Sunday 1 February 2004

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon - (Man Booker Prize 2004, Longlist)

Gerard Woodward

Families are curious constructs; collections of individuals almost randomly forged through births, marriages and deaths and somehow held together by financial, emotional and genetic ties. On one level they provide security and support from a capricious and cruel outside world, but by the same token they can often be our worst torturers and mortal enemies.

From the murderous house of Atreus to Jonathan Franzen’s anguished Lamberts in The Corrections, they have always provided a fine source of drama, humour and tragedy. With his new book Gerard Woodward seeks to add to this catalogue of dysfunction.

I’ll Go To Bed At Noon is a follow up to his debut August and continues the story of the self-destructive Jones family, loosely based on Woodward’s own. Set in 1970s suburban London, it traces the devastating effects of alcohol abuse on three generations of the Joneses, and examines the curious way in which history repeats itself endlessly through families, as genes and experiences are passed on through the bloodline. In particular it hinges on the fraught bond between the mother Colette and her gifted pianist son Janus, who specialises both in beautiful renditions of Chopin and ferociously violent outbursts - often at the same time.

The skill of the novel is that, despite the harrowing subject matter (violence and cruelty is commonplace, and several family members die), it never loses a sense of warmth and charm: Woodward is clearly not concerned with using this novel as a cathartic therapy for himself, as some semi-autobiographical writers do. Colette herself is a wonderful character, reminiscent of Ida from Brighton Rock, who juggles her responsibilities as a mother with her own hedonistic impulses. She is, above all, astonishingly human and frail; we are told of her previous substance abuse (chronicled in August) and she possesses an over-fondness of alcohol herself, but she is still seen caring diligently for her suicidal brother and forgiving Janus’ appalling behaviour.

This is clearly a poet’s novel, written in the dispassionate reportage style that is so favoured by modern exponents of the art. All egotistical urges have been exorcised in drawing upon the writer’s own background, thereby removing Woodward’s own desire to write himself (or the narrator) into I’ll Go To Bed At Noon; just as Larkin and Betjeman were revolutionary in preferring traditional poetic structures to the excesses of their modernist peers, so Woodward benefits from eschewing postmodernism in his own work.

In this respect he positions himself favourably as a richer and more evocative version of Anne Tyler, that other modern great documenter of family life. Stark images and simple phrases etch themselves onto the mind of the reader, rather than the linguistic tricks or cunning aphorisms favoured by more self-involved authors. For example, when the police come round to break the news of another tragic death, the most resonant aspect is the reaction when the offer of a comforting tea is declined: ‘The other policeman, having looked hopefully expectant of something useful to do, now looked deflated.’ It is a brilliant detail - easily establishing atmosphere, the very British unease with emotion and the sheer awkwardness of delivering bad news - neatly in one sentence. It comes as little surprise that Woodward was already an established and acclaimed poet in his own right before turning his hand to fiction.

His great concern in this novel appears to be the disintegration of the family unit in the modern age, and the impact of materialistic values on the traditional way of life for the English. While not a political book in the purest sense, politics are used to colour the characters and contextualise events: the pseudo-Marxism of one peripheral figure serves as a reminder of the powerful trade-unions of the time (‘Why can’t teachers have a bloody three-day week?’ ponders the father, Aldous) and the novel ends just as Thatcher comes to power, changing the face of Britain irrevocably.

Colette’s obsessive and unceasing support for her troubled son is presented as an anachronism in this environment; as is the relative proximity of Colette to her brothers - unthinkable in our footloose and geographically mobile times. Even so, this is not an middle-aged exercise in championing the past and lamenting the resulting decline in modern values - Woodward is pleasantly even-handed in this account. The ability of the children to escape the cloying nature of their family and to stretch out across the world (an idea which is hitherto unknown amongst the Joneses) is presented as a positive if it results in breaking the cycle of abuse that typifies the family, even if that comes at a cost.

Still, it is more than possible to detect the tinges of pathos as the cohesive family unit is broken down by growing political, social and economic factors that put the focus more on the rights of the individual than the collective whole: for all the trials and tribulations of family life, it is an elegant homage to the quirky contradictions, offhand cruelty and mis-placed affection that underpin families.

Having said that, it is difficult to judge whether I’ll Go To Bed At Noon truly convinces as a self-contained novel in its own right. Too often the mechanics of Woodward’s writing are exposed as he tries to balance out scenes of intense tragedy with light-hearted farce, and we are frequently presented with scenes that are meant to be darkly absurd, without ever delivering the killer comic panache. At times it resembles Withnail & I without the good jokes. It is understandable that Woodward felt the need to prevent his novel lapsing into one long, alcohol-sodden nightmare, but inebriated comedy is probably one of the hardest art forms to pull off, and the when he resorts to one character stealing a human brain from a mortuary and recreating scenes from Hamlet, he stretches credibility.

Woodward’s prose too, whilst remaining earthly and evocative, never quite recreates the fluidity and flair that so typified Arundahti Roy’s The God Of Small Things, to which this book could probably stand as a domesticated, British counterpart. But perhaps that is the point. I’ll Go To Bed At Noon - the title comes from the Fool’s last words in King Lear, another story of a troubled lineage - aspires to convey the tragedy, the horrors and the sheer banality of chronic alcohol abuse in a repressed Britain in which these things occur in quiet, affluent suburbs. It is a troubling and grimly real account, told in a splendid fashion. It may not win the Booker, but maybe it shouldn’t - success is not a very British, suburban trait.


Fiction

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