A question of taste
Maynard and Jennica
Rudolph Delson Fourth Estate, 304pp, £14.99
Meet Maynard, an eccentric boater-wearing piano-teacher-slash-film-maker who is in the habit of constantly making resolutions. Then meet Jennica, a Wall Street employee who makes obsessive lists and redundantly punctuates her sentences with "like". These neurotic New Yorkers first clap eyes on one another on the downtown No 6 train, and Maynard is instantly attracted to Jennica's voice: "That like - very sexy. Like, the watchword of eternal youth." Readers may disagree: Maynard and Jennica is colloquial to the point of distraction, its occasionally acute observations drowned out by airhead chatter.
Every stage of the ensuing love affair between the couple is played out on New York public transport, with journeys on "the No 1 and No 9 trains between Columbus Circle and Columbia University". For anyone unfamiliar with the city and the finer points of its transport system, things can get confusing. But the site-specific detail is important: it also provides the backdrop to Maynard's film commentary on contemporary fashion, Unseemly, and it is at the post-screening Q&A the couple first exchange words.
There are 35 human characters in the novel, as well as an aged macaw, cicadas, frogs, crickets, and the emergency brake on a No 6 train. The narrative flits between opinionated family members (dead and alive) - including Jennica's Jewish parents (whose only concern is that their daughter marries accordingly) - a rip-off hip-hop artist, a Russian-Israeli bunco artist who attempts to cash in on the 9/11 attacks by declaring herself dead and who ends each line with "weis' du?", a former best friend and casual passers-by.
The list, unsurprisingly, includes a fair number of stereotypes. They are entirely intentional - during his Unseemly Q&A, Maynard observes: "You achieve immortality by being a cliché. Because if you are a cliché, then even though you may die, you have lived on." But the gimmicky structure is reflected in a frustrating lack of depth; a host of potentially gritty subjects are only fleetingly explored.
It is only in its penultimate section, concerning the weeks after 9/11, that the novel really comes alive. Rudolph Delson's decision to incorporate the subject into a comic novel is calculated. The story is largely concerned with the way that Maynard suffers aesthetically over the tastelessness of others, most comically captured by a subplot in which his piano sonata gets sampled for use in a hip-hop anthem.
In a similar way, the inclusion of 9/11 captures what Delson perceives to be the trite and saccharine response of America to the tragedy. None of the characters is injured in the attacks. Rather, Maynard is mildly disgusted by an America infected with esprit de pays, by the tricolour "Never Forget" T-shirts. He comments: "Pat riotism is always in such - bad taste." Through him, Delson pokes fun at the addictive blend of media hype and universal passion for indulging in tragedy. Maynard jibes: "You are not all New Yorkers - you are all shit. I don't want your solidarity, I want my towers back - to block off my view of America."
The filmic quality is so apparent that it's surprising Delson bothered with the book format at all - Maynard and Jennica has already been optioned by the producer Scott Rudin, of The Truman Show and The Queen fame. With the cutesy gift of a Maine coon cat to launch the couple's romance, plenty of nauseating dialogue regarding the naming of the animal and subsequent descriptions of how pleasant it is to be in a relationship, it has all the ingredients of a successful romcom.
In its novel form, though, Delson has exercised a Dave Eggers-style formatting freedom, while telling some of Woody Allen's jokes. The comedic blend is lent weight by 9/11, a handy tragedy that provides the characters with an element of integrity that they otherwise lack.