Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nick Laird's "Glover's Mistake": Book Review

His début "Utterly Monkey," likably set in 80s Northern Ireland and today's London, seemed too eager for adaptation into a Guy Ritchie ladz romp; this new novel's composed, crafted, and updates Henry James, Shakespeare, and "The Apartment." Love's imperfections, revenge's joys, and God's absence allow chaos to come again to hipster London.

Laird listens to how we talk and how we think. David Pinner, a 35-year-old teacher and a bitter blogger of our foibles, resents his 21-year-old Bible-reading flatmate James Glover's object of affection, 47-year-old American ex-pat Ruth Marks, who once taught David at art school. She's formed in Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" mold, deftly summed up in deadpan fashion filtered as is nearly all the action by David's p-o-v: "creating a gigantic papier-maché teapot with a door, and then covering it in silver foil, takes two and a half months and requires two assistants." (129)

David, lonely, resolves to sabotage Ruth and Glover. That's the novel's plot. It's simpler than "Othello." Like Iago, we understand David's betrayal even as we're distanced from it as we see its toll taken. David yearns to restore meaning, and in art he sees the addiction of multiplying allegories everywhere, to assert Newtonian solidity rather than quantum unpredictability, even as he despairs in our secular era of finding consolation as he tries to play God and manipulate his flatmate and his muse. David despises the solipsism and flatulence of so much of what's peddled as contemporary art, yet his determination both to take down Ruth and to replace Glover beside her reveals what he may not articulate to himself: a way to heal the atomization of London, of our faithless mindset, and our tawdry wastes of time.

Laird published two well-received poetry collections before his novels. His phrasing shows this to be at its best a better book than the satirical, arch, pitched tragicomedies of metropolitan manners it may be shelved beside. Christmas with the parents, a party on "London's premier mobile disco," a party's failure, an awkward meeting with somebody you've known first on-line: all these gain by Laird's steady observation. Roofs look with satellite dishes as if "white carnations fixed in buttonholes." A girl's eyes "the same tense blue as Microsoft Word." A woman's "forehead dappled evenly with sweat as though she'd used a pastry brush" as she's "spent ten minutes coughing her illness into [David's] face" on the Tube.

How does Pandarus, Sancho Panza, Mercutio, or a eunuch feel as he witnesses the pleasures of those among whom he lives? David's plight may cause little admiration, but Laird draws us into his reactions to the privileged life Ruth embodies unthinkingly, and which Glover, a very ordinary barman, enters. She's always had it all, both men have not, and on this simple but eternal rationale for envy and motivation, the novel unfolds astringently, yet often tenderly. It's a bracing, uncomfortable, and poignantly fresh take on a familiar story, and Laird's to be commended on his ability to keep one interested in David's desperation. This may not please readers wanting a light read; as with "Utterly Monkey," Laird's ambitions and erudition deepen and enrich what in lesser hands may have been a pat storyline.

(Posted to Amazon US 6-30-2009; I also reviewed there "Utterly Monkey" 2-28-2006. Unlike the first novel, his London-based second work has no references to Irish contexts, but David's father's from Northern Britain and drinks Guinness.)

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