By chance, I finished two books recently with ‘want’ in the title. As good a reason as any, I thought, to blog…
He Wants is the follow-up to Alison Moore’s excellent debut novel The Lighthouse which, as you may recall, appeared on the 2012 Booker shortlist — remarkable not just for being a coup for any debut novel, but for its being produced by the tiny publisher Salt (one of two indie publishers on that year’s shortlist). Again a short, tightly focused novel in which a certain melancholy seems to flow from the characters to pervade the text, He Wants has a slightly larger cast, but is very much in the same vein as Moore’s first book. It’s a story of repressed longings, buried memories, veiled but very real threats. We follow Lewis Sullivan, a retired RE teacher, as he potters through identical dull days: his daughter brings him soup he doesn’t want; sometimes he goes to the pub for a shandy and a sausage roll. Meanwhile, his father Lawrence is maundering in a retirement home, and Lewis’s daughter Ruth has a marginally more lively but ultimately similarly stultifying life: generation after generation, members of the Sullivan family seem destined to stumble into ruts they can’t escape from. It’s not like they even want to be in the village; Lewis often encounters neighbours he’d plainly like never to have to see again (Moore withholds the reasons for one mysetrious, violent encounter just long enough). Even the reader may not, due to the similarity of their names, be immune to the way Lewis, a teacher like Lawrence, often gets confused for the older man. Into this network of misspent lives comes Sydney, Lewis’s long-absent childhood friend, who seems at first a kind of spiv, but is soon revealed to be something more than just a chancer: he may be Lewis’s way out.
This is a thematically tight-knit novel: the characters’ desires, their “wants”, are referenced throughout, from wishes for vast life changes to regrets over the most minute of missed opportunities. The chapter titles, too, alert us to these: almost all begin ‘He wants’ or ‘He wanted’, in reference to Lewis, Lawrence, Sydney et al. When change comes for Lewis, it’s in a scene that confirms what the novel has spent a while obliquely hinting at (and I had wondered if I was reading too much into these hints), and although it’s almost as cathartic for the reader as for the character, I slightly felt that we peep behind the curtain, so to speak, at this moment. One of The Lighthouse‘s great pleasures was how the delicious cropping of its ending demonstrated to perfection the old saw about things being unsaid being as important as those said. It’s satisfying to give Lewis the opportunity to articulate what he really wants, and indeed to grasp it, but I felt a little of this slim book’s subtlety slipped away here.
There’s also a whimsical tone which sat uneasily with me. A loan shark character, Barry Bolton, has the name and the demeanour of a comic book villain, and fails to embody much of a threat, while characters’ obsessions over the right mug to drink coffee from, or what sausage roll they would or would not like to eat, push this book in the unwelcome direction of something like Rachel Joyce’s Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which the deliberately implausible setup and a whimsical tone detracts from any sense the characters are at any real risk and, therefore, from any sense that they have grown (or deserve our sympathies). Moore’s book is better by an order of magnitude than Joyce’s, but its depiction of village life recalls John Major’s much-derided description of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” — a place which, despite references to mobile phones and the Tottenham, might be stuck in 1954, not 2014(ish). Which may very well be what a lot of England is like, and may be contributing to the characters’ inertia, but is a little unthrilling to read about.
From over the pond — specifically, Brooklyn’s beautiful Book Court, where I bought my copy — comes Jonathan Miles‘s Want Not (Mariner Books). While in Moore’s novel, want colours her every character’s thoughts, Miles’s is thematically dense, exploring all manner of notions of (that unspoken half-phrase the title alludes to) waste. Here is bodily waste, food waste from restaurants, ordinary trash, waste paper (complete with indentity-theft-worthy documents), nuclear waste, wasted opportunity, characters one might accurately summarise as “wasters”, etc, etc. It all gets a bit much. It seems like there are a bunch of American authors (oddly enough, many called Jonathan) who would like to be Jonathan Franzen — or maybe there’s some Ur-writer at whom they’re all aiming, and eventually there’ll be a Big American Novel of Ideas credited solely to Jonathan, an icon without need of a surname.
Want Not is a long, thickly plotted, sometimes infuriating book, in which three sets of lives — that of a linguist whose life is collapsing around him following his divorce, that of a “freegan” couple dumpster-diving for food and living in a squat furnished with other people’s trash, and a debt collection agency’s head honcho — affect one another in (yes) unexpected ways.These are clever interactions, but it takes a while for them to be revealed, and the journey to that point involves a lot of longueurs and digressions. Miles, you feel, has sat for a while brainstorming every connotation the word “waste” brings to mind, then done a lot of research to become an expert on all these things. In the course of 386 pages, the reader learns the symptoms and effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the method for skinning and butchering a dead deer, how to “trick out” a Jeep to pimpmobile standards, how long a language can be expected to “live” unchanged, and many, many, many other things. As in Franzen, what we have in Want Not is something like the old “novel of information” which seeks to contain as much as it can about the world by, well, containing as much as it can. (Don DeLillo’s Underworld is perhaps the great example of the genre; it too deals with garbage and waste, especially the enormous, defunct (real-life) landfill in New York which — in the kind of life-imitating-DeLillo twist in which the 2000s has excelled — reopened after 9/11 to accommodate the waste after the disaster.) Often these are fascinating; I’ve not read a more shocking (in a good way) description of the physical sensation of giving birth, for instance, though obviously I’m not in a position to gainsay his description, either, and I wonder whether it rings true with mothers who read this book? Sometimes, though, a little pruning or tightening wouldn’t have gone amiss. When Matty, the freegans’ loser houseguest, gets trapped in a trash compactor and has to think fast to avoid being crushed to death, the book spends several pages of lyrical prose describing his actions and thought processes; it seemed an oddly stately way to describe frantic activity. Even bit-part characters get lengthy flashbacks, backstories, inner lives; it’s certainly comprehensive. For me it felt — as lots of novels of information can do — a little like it was a book that was exciting in the planning, but which had grown a little ungainly in the telling. That said, it’s a novel about conspicuous consumption and brazen waste, set in present-day New York, and for it to be excessive and capacious and all-encompassing is, in the end, entirely appropriate.