Gently coercing readers into considering the most challenging of human situations – the possible approach of death, extreme physical limitation and, here, sexual and emotional abuse – via a montage of minutely observed mundanity is Adam Mars-Jones’s stock-in-trade. In Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes of a projected quartet, the narrator described his journey from serious childhood illness and resulting disability to a young adulthood of spiritual and sexual experimentation by recording it in detail. This appeared at first fatiguing but gradually revealed itself to be the point: if your material horizons are curtailed, you’d better notice every millimetre and nuance of them.
In the John Cromer novels, Mars-Jones used length as a sort of friendly weapon; in Box Hill: a story of low esteem, it is compression. The slim and sprightly book, which won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize, barely exceeds the entry requirement of 30,000 words. But if this is a jeu d’esprit then the game is a very dark one.
It begins with an 18th birthday: that of the narrator, Colin, on a Sunday in 1975. It’s a far cry from today’s performative carnivals; his “little mum” in hospital and his “little dad” traumatised and distracted, he has cadged a pillion ride to nearby Box Hill “to look at the bikes”. In short order, he has tripped over one of their sleeping owners, formed a virtually wordless connection with him and fellated him. By the end of the day, he has moved into Ray’s flat, where he lives for the next six years.
But this is not a love song. As the novel’s subtitle implies, it’s the story of an asymmetric relationship, one in which the ingénu – podgy, bullied, insecure Colin – submits entirely to a love object who is, it quickly becomes clear, a nasty piece of work. On their first night together, Ray rapes Colin, without even “a smear of the candle-grease that his leathers benefited from” and subsequently makes him sleep on the floor beside his black satined bed, where he remains for the duration of those six years, special occasions excepting. Ray also introduces him to the bike-cum-poker club, whose Saturday night card schools feature Colin fetching and carrying drinks and making himself available for sexual favours (“if this was some sort of commune, then I was part of what it shared in common. All for one, and Colin for everybody”). Such is his submission that one of his most cherished memories is of his feelings when another houseboy is introduced to the circle and Ray appears to spurn him in favour of Colin.
What is Box Hill about? In its 128 pages, it is both strikingly expansive and wilfully resistant to interpretation. Its portrait of Colin, who is recounting that period of his life from the vantage point of early middle age, is available only through his eyes, and yet so much seeps through: the particularity of his family set-up, the quality of his autodidact-icism, the precise extent to which he understands what has happened to him.
And for those of a certain age, geographical and class background, the period detail is joltingly, exquisitely exact – not merely in the observation of concrete features, but in the way that Mars-Jones captures the texture and colour of English suburban life in the 1970s, caught somewhere between the remembered raciness of the Sixties and the sudden cultural and capitalist expansion of the Eighties. In this, as well as its depiction of a transgressive first love remembered, Box Hill put me very much in mind of Julian Barnes’s The Only Story.
But of Ray, we know tantalisingly little. Colin never discovers his last name, his occupation, or anything much else about him, and, in one sense, likes it that way. There is, he tells us, “a bit of philosophy behind” his lack of curiosity. “In fairy stories, I know you’re supposed to sympathise with the person who can’t resist asking the fatal question, making the fatal discovery, but I never did. I mean, Mrs Bluebeard wasn’t really on the ball, if she thought she’d settled down with a man who had no secrets. If all the doors in the spooky castle had been unlocked, if she could wander wherever she wished, her husband would never have appealed to her. He would have been just another smoothie she met at a party.”
Colin, as he describes himself, would never have met a smoothie at a party, would quite possibly have never gone to a party at all. He was, in the crudest of terms, easy meat. And Ray, as this devastatingly suggestive and disquieting book suggests, bears out one of John Cromer’s theories, in Pilcrow, that “as long as you used enough force of character, you could be as suburban as you liked”.
Fitzcarraldo, 128pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion