Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Book review: The Girl on the Page, John Purcell (2018)

This strange and ambitious book is a hybrid of two distinct things: a genre novel and a work of literary fiction. Despite some shortcomings it forms a generalised paean to writing, and especially to fiction. The following review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens in the book it’s probably best to stop reading now.

The story charts part of the chaotic life of Amy Winston, who is an editor working for a publishing house whose reputation is partly based on her success in massaging the works of a thriller writer named Liam Smith into commercially viable products. At the height of her success, Amy is asked by her company, which has just been bought by a German firm, to help an older English writer named Helen Owen to complete a manuscript to be ready for publication. The company had already paid a two-million-pound advance to Helen for a book but Helen had been unable to submit a manuscript by the time specified in the contract. Hence their sending in Amy. The company had also started threatening Helen with legal action designed to retrieve the advance, which had in the meantime been spent buying a house for Helen and her husband, novelist Malcolm Taylor, in a nice area of London. The two had previously lived in a small flat in Brixton.

Helen has produced three separate manuscripts and has submitted one to the company. The editor, whose name is Clarissa, and who by this time has left the company, had thought that the manuscript was not up to the same standard as Helen’s earlier work. Amy asks Helen for a file to work with but Helen refuses to give it to her, fearing that it will be shared without her knowledge with other people, although all her work is at this point in her life produced on a computer. The couple have a separate unit in their house suitable for Amy to use so Helen suggests that Amy move in and read paper manuscripts while living in their house. Access to the unit requires a separate key.

Amy is a loose cannon and when Daniel, Helen’s and Taylor’s son, comes to stay, having separated from his wife and children, sparks fly. Daniel tries it on with Amy, who initially has no interest in the fortysomething, overweight man, but one night when she comes home drunk late she lets him go to bed with her. He also has unresolved issues with his parents, who he accuses of being distant during his childhood.

Amy has strong appetites for alcohol and sex and she routinely uses people, such as a labourer and barman named Josh, who she gives money to, having plenty of it to use for whatever purposes she likes. She is also in touch with Max, a former boyfriend who operates a magazine, and with Alan, a lawyer who proposes marriage early on in the novel. Much of the action is rendered in the third person but for some chapters the first person is used, notably some in which the narrative is focalised through the characters of Amy and of Max.

There are not many people to like in this novel for much of its length, and Liam (who is black and with whom Amy has regular sex) is particularly distasteful, but it is written in an engaging and readable style despite threatening to lose even the most attentive reader because of its driving forward movement. In many of the passages of dialogue you wish that Purcell had put in a few more attributions saying “said Amy” to help you negotiate the intricacies of the plot. Other writers who produce complex plots, like Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, stop periodically and refresh the ledger for the reader, but Purcell does not think it necessary. He rushes on regardless and if you don’t have the wit to keep up, you are left behind. This I think is a weakness of this novel. The relentless onward push of the narrative is demanded by its style but the complexity of the story asks that a bit more time be spent on cementing facts in the reader’s mind. Which version of Helen’s novel was submitted to Clarissa? Which one did Amy email to Liam to read?

In the end, Liam sends Julia – Amy’s nemesis at the publishing house – the draft manuscript that Amy had already worked on, and Julia tells Helen that she will go ahead and publish it. Or perhaps it was the draft that Amy had not worked on. It’s not clear. The novel doesn’t let you know for certain because its helter-skelter pace requires that facts are left behind almost as soon as they are stated. In any case, this thread of the story is resolved halfway through the book when Julia accepts the first version of Helen’s manuscript. So the house (that has caused Malcolm so many problems) will not be lost. But the story doesn’t stop there. Daniel suicides while the public debate about his father’s latest novel evolves and it is longlisted and then shortlisted for the Booker Prize (a major Anglosphere literary prize that is awarded every year). Amy is dragged into the intricacies of Helen’s and Malcolm’s life and Malcolm appears to be losing his memory: he thinks that Helen has died but his doctor does not produce a diagnoses of dementia. One day he ends up at the flat that he and Helen had lived in while they brought up their son, and the current resident calls to tell Helen and Amy about the old man’s sudden appearance at his front door.

Reality intrudes into the calm provinces of the publishing world that Amy had thought she inhabited. Things turn ugly, then alarming, then fatal, then they resolve as she is presented with the truth (as Purcell sees it) about the literary world even as the bodies pile up (as often happens with genre novels). And so the story advances to its close. Amy still has not got back into a relationship with Max, and Alan has committed to a marriage with a man. All the while, the pages turn.

The trope of three related manuscripts has been used before, in Christopher Priest’s 1981 science fiction novel, ‘The Affirmation’ (which I reviewed here on the blog on 29 August this year). In Priest’s novel, the manuscripts play a central role in the plot, as they do here in Purcell’s novel. And both novels are not only therefore metafictional works, they are also both genre works that are worthy of serious regard.

But a criticism I have is the way Purcell’s book deals with the elderly. Malcolm is (I think) 80 when the book starts and Helen is a few years younger. But while there are some reported thoughts – even though dialogue is more frequently used to do things like develop character and advance the plot – neither Helen nor Malcom have any thoughts about their bodies. The author was born in the mid-70s, so he has not yet entered “old age” himself, but speaking from experience (I was born in the early 60s) there is one thing that universally characterises that state of being: the breakdown of the body. It’s not merely going to bed early and waking up early. Old age will result in a range of physical complaints, such as heart problems, high blood pressure, problems seeing things, and problems with joints and muscles. There is nothing in this book that reflects this reality, and it’s just not credible, especially as Malcolm seems to be suffering from a form of delusion and this impacts on the direction the story takes.

In the end, literary fiction is given a fillip but the style is all genre. It’s as though Modernism had not happened. There’s little notice given here to Joyce or Faulkner or Hemingway (well, maybe him) or Simon or Garcia Marquez. This novel’s head may harbour thoughts of fine literature but its heart is with the blockbuster, the page-turner, the best-seller. Not so long ago critics would call a novel like this “schizophrenic” because, they surmised, it had a “split personality”, even though they knew nothing about the particular disease the name of which they misused with such wild abandon. It was a term used to critique whatever book was up for discussion, usually not in a complimentary way. I will not use the term myself having, as it happens, a sound knowledge of what the disease actually involves (and it doesn’t involve anything like what people usually want to imply when they use the word).

Nevertheless, this novel is at least paradoxical because of the way it uses one style to tell a story that in its details critiques the precise style that is being used. In this sense, the book can be said to have metafictional themes as well as the other main themes in it, which are money and youth.

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