No teenage kicks


Ben Dolnick<em>HarperPress, 352pp, £12.99</em>

Emily Dickinson described poets as being able to distil "amazing sense/from ordinary meaning", and the same description can be applied to a good novel. Ben Dolnick's debut, Zoology, addresses the woes and discoveries abundant in any narrative about an 18-year-old spending a summer in a big city. Having been "advised" by the administration of his university to take a year out, Henry Elinsky ends up moving back in with his family. His mother has always been "a little private, a little fed up with everyone she knows. She'll sometimes let bits of complaints slip . . . but they just feel like spoonfuls from a bath." His father is a primary school music teacher given to optimism and embarrassing anecdotes. Henry's Uncle Walter also lives with the family - he's "a balder, skinnier, sadder version of Dad".

The prospect of a year out at home, helping with his father's music classes, becomes too horrifying to be borne. His older brother David, a trainee doctor in New York, invites Henry to stay with him and his artist girlfriend Lucy in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. A girl called Margaret, who lives in the same building, becomes Henry's first love.

It's hard to be charmed by or even engage much with Henry's feelings for Margaret, as these feelings seem part of a larger complex of neurosis and self-regard. Zoology's narrative appears to be based on the idea that a woman's role is to soothe pain and bring beauty to places. True, the narrator is an 18-year-old boy writing up his holiday diary. But in the world of Zoology, a woman who doesn't soothe pain ("I understood maybe the most important thing about Margaret and me: she could make me feel better but I couldn't do the same for her") or bring domestic order ("Mom brought purple flowers and put them in a vase by the kitchen window. She mopped the floor in my room, she threw out the magazines and mail that had been stacked all over the apartment, she lined the fridge with rows of Tupperware") becomes an anti-character.

David's girlfriend Lucy, for example, spends the novel buzzing with an incomprehensible hostility. We know that she is an artist; that her parents own the apartment that she, David and now Henry live in; that she's a fancy cook who puts squiggles of sauce under fish. Henry notes the short amount of time that Lucy spends in her studio. Henry mocks the art that Lucy makes - "Her parents put together a show for her in their house once . . . the paintings all had names like Never/Always and Music for Trilobytes." Mention of Lucy's former love, who died in a house fire, feels like text inserted to add depth to the reader's perception of Lucy. You know you're in trouble with a novel if you find yourself growing indignant on behalf of a character you would shudder at in any other context.

Henry gets a summer job working at the Children's Zoo in Central Park, chopping vegetables to feed the animals. Everyone he meets has a dream or a story to tell him. Ramon, a security guard, talks about his son, an infantryman fighting in the Middle East: "My son didn't decide we should start a war, but as soon as it got going, he made sure he was on the first plane over there, and you know what I call that, no matter whether I think George Bush is a great president or not? I call that courage."

Had it unfolded convincingly, there would be no objection to the loveliness of a community of oral wisdom settling around an anxious boy suffering from unrequited love. Margaret already has a boyfriend, so Henry sulks, obsesses, fantasises and self-pities in a way that makes an already unsympathetic character worthy of mild dread. A rabbit called Gandalf comes to play a part in Henry's life, as does a Nubian goat called Newman, which, freed by Henry, escapes the zoo and disappears on the night of a Manhattan blackout. But as I had already zoned out, it was difficult to care. True, there were glimmers throughout of the writer reorganising perception - Henry's reluctance to do his work at the zoo actually scares him: "By the ten thirty break, the idea of still having a full day ahead of me seemed like an emergency, something I couldn't possibly be expected to bear." And there is some fine writing - drops of blood in swimming-pool water look like "a pair of dark fish" when cupped in Henry's hands. But for this reader, Zoology holds too much ordinary meaning and not enough amazing sense.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide