It’s not often that the author of the novel you are reading is referred to within her own fiction. In Good Day?, Vesna Main does just so with a knowing grin: she is “some foreign woman. Some V Main”; “She is no name. She ought to be pleased if you give her exposure. Free publicity.”
This is not the only unusual detail in Good Day?, the sharp and quick-witted third book from Zagreb-born Main. It is told entirely in dialogue between just two people: an unnamed woman and her unnamed husband. She is an author in the process of writing a novel; he is an academic and his wife’s first reader. On his return home from work each day, the couple discuss what she has been writing, passing character details and motivations back and forth. The novel she is writing also concerns a married couple, this time an academic and a gallery owner named Richard and Anna. It follows them during the aftermath of the revelation that Richard has been visiting prostitutes for a number of years.
What follows is a fast-paced, intimate discussion of sex work, gender bias, blame and marital faithfulness – all in the name of best developing this novel in progress. Unlike a traditional script, there is no name introducing each character’s speech. But you needn’t find yourself counting lines to work out who is speaking. Instead, Main’s dialogue springs along with a rhythmic pulse, each character ringing out loud and clear.
From the off, Main’s novelist sees language as black and white. She criticises her husband for continually backing her male character (“Are you trying to justify what he did by making her out to be mad?”; “You’re supporting the man by rubbishing the woman”; “What a male mind you have”). The character’s irritatingly binary approach also affects her opinion of sex work, as she refuses to believe that any woman might “freely choose” to engage in it, stating: “No matter how much she chooses and consents to paid sex, a prostitute is raped each time.” This bluntness doesn’t allow for any light and shade, and suggests she won’t make the most nuanced of writers. As a tease, Main offers us just one short extract of the novelist’s prose, which is sticky and hyper-aware. Part of me wants to read the final novel-within-a-novel to piece this dialogue together in context; the rest of me foresees how excruciating that process might be. Thankfully, Main is far more insightful than her fictional novelist.
The couple’s conversation reaches deep into the meta-literary, as they interrogate the purpose of “the novel” at all. “I want my novel to transcend the story and the issue,” the writer declares. Twelve pages later: “To my mind, changing the world isn’t the novel’s primary function. That’s not why I write.” Why she does write, she never fully explains.
As Good Day? tears on, the lines between the novelist and Anna, and her husband and Richard begin to blur. Already, there are uneasy parallels: both couples – fictional and meta-fictional – have been married for 24 years and have two grown-up daughters. Anything more we learn about our narrators comes only through Richard and Anna: we are not told directly what the man does, but learn that his wife making Richard “an academic specialising in suffragettes” is “too close” for his liking; we are not told about the novelist’s interests, but that Anna is “always trying to turn their Edwardian house into a minimalist loft” – and that the novelist’s husband’s response to that is, “All our friends will recognise you here.” Soon enough, we realise we know more about Richard and Anna than those whose daily conversations we are reading.
The novelist continues to borrow elements of their domestic reality for use in her book, her husband grows more and more perturbed, she is defensive, they argue. They go round in circles, one line of his cuts particularly deep: “Nothing’s sacred to you. You pilfer our lives for whatever you need.”
A few days later, he asks: “Don’t you always say that you can’t stand novels that imitate life?” “Just a little borrowing here and there,” she insists. “I can’t help it if uneducated readers think everything is autobiographical.” And there’s the warning: Main may be a novelist writing about a novelist writing about a woman very similar to herself but, no matter how much this formula tempts us into slipping into assumptions, it would be an oversight to mistake Main for her character – or her character’s character, for that matter. Fiction is more complicated than that.
“Good Day?” has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize
Salt Publishing, 224pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone