Thursday, October 17, 2013

Comedy's Swerve: 'Glover's Mistake' by Nick Laird


Glover’s Mistake, by Nick Laird, Penguin, 2009, 247 pages

Is Glover’s Mistake a comic novel? To answer this, one might consult Jonathan Coe’s discussion of the comic tradition in England (What’s so funny about comic novels? The Guardian, Friday 6 September 2013). According to Coe, there is a Kingsley Amis offshoot of narrative comedy. This tendency features a hapless protagonist (one slightly more sophisticated than Pierrot, the sad clown of Commedia Dell’arte) whose mission it is to be initiated into ‘the awful business of getting on with women.’ Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) discloses the modern prototype of the comic hero: an apparent sadsack at the bottom of the male hierarchy, who apes his superiors behind their backs; who rescues himself from a bad romance as from a sinking ship; who hopelessly pursues a socially elevated, attractive woman; and who, in the end, opts out of his entire conundrum.

Glover’s Mistake : a Hoot?

So when we are introduced to the three main characters of Glover’s Mistake: hapless but intelligent David, alluring and likely unattainable Ruth, and David’s handsome, young and, well, very young tenant, James Glover; and when it begins to look like Glover––of all people!––clueless, unfledged Glover––will get the girl––over David’s dead body– we anticipate high comedy. Laird’s novel at first blush looks like it is going to be just this sort of hijinks and hoot.

But Nick Laird’s protagonist, David, is no comic hero. David will not spend a hundred pages tripping over his own two feet, stymied amorously and socially, only to get the girl by story’s end. David is no Lucky Jim, brazening it out in an inhospitable society. The modern comic hero evolved from the Kingsley Amis prototype may be unlucky in his romantic gambits, but ultimately he lucks out as a suitor and as a young man on the make. Too unassertive to get the “girl,” David is content to get revenge.

David’s shadow self is in fact too ambiguous and murky to be exorcized through a comic plot, and it is part of Laird’s gift as a writer that he deftly navigates the novel’s passage from the fabrication of comic expectations to a dark fable of identity.

As a story that is intermittently one of vicariously experienced otherness, Glover’s Mistake at times resembles, in terms of character dynamics, Charles Baxter’s more sinister novel, The Soul Thief (2009). Except that in Glover, it is the main character, David, who manipulates identities. Under the guise of friend and confidant, masked by the anonymity of his Internet persona, David stealthily practices soul thievery.

A Soul Thief

“This is what it was like to be Glover,” thinks David, after snooping through Glover’s room, lying on his bed, and even reading the bookmarked passages in Glover’s Bible (pp. 153-4, Penguin, 2009). In contrast to classic versions of a motif that could be termed Visiting the Meaningful Other’s Place in his Absence––of which perhaps two of the best known instances are Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice visiting Pemberley, and Tatyana in Eugene Onegin visiting Onegin’s library––David’s intimate experience of Glover’s room is closer to one of projective identification.

Rather than entertaining an experience of thoughtful reflection yielding insight, David’s moments in Glover’s room are spent in a state of projective identification with his absent host, as David confuses his own identity with that of his enviable young friend. The Visiting Motif typically plays out as follows: the central character visits the occupant’s abode in his absence, discovers new information about the occupant, and reflects on the absent character’s true nature. The occupant might be the beloved, as in the classic examples mentioned, but it can also be a character, loved or despised, known intimately or more distantly, living or dead, who is vitally important to the central character’s sense of self.

Projection, in psychological terms a form of externalizing conflict, is what David engages in throughout the novel when, avoiding dealing with his own mixed feelings about Ruth, he focuses on his rivalry with Glover. In fact before beginning a relationship with Ruth, Glover tries to assess to what degree, if any, David may be interested–––which is to say attracted––to Ruth. On his first outing with Ruth, a visit to the National Gallery, David is aware of his lack of responsiveness. As the couple contemplate Michelangelo’s Entombment, David projects his dilemma onto the dead Christ figure in the painting. Focusing on “the spot where his penis should be,” David thinks: “I know how he feels…He put his hand in the pocket of his duffel and pressed it against his unresponsive crotch.” (p. 25)

Projection of identity involves the attribution of certain states of mind, or feelings, to someone else. In Glover’s Mistake, the anticipated match between intellectual equals Ruth and David doesn’t materialize, in part because David’s positive energy gets displaced onto his younger sidekick, Glover. In the scene in Glover’s room, David explores Glover’s being as rivalrous, as unworthy but enviable, projecting this enviability onto Glover to such an extent that he even envies Glover his religion––something David has heretofore viewed with derision.

Thus, by contrast with its function in the realist romance Pride and Prejudice, and in the satirical romance Eugene Onegin, where the Visiting Motif results in scenes that clarify the character of the beloved, as well as the relationship between the beloved and the protagonist, the Visiting Motif in Glover’s Mistake says far more about David than it does about this other being who is meaningful to him, not as a love object but as one who. however average intellectually, leads a life of authenticity and passion. The complexity of the Visiting Motif as a means of exploring character in this contemporary novel can perhaps best be seen by comparing it to the uses of the Visiting Motif in the 19th century novel, where the motif serves to provide both the reader and the main character with insight.

The Good Master  

Elizabeth Bennett’s visit to her suitor Darcy’s Pemberley estate in Pride and Prejudice (1813) comes at a point in the novel when Elizabeth and Darcy have broken off due to the improper, even scandalous, behavior of Elizabeth’s younger sisters. Disgraced by one sister’s elopement and by another’s wild flirtations, Elizabeth has the necessary social grace to manage the hurt to her family pride. Does she prejudge Darcy’s reaction to the Bennett family imbroglio? During the scene in which Elizabeth and her relatives, the Gardiners, visit Pemberley on the assumption that Darcy is absent, the negative projections which have fallen shadow-like upon Darcy’s image must be withdrawn one by one as Elizabeth hears a glowing report of his character from her tour guide: Darcy’s housekeeper.

Deconstructing Onegin

In Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (1825-1832), the novel’s heroine, Tatyana, visits the empty mansion of the man who has been the object of her romantic feelings, Onegin. Far from shy about appropriating the books in Onegin’s library for the purpose of learning his true character, Tatyana, heretofore a naïve country girl, becomes a shrewd investigator:

There many pages keep the impression
where a sharp nail has made a dent.
On these, with something like obsession,
the girl’s attentive eyes are bent.
Tatyana sees with trepidation
what kind of thought, what observation,
had drawn Eugene’s especial heed
and where he’d silently agreed.
Her eyes along the margin flitting
pursue his pencil. Everywhere
Onegin’s soul encountered there
declares itself in ways unwitting –
terse words or crosses in the book,
or else a query’s wondering hook.

Indeed, by scanning Onegin’s marginal notations, Tatyana discovers in Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and other romantic literature the sources of Onegin’s ego ideal. As Tanya reads, her own romantic projections fall away. In just a few stanzas, Pushkin’s heroine changes from a passionate young girl in love with a man of the world, to a dispassionate analyst of Onegin’s soul. Disenchantment ensues as she realizes that,  not only is he not the original she took him for, Onegin is a pastiche, and a virtual patchwork, of the heroes of romantic literature:

And so, at last, feature by feature,
Tanya begins to understand
more thoroughly, thank God, the creature
for whom her passion has been planned
by fate’s decree: this freakish stranger,
who walks with sorrow, and with danger,
whether from heaven or from hell,
this angel, this proud devil, tell,
what is he? Just an apparition,
a shadow, null and meaningless,
a Muscovite in Harold’s dress,
a modish second-hand edition,
a glossary of smart argot
a parodistic raree-show
(translation by Gary Freeman)

Sacred Spaces

Whether a visitor will experience another’s personal space in terms of reflection or projection is related to the visitor’s attitude to the unoccupied space. Visitors who intuit an absent character’s true nature approach the occupant’s intimate, even if public, space with an attitude of inquiry, respect, or awe. These intimate spaces guard the mysteries of the human heart. Such is Yulia Ragayev’s shack, visited by the human resources manager in A Woman in Jerusalem (2004). Typically, the accidental tourists of another’s secret self treat these intimate places almost as sacred spaces. Thus the human resources manger approaches a former employee’s home and possessions in a delicate and scrupulous way:

For a second, he recoiled. Who had given him permission to be here?…the little shack…suggested a fairy tale hut in its wintry setting….he…gently gathered the rain-drenched, mud-and-leaf-spattered articles…wondered briefly whether he had the right to rinse them…He mustn’t touch anything else… (pp. 85-7, A Woman in Jerusalem, Harcourt, 2004)

 “The view from here”

By contrast, David:

So this was the view from here, from his bed, from his pillow. This is what it was like to be Glover. Here was his Artex ceiling, the cream paper globe of his lampshade...The drawer of the wooden bedside table was open a little. He pulled it a few inches further. Towards the back was an Auto Trader and on top of it sat Glover’s Bible. When he touched a Bible, David liked to say, he wanted to go and wash his hands…David pulled out a bookmark…There was something desperate and saddening about Glover sitting on here….underlining mad and ancient rules to live by.(pp. 153-6)

There is more. David, envious of what he takes to be Glover’s simple faith, briefly imagines a possible universe in which disparate particles and specks of matter “could be resolved”:

For the split of a second he found himself thinking, Is it really so improbable that God exists? The sunlight was warm on his hands and face, and he remembered how faith felt, how cozy it could be…then the moment passed…If there is a God, David thought, why the fuck should it not be me?

Coming over halfway through the novel, David’s decision, following his visit to Glover’s room, to “play God” will lead to a resolution of the novel’s plot, if not to the resolution of David’s conflicts. The days of the David-Ruth-Glover triangle are numbered. David will indeed play God, manipulating the outcome of the romance between Ruth and Glover, an enterprise in which he is to be helped by his derisory attitude towards Glover, if not towards Ruth. As David undergoes a metamorphosis from hapless suitor to Machiavellian plotter, Nick Laird’s novel takes a swerve away from Lucky Jim comedy into a realm where the drama of revenge is leavened by the darkest of comic enactments.

Ambiguous Satire

Another aspect of Nick Laird’s talent as a writer of fiction can be seen in his handling of David’s character as the novel swerves from the appearance of light comedy onto darker terrain. For while David becomes less the passive sufferer and more the crafty plotter as the story progresses, he never stops carrying the torch of adoration for Ruth. If David is lacking in his response to Ruth’s attractiveness, he is full of a slyly sublimated appreciation for her beauty. Before Glover begins his affair with Ruth, he initiates the following dialogue with David:

            “How do you really feel about Ruth, I mean honestly?”
            “I really like her,” David said, mimicking his emphasis. “Why, don’t you?”
            “Of course, but I was wondering if you were going to do anything about it.”

Offended, David “thought Glover considered him inert.” (p. 38) And there is a curious inertness about David. David is being offered precedence. And David is being forewarned. But, too self-involved to sense a rival, David misses the warning, even as Glover tells him that he too finds Ruth attractive.

So David fails at the animal combat of male vs. male, and fails in that way to win the prize. Yet while his ensuing bitterness twists his character, and he turns to manipulation and deceit, David, as Ruth’s standard bearer, remains the window through which we continue to glimpse Ruth, not only as the object of richly deserved satire, but as an ideal being, one who inspires David’s continued devotion.

We first see Ruth through David’s eyes and continue to so see her throughout the novel’s metamorphosis from light comedy to dark satire cum revenge drama. The novel opens as David spots Ruth across a crowded room:

            She did look older of course, and the hair now unnaturally blonde. Her nose was
            still a little pointed, oddly fleshless, and its bridge as straight and thin as the
            ridge of a sand dune; one lit slope, the other shaded. (p. 3)

This detached, rather fanciful image is soon overlaid with David’s first sight of Ruth, when he is an art school student and Ruth is his teacher:

            …what came to mind was the moment he’d first seen her…In various dark layers,
            with a black headscarf over her blonde hair, the new lecturer was gripping each
            side of the podium as though she might fall. She had huge dark eyes, deepened
            with a ring of kohl, and spoke with excessive solemnity, trying to convince them
            that she was a serious proposition. The sobriety, though, couldn’t stay completely
            intact. Her voice would crack with emphasis, she’d accidentally enthuse. She had
            an ardour that came with practicing the art, a passion the professional tutors had
            lost. (p. 21)

Throughout the novel, as Ruth becomes involved with Glover in the most improbable of May/December romances, David remains loyal to his original vision of
The Lady of the Lectern. At Glover’s stag party, as a drunken friend of the groom inquires of Glover and David, “So has she got a rack?” David responds, like a troubadour at a mud-wrestling match:

            Ruth beggars all description. She has an exquisitely straight nose. And her eyes
            Are a deep intelligent brown.”
            “An exquisitely straight nose?” Glover laughed.
            “Like Cleopatra’s,” David said. Glover grinned at him with bemused approval:
            he couldn’t quite gauge his seriousness. (p. 181)

David, whose deeds become darker as the novel winds to a close, continues to be both a source of reasoned idealism: a variety of love, and, in his waywardness, an object of satire. Classic satire is aimed at one-dimensional men. Yet many are the barbs of satire that are aimed at David: troubadour, standard-bearer, confidant, friend, plotter, betrayer.

Today there are many hybrid novels out there, remixes of diverse genres. But not all of them work. Glover’s Mistake succeeds where other books fail because of the author’s exquisite attention to the intermingled elements of character and plot, ideas and writing, comedy and drama. The resulting novel, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, in the end comes to inhabit a kind of alternate universe where comedy joins humor to pathos.

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