Good first novels without ends leave one wanting more

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

Novels today do not want to be done. Thank Anthony Burgess and John Fowles for this, most immediately, but alternate endings, or the purposeful failure to finish, run long and deep in fiction in English, all the way back to Laurence Sterne and ‘I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s —.’ Modern novels shear off into bleakness or point to awful repeating cycles; Victorian ones twist that prettily tied bow of a marriage plot into question and challenge (none more so than Henry Esmond).

Be glad of an autumn of fine first novels that downright relish resisting closure. Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin (Oneworld Publications, £12.99), about a young housekeeper named Mona, who finds intimacy in picking up after careless people instead of reflecting on her own broken past, is a bright, brittle achievement. Beagin once cleaned houses and photographed herself on the job. Her details are visual, sharp and often hurting: Mona dusts the ‘shrine’ of photographs of Zoe, the child of divorced parents, noting, as she finishes: ‘Zoe was alone in every photograph.’

In the acknowledgements to Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), Daisy Johnson includes Sophocles and Ted Hughes. The rank dark dampness of Hughes’s visceral natural world, and Sophocles’s bloody fated families, certainly haunt here. Johnson rolls out a muddy journey-quest tale, swirling about a young lexicographer and her early life on a battered canal boat, as fantastic as Mark Twain’s lives on the Mississippi are realistic. Her characters struggle to stay afloat in a world of woe. Made-up language and paranoid isolation cannot save them. Everything is under, there is no peace, and things always come up again, bobbing below the water, barely breaking the surface, dangerous as a mine.

People of letters who are boggled, derailed, even killed by writings are dear to novelists. In Helen Cullen’s The Lost Letters of William Woolf (Michael Joseph, £12.99), William works ‘inside the damp-rising walls of a converted tea factory’, the Dead Letters Depot in East London. He loves tracking down recipients waiting for words that never came. When William begins to field love letters to no one, someone, possibly himself, from a wild Irish redhead, his relationship with his wife Clare changes, for better and for worse. Cullen effectively floods her words with music; breaking up to The Cure’s Disintegration, and reflecting alone with Nina Simone, surely strike chords in many of us.

Two new ludic novels are billed as comedy, but not all is fun and games. Thomas Jones’s Game Theory (JM Originals, £12.99) tells the twined stories of a group of friends no longer young, but unwilling to be even middle-aged. Jones’s women are more compelling than his men, particularly Clare and Victoria. The marriages and adulteries, devoid of the passionate intensity with which Updike and Cheever treated the topics, are unserious — it’s going to happen, and is all part of the sport. Joe Mungo Reed chooses cycling as the plot path for his How Far Can You Fall? A happily married cyclist training for the Tour de France, and a geneticist working on cell repair, have professions that must inevitably cross.

Can you put the worst horrors of American history to date in a novel? Yes, say Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Tommy Orange follows ambitiously in these writers’ steps, with There There (Harvill Secker, £14.99).

There There starts off with severed Indian heads and King Philip’s War, a 1675 rising and swift suppression of New England’s native tribes. Philip’s real name was Metacomet. His father, Massasoit, had welcomed the Pilgrims when they sailed into the place they promptly named Plymouth. Fifty years later, English colonists hunted their fleeing neighbours with dogs and butchered them, or sold them as slaves. Metacomet’s head was set on a spike at Plymouth Fort, where it remained a long time. One day, the Puritan divine, Cotton Mather, tore Philip’s jawbone from his skull as a souvenir: in Mather’s words, he ‘took off the Jaw from the Blasphemous exposed Skull of that Leviathan’. Relating Mather’s desecration in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, Jill Lepore rightly views this as an attempt to silence Metacomet’s story. Orange, in turn, now shatters history’s silencing.

There There is set among Native characters in the San Francisco Bay area who are only there because they’ve been pushed to the margins, as Euro-America spread from sea to shining sea. There There is no comfort phrase for a child. It tells you where to look. America’s brutal past is present, tainting the future, right in front of you. This knowledge traps even the most capable: what is to come will be what has already been.

Drink and drugs abound in There There, particularly drink, that legal drug, cheap and easy to get. Babies are made and maimed in the wombs of women and frightened girls. Tony Loneman suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome:

I’m 21 now, which means I can drink if I want to. I don’t though. The way I see it, I got enough when I was a baby in my mom’s stomach. Getting drunk in there, a drunk fucking baby, not even a baby, a little fucking tadpole thing, hooked up to a cord, floating in a stomach.

Yet the heritage that has harmed him might offer salvation: dressed in his regalia before the climactic Oakland powwow, Tony looks at his reflection in the television that substitutes as a mirror and sees not his damaged, drooping face, but an Indian, a dancer.

One result of their refusal to wrap up is that all these debut novels genuinely leave one wanting more.

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