Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: The death of love in modern culture


Nick Laird is a rather talented poet. Both of his collections, To a Fault (which features the poem ‘On Beauty’, something Zadie Smith – his wife – used in her eponymous novel) and On Purpose (an evolution and growth of the same themes put forth in the former work), are brilliant pieces of wordplay, male anxiety, stunning imagery, and bitter resentment at relationships.

However, Laird also writes novels. And they’re the male equivalent of chick-lit. Utterly Monkey was a quasi-autobiographical caper that had a bit of immaturity running through it. And Glover’s Mistake, although an improvement on prose style and story, still doesn’t hold a candle to Laird’s poetry. His talents certainly lie elsewhere.

Glover’s Mistake is a modernised version of Othello meets The Great Gatsby, in a very loose kind of way, set in the heart of London. David Pinner, a 30-something bitter blogger, falls for his old art school teacher, Ruth Marks, an American 40-something who is having some success in London with her current paintings and exhibitions. They go out on a few dates, sometimes accompanied by David’s flatmate, the religious James Glover, a 20-something who knows how to make people laugh, who is much more physical than the others (he runs every morning, which is how he became fit; formerly he was like Pinner, a bit mushy – his physicality becomes important later). Eventually, what comes as no surprise, Ruth begins to fall for James and both of them move on the fast track, heading to marriage. And what’s no surprise further, David becomes insanely jealous and almost a voyeur, eventually setting up situations much like Iago that attempt to destroy James and Ruth’s happiness. As this narrative is told from (basically) a third-person limited way, through David, he becomes relatively creepy and oily.

Laird’s prose eye in simply not as deft as his poetic one, and unfortunately that makes the writing kind of flat and ordinary. Perhaps in another’s hands, this book would have been relatively exciting; but because expectations were higher for him, he failed to meet them. For example, a couple of stanzas from On Purpose, from the poem ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’, goes:

Sit at the desk. It’s mid-
Your cigarette, neglected,
unthreads air
to ash. The study walls are
strung with hoops of light
thrown by a glass
of water. The sash window
faces perfectly
north-west. You checked.

Laird captures the ordinary here in an extraordinary way. There is a patience pervading this poem; every word is balanced, every image is checked, every emotion is handled correctly. In Glover’s Mistake, however, we get more axiom-like statements and unmemorable prose. ‘Ruth said nothing. Glover’s curse had flavoured the atmosphere, suddenly turning everything a different colour.’ Although statements like that are redeemed further on in the paragraph: ‘David could see the thinness of her shoulders, the tilt of her breasts, then the angle of the lifted arm that brought a glass of water to her tightened, silent, lovely mouth.’ But there just isn’t the same type of electricity infused as his poetry’s.

As Ruth is an artist and David is an English teacher, there is a great deal of discussion on art and artistic theory, which is certainly a plus. But unfortunately David (and Ruth) sadly aren’t compelling enough characters to make you feel for them. David’s decisions aren’t tragic; they’re just sad and misguided. In fact, the only likeable person within is James Glover, who seems to get the short end of the stick. And people within the book, and perhaps Laird himself, wants to make him into a caricature – simply because he’s the youngest character and the one that takes faith seriously. This then begs the question, why is the book entitled Glover’s Mistake? Is his mistake to room with David? Is it that he got engaged to Ruth? Is it that he was too young for all the persons within the narrative? Is it to mimic The Great Gatsby‘s use of the non-narrrator’s name? Even with all these questions that might make one inquisitive enough to dive deeper within the text, the novel isn’t interesting enough to formulate enticing answers.

Nick Laird is certainly an author to watch, and an author who I will continue to read regardless, but I think that he’s proven that he’s much more talented than what this novel suggests.

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