Tuesday 17 November 2015

Strange motivations

I’m grateful to the novelist James Meek for introducing me to a new critical term. Reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (‘From Wooden to Plastic’, LRB, 24/09/15), Meek writes that the first appearance of Leila Helou “is couched in the leaden terms of the Unaccountably Disrupted Normal: ‘Ordinarily, Leila looked forward to travelling on assignment…. But from the moment she arrived in Amarillo, on a commuter jet from Denver, something felt different.’”

I’d been reading William Boyd’s latest novel Sweet Caress: the many lives of Amory Clay (Bloomsbury, 2015) and had just marked this passage: “It was proving to be the strangest day, with my emotions veering around from soft and silly to cynical and uncaring; and my sense of adult responsibility seemingly switched off – what was I doing on this bike with Oberkamp heading to Highway 22? It was as if I was in some hallucinatory state.” By chance, Meek had provided me with a name for what bothered me about Boyd’s sentence. Oberkamp, an Australian journalist with whom Amory, a British war photographer, has had a one-night affair, is pursuing his Vietnamese girlfriend through Vietcong territory. Amory may well wonder how he managed to talk her into going with him!

I’m inclined to think that the behaviour of fictional characters should be self-explanatory. If the writer has to spend time justifying unlikely turns in the plot, something’s gone wrong. If a first-person narrator, as here, admits that her actions don’t make any sense, I want to say: if you don’t believe them why should I?

That’s my theoretical position, anyway. As a reader I find I’m much more easy-going. In some ways Boyd is a careless writer. But his brilliance more than compensates for his carelessness. I’m aware of the occasional rough patch but I keep reading. In fact, over the years I seem to have read all but a couple of his fourteen novels.

In The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993) Kay Fischer has been approached by a mysterious older man called Dr Salvador Carriscant. “I met Carriscant,” Kay tells us, “at the railroad station in Pasadena early in the morning. He had asked me to come with him to Santa Fe and, for some reason, and much to my astonishment, I agreed at once…”

One benefit of Kay’s astonishing compliance is that, as readers, we get to see what happens in Santa Fe. Likewise when Amory gets on the back of Oberkamp’s motorbike we all go along for the ride.

As a justification perhaps this puts too much emphasis on Boyd’s carelessness and not enough on his brilliance. There’s psychological insight here, as well as narrative convenience. Boyd gives us characters capable of sudden, reckless, self-damaging behaviour, whose lives are unexpectedly derailed by unconscious impulses. Some of his most memorable narrators look back on their lives as strangers to themselves, viewing the unlikely plot twists with as much wonder as we do.

Boyd reminds us that it isn’t only in bad fiction that the normal is sometimes unaccountably disrupted.