In his withering recent review of Crusaders, by his fellow Faber author Richard T Kelly, Adam Mars-Jones took offense at Kelly's supposedly weak, incoherent and incorrect use of language. It made for uncomfortable reading (especially at Faber, whose publicity director, Rachel Alexander, is Kelly's wife), but prepared the ground combatively for Mars-Jones's own offering Pilcrow, his first novel for 15 years.
His keenly intelligent narrative tells of a 1950s childhood blighted by Still's disease, a form of juvenile arthritis that fuses the protagonist's joints together and causes him great pain. But this is not a self-pitying tale - John Cromer is above all an intelligent and lively boy with a wide-eyed curiosity about his limited world. As he puts it, "Boredom doesn't really describe my experience. Small events resounded with more significance than I knew what to do with."
John recounts his experiences and impressions in a series of vignettes, and in his words and imagination he reclaims the flexibility that his joints lack. "A sense of the meaning of life can be constructed from any material however unpromising, from whatever lies to hand," he says. You might not exactly find the meaning of life here, but Mars-Jones has delivered a sophisticated, sensitive and - yes - linguistically fascinating book.
John is born healthy, a model baby who graces the cover of Nursery World. However, at the age of three he develops acute joint pains - "squatters in my knees, wrecking the premises". Misdiagnosed with rheumatic fever, he is prescribed extended bed rest, actually exacerbating his illness. His loving and ever-patient mother, Laura, sits with him in these futile years, entertaining him with any mental stimulation she can think of (even if this sometimes consists of snobby gossip about "lower" people).
When John's parents learn about Still's they move him to a specialist hospital ward, which also houses other children and its own school, to John's utter delight. The remainder of the novel chronicles his experiences at this hospital, then at a boarding school for intelligent boys with long-term illnesses. At both institutions John must negotiate hierarchy and authority, bullies and friends, and both kind adults and their unpleasant, even torturous counterparts. Part of his coming-of-age story involves realising he is gay; the logistics of sexual trysts between schoolboys of limited mobility are recounted with sympathetic humour by Mars-Jones.
The book's first third is its glittering best: as he grows older, John's rich internal narrative fades a little. Pilcrow faces the problem of sustaining the reader's interest over 500-plus pages, when the main character is largely deprived of autonomous action. Mostly it succeeds. Instead of writing a faster-paced book that would have done a disservice to the protagonist's experiences, Mars-Jones deploys an intricately developed aesthetic range to invigorate his novel with the vitality it might otherwise lack.
The novel's enduring interest will perhaps be guaranteed by the teasing implications of this rich and ambitious weave of linguistic playfulness and structural nuances, which together compel the reader to focus closely on the novel's language and typography (as you would expect in a book named after a typographical character). Words like "rôle", "foetal" and "coöperative" are always given their full orthographic garlands, so thrilled is John by these unusual letter-forms. He is also fascinated by private languages - such as those of class, families, medicine or sex. Definitions, addresses, names; songs, poems and storytelling; acronyms, misspellings and mishearings - none of these escapes the narrator's attention. Puns abound in Pilcrow, although there is also a wariness about giving language too free a rein: "When things meant more than one thing, a process was set in train that would end in them meaning nothing at all," notes John.
Nevertheless, Mars-Jones toys with double meanings, covert messages and buried clues (including possible references to his earlier works), peppering his novel with narrative false starts, characters who appear only fleetingly and subjects hinted at, then abandoned. Even the pilcrow itself is given this treatment.
The novel begins with a wonderfully suggestive paragraph that explains the unusual title: a pilcrow is the ¶ sign, used to denominate a new paragraph, and the narrator sees it as a metaphor for his "place in the human alphabet" - he is more of "a specialised piece of punctuation" than a letter. The sign's fused descender also physically represents the ankylosed joints of the Still's disease sufferer. However, the idea is explored no further. Similarly, on page four we hear of "two maniacs" whom John encounters in later life, but we never return to this incident. Nor do we discover how he learns to drive, or why he adopts aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism as an adult.
In fact, Pilcrow is the first of a John Cromer trilogy, so at least some of these mysteries will be unravelled in the next instalment, which shall be eagerly awaited - though I hope it won't take another 15 years to emerge.