realistic narrrative, refuses to ‘grow’ in any conventional sense. But nor can he impose himself on the situation by making sense of his fantasy, or justifying his actions.

Either he is the victim of dark, manipulating forces, or he is making excuses for himself. It may be that Steve is particularly vulnerable, on account of his unhappy childhood and his long loneliness, but it is tempting to see him instead as an everyman, reflecting the moral uncertainty of our times. Here is a teacher whose heart isn’t really in the job, a bit of a slacker, a man who can’t even commit to a particular type of music, and yet who yearns for the intensity of sexual fulfillment that he imagined as a teenager. Why should he deny himself that?

On one level, Cherry is a confession, and it resembles James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in its concern with the way that a single obsession can blind people to their broader moral responsibilities. Being set in 21st century London rather than 18th century Scotland, however, the obsession in question is not religious dogma, but personal happiness. And while Hogg could contrast his character’s fanaticism to a broader sense of moral responsibility to others, such an appeal would seem forced, pompous even, in today’s climate.

Thorne leaves it up to the reader to make moral judgements, then. Indeed, he refuses even to make it clear what is and isn’t true. Believe Steve, don’t believe him - it’s up to you. But Steve’s failure to convince with his story surely reflects a more general problem with fitting individual narratives into a recognisable and meaningful social script. When ‘realistic’ is an unconvincing cliché, realism has to look elsewhere. In that sense, a novel that doesn’t make sense may be truer than one that does, even if it therefore fails as a novel.

Cherry is not a difficult novel, and it would be a mistake to see it as a novel of ideas, but this quick and entertaining read leaves the reader puzzling over more than just who whatted how with huh.



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