There’s a voice in my head that I am not proud of. Lately I’ve taken to calling it “the relationship grinch”. Having had an experience or two that I’d rather forget and of course can’t, that being the uncanny nature of experience, I have strong opinions about relationships. There are things I see happening to my friends that make me squeamish and things that make me confident I’ve made good decisions. At other times, I want to undo the past faster than a dog digging to china on a beach. And of course there are things I can’t tolerate any more and things I will never understand and a very good friend of mine once described herself as being “tired and anxious through most of [her] 20s” and all I can assume is that one day none of these things will matter quite so much. That is what I daydream about: A time when I will stop questioning what makes a relationship work and actually be able to accept them as peculiar and inexplicable (my own, and everybody else’s) which in theory I do, but the daydream recurs.
How To Be Good may be the first Nick Hornby novel I’ve ever read, or it may be the first Nick Hornby novel I’ve read in a very long time. It’s difficult to be certain. Nick Hornby writes an excellent column on reading for The Believer magazine (another McSweeney’s publication), he has a film or two to his name and last year he put out an album with Ben Folds because that’s what you do when you are cool. I imagine when my blog grows up, I might be able to say, “Hey Ben, I have some writing, how would you feel about writing some sweet sweet piano music to go with it?” I wouldn’t even care if it was not related to my blog. Give me Ben and a Piano and I’d be happy. I have strayed from the point.
This book threw me for a loop in that I was expecting quirky, witty and funny, but not at all anticipating the bizarre that came with it. This means its taken me a few days to get my head around reviewing it. And I think the only way I can illustrate it, is to tell you the key plot device. It may be a spoiler, but if you’re interested in stories, it will probably act as more of a hook. Here goes…
How To Be Good is the midlife crisis plot of Dr Katie Carr, who has been happily married for several years and unhappily married for a few. Katie is our first person, subjective narrator. She has a writer husband, two young children and a lovely house in the suburbs and on the first page she asks for a divorce:
“I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him any more…This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and too my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband [this], I really didn’t think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn’t forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”
It’s not every day that your first person narrator is as lost as you are.
What follows is neither entertaining, nor original, but thank goodness it is concise. We learn that Katie’s husband, David, is difficult to like and that their life is characterised by fights, passive aggression and callous, thoughtless routine with fault on both sides. Katie has recently fallen into an affair. If you’ve ever been in an unhappy house, you’ll recognise the dance.
“This is not entertainment!” I hear you cry, and I agree. However, when David arrives home asking for a fresh start and sporting a profoundly altered personality, which his wife is certain can only be explained by something insidious (a brain tumour perhaps?) well then I am staying for the ride.
“I’m not sure I do want to sleep with David, because of Stephen, and because of being in a mess, and all that stuff, but it’s not just David I don’t want to sleep with. There’s this other man, too, the man who likes the theatre and gives money away and tries to be nice to people, and I’m not sure I want to sleep with him either, because I don’t really know him, and he is beginning to give me the creeps. To dislike one husband may be regarded as unfortunate, but to dislike both looks like carelessness.”
Initially, the ride is a personal question.
What are we left with when the person we know so intimately becomes someone else?
But as David’s acts of benevolence become increasingly larger in scale and scope, Katie wishes for her old life: The life that wasn’t coloured by a reformed drug addict, now alternative healer, living in the spare bedroom or the homeless teenager living in the study, where her husband did not try to carry the roast lunch off to the womens’ shelter when he should be serving it to his mother-in-law, where he sat in his office writing his invective newspaper column rather than designing schemes for the neighbours to adopt homeless kids or sanctimonious versions of the communist manifesto. I imagine introspection is difficult to avoid when you’ve recently asked your husband for a divorce, but it’s certainly difficult to know which way is up when he so stubbornly insists on “being good”. Katie is baffled at every turn by arguments that she, a good person, cannot refute: “but they have nothing,” “but it’s for the homeless”.
I told you it was quirky.
But amidst the quirk, Katie is struggling with her own big picture. It is a tribute to Mr Hornby that he can balance such grim, honest narration with such an absurd counterpoint. How To Be Good is for the average person, living the average life, worried they are going about it the wrong way. Don’t worry, be happy. Genius.
There are some great characters on this merry-go-round. In addition to Katie’s inner diatribe – a fine example of a fine (when well-executed) device and David, who may or may not have a brain tumour*, we have her children, Molly the 8 year old zealot who will climb on the bandwagon of any cause that wins parental approval at the expense of her older brother. Which brings us to Tom, who cannot understand why his computer must be given to charity and misbehaves accordingly, quickly solidifying his reputation as the school bully. GoodNews, the healer is David’s new best friend who has turtles tattooed where his eyebrows should be. All rounded off by a steady stream of ‘normal’ family, friends and acquaintances challenged in variously comic ways by David’s sudden uncharacteristic, dogged insistence on being nice.
It’s not what I was expecting, but it was good old fashioned story-telling:
Take an idea, think What If? And run with it.
I guess I’ll have to track down a copy of Fever Pitch now.
- To me this book felt like a french farce movie…you know the ones where they invite the strangest person they can think of to a dinner party and then are trapped in an apartment with them for the night by accident? It’s not a very common vibe in published fiction, at least in my experience, have you any examples?
- I love a first person subjective narrator when it is done well, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius remains my favourite example. Can you recommend another?
- Gabrielle @ Contextual Life, has just written a review of Nick Hornby’s new book. So if you’d like to know more about the Believer columns I mentioned, you can read about the new book, which collates them here – it must be a Nick Hornby sort of week.
* Actual interesting medical fact: Tumours in the frontal lobe can significantly alter personality and we know this because of a man named Phineas Gage. Follow the link for one of the sciencey stories that arty people also love. Incidentally, tumours in the temporal lobe, can bring on fervent religiosity.