In an exchange with The New Yorker, Adam Thirlwell discussed his choice to include a glossary of all the literary allusions he makes in the back of The Escape, his second novel. He said it was part of his experimentation with ‘immaturity,’ which was the novel’s ‘subject.’ In this instance, exploring immaturity involved telling the story of Raphael Haffner, an irresponsible and irrepressible womaniser: one who is nearly eighty years old. Immaturity, Thirlwell is saying, sometimes can’t be shaken off. He is also saying that if you are a writer, immaturity takes a while to master.
Between Thirlwell’s novels; Politics and The Escape, came Miss Herbert, a non-fiction curiosity about authors, novels and the concept of style. Here Thirlwell tells us that Saul Bellow had to learn how to be artfully immature, and that Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke is ‘deliberately malformed and sarcastic’ – all about experimenting with how a novel can be immature and flippant.
The sarcastic, flippant treatment of form, the exposing of a novel’s modesty and mystery, was what reviewers had a problem with in Thirlwell’s first book: Politics. It described the moral scruples of young people involved in a ménage a trios, and it did so with an exhibitionist narrator who constantly told us which characters he liked and advised us how we should judge them. Sadly, not many reviewers paid attention to this narrator as a continuous character with an agenda, preferring to believe that it was nakedly Thirlwell, baldly linking a story together with demonstrations of his cultural knowledge. It wasn’t the device itself that they revealed themselves to have a problem with, but rather that in choosing this route Thirlwell was announcing himself to be a provocateur. He was only twenty-four.
Almost ten years later here is Kapow!, Thirlwell’s fourth book. The central story is that of a few people involved in the recent Egyptian Spring. Rustam, a taxi driver, and his wife Nigora are accidently drawn into the revolution. Their story is related by Faryaq, another cabdriver, this time in London, to the narrator of the novel we are reading. This narrator is a practiced apathete who heightens his disinterest in world affairs by constant marijuana-smoking and overeating. (‘I have no expertise in it. I’m only, after all, a very multiple sarcasm.’) He admits to being more concerned about texting his East London friends than listening to Faryaq’s story. But after a while he gets drawn in by a love story between Nigora and a young, hip filmmaker called Ahmad which occurs on the periphery of the political narrative. But here’s the rub: our narrator is in the habit of indicating which bits of the book are Faryaq’s germ and which bits he has embellished, imagined or added on. And all the bits between Nigora and Ahmad – the bits which made the narrator interested in the first place – seem to be the bits he’s made up. And yes, this unnamed narrator bares all the stylistic marks of Thirlwell’s pervious formally flippant, sarcastic narrators.
Has Thirlwell learnt how to be immature yet? He’s had four books to master it, and if he’s still using the old devices now, what type of immature does that make him? His persistence, the refusal for his treatment of immaturity to show signs of development could well be part of the joke’s sophisticated immaturity. But where does that leave the innovator? Why, out of all the fantastic routes he could go down, must he keep to the ones with the road works? If he does this for another book, he risks giving the impression he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Luckily Kapow! has another couple of tricks in its dust jacket. It is a totally beautiful object, embracing the fight to invigorate the printed page. Part of this is to do with a form of typographical experimentation: the text is printed in various directions so you have to turn the book to read it, or unfold pull-outs of extra pages. The book is more of a novella, less than one hundred pages, so the ‘revolutions’ we have to make while reading don’t irritate too much (though the narrator tells us at one point he wants his book to ‘age’ us).
The typographical bits are, we discover, in pursuit of ‘a system where as many things as possible [are] visible at once.’ They are, in fact, parenthetical asides, and much more conventional and simple than they might appear when opening the book for the first time and seeing the text run in different directions. They are footnotes that occur in the middle of pages rather than at the bottom. But Thirlwell has already explained what he is doing with these pages. In Miss Herbert, his non-fiction curiosity, he spends time on Laurence Sterne’s typographical innovations with Tristram Shandy: the black, blank and marbled pages. But when compared to what Sterne was doing in the middle of the eighteenth century, some of Kapow!’s visual treats seem almost primitive or prototypical. Thirlwell comes out looking less current than Sterne. There is a polka dot page near the beginning of Kapow! because one of the characters is supposed to wear an (implausible) pair of polka dot track-suit bottoms. Having no clout next to Sterne’s black page of mourning, this spotty page doesn’t seem allusive; it seems derivative.
All a novel can do is teach you how to become a better reader of that novel. Miss Herbert is supposed to be a book about international style and the formulation of a secret heritage of the novel, but it is mainly about Thirlwell’s novels. It is a key to reading and better appreciating Thirlwell’s own fiction, as well as a statement of intent.
Miss Herbert discusses the ‘visible invisibilities’ in Madame Bovary – motifs and echoes that hold the novel structurally together. The example he picks is a recurring cupid in a few set pieces: on a wedding cake, in a garden and in a hotel room. Cupid, Thirlwell tells us, is ‘love’s kitsch.’ Reading Politics after consulting Miss Herbert, you will see the invisibilities of Thirlwell’s allusions to Flaubert made visible. Here, one of Thrilwell’s characters walks onto the balcony of a London nightclub, deeply in love and anxious about his girlfriend:
The balcony was a collection of black wrought-iron curlicues and florets. The floor was millioned with thin diamonds. There was some trio sharing a joint – two girls and a boy, a sarcastic cupid and his angelic hosts.
Here is the Bovarys’ wedding cake as quoted by Thirlwell in Miss Herbert:
..on the upper platform, a green field with rocks and pools of jam and boats made out of nutshells, there was arrayed a little Cupid, perched on a chocolate swing, its two poles finished off with two real rose-buds…
It’s a crafty way to validate one’s artistic choices, this: obliquely showing their weightier referent. It would save critics a lot of bother if every novelist sent out a list of ancestors and intentions instead of a press release. In Miss Herbert Thirlwell tells us how Pushkin claimed first-hand social acquaintance with Eugene Onegin (– similar to the narrators of The Escape and Kapow! who know their characters ‘personally’) and how Tolstoy would ‘leap around [his] characters, happily, with his essayistic digressions.’ Miss Herbert could well be seen by some as a presumptuous anticipation of Thirlwell scholarship, but should also be seen as something very brave and, to me, admirable.
Not many modern authors who have only had one book published could expect to command an audience for a book-long defence or treatise on their art. Thirlwell’s self-belief fills me with hope. I want all young novelists to care about books as much as Thirlwell does. Miss Herbert says, this is my tradition: I am next after these authors. And why not? Somebody has to be next, and nobody else has claimed the tradition for themselves yet. Thirlwell says in Miss Herbert that nobody wanted to follow Gombrowicz’s experiment in sarcasm, Ferdydurke, and it seems Thirlwell does.
Thirlwell is possibly better equipped to judge who comes next in this tradition than a reviewer who has never been interested in Sterne, Svevo and Machado de Assis; or, as Philip Hensher calls them in his review for The Telegraph, ‘the usual suspects of the clever-silly pantheon.’ Such a curt dismissal of these authors demonstrates a fault in Hensher’s authority and a misapplication of his skill and energy as a critic. Why review a book primarily about authors like Stern, Svevo etc if you think them below your seriousness?
Anybody who claims to be a champion of, or has their wages paid by literature, ought be warmed by the prospect of somebody with Thirlwell’s post-Politics trumpeting these innovative authors at book length. It’s one thing wanting to be read by as many people as possible. But to want Italo Svevo or Bruno Schulz to be read by as many people as possible? Of course, this kind of thing will always involve small concessions, i.e accepting Thirlwell’s anti-style with its persistent reiterations, its one sentence paragraphs, it’s ‘And I like this’s. Let him sex-up eccentric books for people who don’t normally find them sexy. He’s not just writing for Philip Hensher and Adam Mars-Jones.
So where is Kapow! in Thirlwell’s tradition? Joining the quick, idiomatic sentences (the ‘I can maybe put it like this’s) is the use of contrived flatus (the ‘as they say’s), so now, when something is patronisingly flagged up to the reader, it can seem hesitant rather than (or, sometimes, as well as) over-confident: ‘no folks, he was, I’m afraid, kind of a sexist.’ At first I was disappointed that Thirlwell didn’t seem bothered how nuanced his characters appeared. In Politics, though they were targets or props for his narrative intentions, Thilwell imbued his characters with convincing interiority. In Kapow!, Nigora is possibly the only character who is given consistent inner life. The Egyptian men, with the slight exception of Ahmad – who acts as a kind of middle-eastern surrogate for the author and narrator’s tastes – are very underdone. But about three quarters of the way through the game he’s playing with his characters and his mannerisms becomes apparent.
Thirlwell’s preferred tone draws attention to both its pompousness and its affability. This was suited to the mixture of bungled sex and sensitivity in Politics; maybe even to Miss Herbert, and the way this literary treatise often allied itself with tricksters of the mock-heroic, like Cervantes and Sterne. But the tone’s repeated use across more books makes me unsure how seriously to take anything at all.
Throughout Kapow! we are told, with varying levels of seriousness, that Rustam is a hero. The first instance, which comes as he stops his taxi to help an unconscious man at the side of the road, is off-hand – so off-hand as to be tilted at 90 degrees to the rest of the text: ‘He had his virtuous principles. His nature was Heroic.’ But here we are firmly in the realm of the mock-heroic. Rustam’s actions were decent, but we don’t know enough about him for his nature to be ‘heroic.’ We are told soon afterwards that he had to flee Uzbekistan because he was a revolutionary. We now understand the ‘heroic’ epithet, but the first occurrence of it, rather than being justified in retrospect, devalues this new exposition. The effect is to make us sceptical of what Thirlwell has to tell us. In Miss Herbert he states (in parenthesis) that a reader of Flaubert ‘would constantly have to ask whether [he] was writing sincerely or parodically.’ Thirlwell, it seems, aspires to write similarly sceptic-making books. His irony seems intended to be taken as sincerity, too, as we watch the narrator of the book weigh his judgements casually, almost promiscuously.
When Rustam is arrested, his friend Mouloud, a more serious revolutionary – the one Rustam rescued at the side of the road – calls him ‘a hero.’ In prison Rustam contemplates his situation. ‘Yes, thought Rustam, grimly: this is what a hero has to do.’ This is a surprise, because it is the first evidence we have of Rustam actually thinking. He has never been allowed to think before. We are told prison breaks him, turns him serious and theological and kills his sense of humour. But we haven’t got to know him properly, and the announcement that he no longer has a sense of humour isn’t much of a loss. We weren’t given any examples of Rustam being, or finding things, funny.
Thirlwell wants to show us that he can flip his characters from stooges into humans with depth. He doesn’t quite achieve this with Rustam. But in the case of Nigora, who has had a bit of depth all the way through, we are made to feel her humanity squarely. Hence Thirlwell flips his experiment in immaturity into something more mature. One sees he can be crafty even though he announces what he is doing along the way. I suppose it’s to do with the contrived candour of his novels that puts you off-guard. You don’t expect to be taken in. For me, this was mainly because his previous books hadn’t managed to ‘take me in’, though Politics didn’t need to. Kapow! shows an alarming acceleration of seriousness in its last quarter, and Thirlwell reveals his storytelling and emotive gifts in high concentration.
You realise, almost with a sigh at wasted opportunity, that Thirlwell’s emotive talents outweigh his cloying habits. Why couldn’t we have had this all the way through? Maybe he’s self-conscious about his aptitude for sensitive, almost sentimental tension and hides it with nervous ticks. Or maybe he’s rebelling against the burden of a populist narrative gift. Either way, there’s display of immaturity, and the tender grasp of people that was evident in Politics is made to seem like it emerges in spite of itself.
Milan Kundera is Thirlwell’s most obvious influence, and reviewers often bring this up when they are disparaging his digressions and so forth. But Thirlwell is similar to Kundera more in his emotive style: nobody will deny the force of learning, casually, less than half way through The Unbearable Lightness of Being that the novel’s two emotional focuses will eventually be crushed to death by a truck. It is this kind talent for the near sentimental about turn which could become the focus of reviewers, if and when they get bored of taking him to task over digressions.
If, with Thirlwell’s fiction, there has been a temptation to ask where the heart is, then the answer is out of sight, and hidden safely beneath Thirlwell’s other recurring concerns. The effect of Kapow! on me is, I expect, different to many other readers. It makes me want to see and read more of Thirlwell – see what else he is capable of, now his immaturity has matured a little.