Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Accidental Woman by Jonathan Coe

As a critic, I’m accustomed to giving my views on the works of writers. That’s the way it goes. It doesn’t work the other way around: writers don’t generally give their opinions on the reading taste of their critics. It might be quite fun if they did. In the case of Jonathan Coe, however, I do know what he thinks of my reading taste, because he told me. A number of years ago, when I was a raw and callow librarian, I compiled a book promotion which included among its twenty titles What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe, and he kindly agreed to write an introduction to the promotion. I had presented an interesting selection of novels he said, “if a touch male-centred.” He was right, of course: it was a very masculine list and, taking a look at the reviews on this blog, I’ve improved only slightly in terms of gender balance in the ensuing years. At least I can number Carson McCullers and Marilynne Robinson among my favourite authors now, alongside Gunter and Gabriel and Kurt and Hermann, but I still wish I read more by women writers.

Which is apposite for the subject matter of Coe’s The Accidental Woman. This is his debut novel and an unusual one it is. If most debut novels are generally reckoned to be, to some extent at least, autobiographical, then Coe would appear to have done a fine job in disguising those autobiographical elements, with his strong female protagonist and whimsical choice of voice. Voice, indeed, is central to the novel, because it completely dominates - to be honest to an unhealthy degree. But such is the way of debut novels, I suppose.

Maria is an individualist, someone who meanders her way through life with no discernible thought or plan or ambition or even sense of achievement. She is not unintelligent – far from it she is intellectually gifted – but she seems incapable of turning her intellect into anything more useful than a vehicle for appreciating music late at night, on her own, in the dark, staring into blackness. She finds herself embroiled in the rites of passage which interrupt so many lives – university, sex, marriage, motherhood, divorce, loneliness – and in each case she seems to have stumbled into that state by accident rather than design, and she subsequently extricates herself from those states equally by chance. It takes some skill to write a convincing and engaging narrative about someone so inconsequential, and Coe, a very fine writer, does manage to pull it off, albeit with some qualifications.

For an explanation of those qualifications, we are back to the voice, because the most striking aspect of the novel is the narrative voice. It is a typical apprentice piece, really, extremely striking but, in the end, overdone. It becomes wearing. What, at first, seems fresh and amusing, quickly palls. The unnamed omniscient narrator adopts a facetious, waggish, knowing voice which deliberately sets out to unhinge the story from a realist framework. It’s the sort of postmodern technique that Nathanael West perfected, and that gives James Purdy his edgy, disconnected air. Walker Percy uses it. Barthelme, of course, used it. You can actually trace it right back, of course, to Denis Diderot in the eighteenth century. And, for all that The Accidental Woman is a fun piece of writing, I have to confess that, given the choice of re-reading this or Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, the latter would be an easy enough choice.

So what’s wrong with it? At times it’s too close to Wodehousian whimsy, such as: “This advice stung Ronny to what we in the trade refer to as the quick.” Coming from Bertie Wooster this works, but from the unnamed narrator of this piece it merely seems arch. Other times it tries too hard. After the two hapless mains have been introduced to us, we are given the summary: “So that’s two charlies we have met already.” That is a funny line and it works, but one can have too much of a good thing, and we certainly get too much of the smart-arsed, bathetic summaries of preceding action in this novel. For example, after an elaborate and whimsical detour into pathetic fallacy, we are told: “All of this is just to give you an idea of how things are likely to turn out.” Or, after a lengthy analysis of Maria’s inner thoughts, as though embarrassed by this psychological turn of events, the description shudders to a conclusion with: “End of analysis.”

In the end, it leaves the novel struggling to overcome the triumph of style over content. Like anaive undergraduate, it tries too hard to be cool. It’s a fascinating piece, all the same, because the genius which pours forth in What A Carve Up! is definitely to be seen in embryonic form here in moments of sustained comedic brio. It’s worth reading, for all its faults.

Now, to find a female author to read...

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