JOY – Jonathan Lee (William Heinemann 2012)

Jonathan Lee’s JOY is a shifty novel. The best novels are. The narrative swirls around the fall of Joy Stephens from a second floor platform to the marble floor of her City law firm. Four people converge on her broken form and, in the relative safety of a counsellor’s borrowed office, begin to converge on Joy in quite a different way, struggling to understand the rationale of apparent self-destruction. Each grasps a small part of her, understanding some aspect of a more complex whole, before being whisked away by contours of thought and preoccupation. Lee occupies each voice near flawlessly: the academic husband, the handsome, obnoxious lawyer, the OCD personal trainer, and the aged and resentful PA. Particularly wonderful are the digressive footnotes of the English lecturer Dennis, forever qualifying statements in a manner I find uncomfortably familiar. The dissembling lawyer’s lewd desperation to impress and seduce recalls the dialogue of Edward St. Aubyn’s fractured individuals; and like St. Aubyn Lee manages to render this desperation amusing and absurd in equal measure. The threat of caricature looms large, but this is slowly stripped away as Lee shifts their speech from public to intimate.

Only Joy is permitted an interior monologue, and it is her embodied experience which allows Lee’s lyricism free rein. Throughout her language of thought is intensely sensual as Lee delves beneath the superficiality of her working and married life, contrasting this with the sexual language of those who move and speak around and of her. Sensual and sexual are not the same thing, of course, and this contrast serves to highlight one of the central themes of the novel: the disconnection between speech and thought; or, better, the apparent gulf between how we feel or intuit ourselves to be and the person others get to see – and judge. In the case of mental distress this is particularly clear: as William Styron writes in his memoir of depression Darkness Visible, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ Lee reclaims such distress for the everyday, situating it in an office whose shallow preoccupations threaten to implode.

Such imaginative sympathy is the prerogative of the novelist, for each character is bounded by their own concerns, each, to steal a phrase from JOY itself, recreating people and events according to their own private ambition.  The contingency of perception on preoccupation and its coupling with the distortions of memory and motive contributes to narratives of persons and events we rarely question except in extremis. That everyday life can deliver such prompting extremity is masterfully argued here. In a forthcoming book which might be marketed as a companion to Joy the late Peter Goldie considers the ways in which people understand their past and the nature of grief and self-forgiveness. At the heart of Goldie’s account is a narrative sense of self whose instability is evidenced by Lee as each character returns to the counsellor’s office and slowly sheds their simplicity.

That grief and its ideal corollary self-forgiveness are the axis around which this novel turns is not immediately obvious, at least not in the way one might expect, but then Lee constantly surprises the reader. With great control he moves us through the day preceding Joy’s fall and through each person’s recollections of it. A vortex forms around her, as each tries to understand their role in her life – and her role in theirs. The final act is affecting and unexpected as self-narratives break down; their acts finally, perhaps, matching their thoughts. In the central passage on Hampstead Heath and throughout in certain elements of the whole book it is hard not to see an echo (or perhaps more) of Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale, ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’. Indeed, it is here that Lee’s writing is at its strongest: ‘Something deep and dreamy about this realm of woodland. Trees bunched like troubles. They crowd around unexplained clearings in which only earth seems to grow – within itself, swelling against its own skin.’

There are times when JOY threatens to buckle under the weight of its varied voices and their revelations and misunderstandings. Yet it never does, and that tension serves to underline its emergent humanity. This is a generous and intensely human novel which achieves a great lyrical intensity in its exploration of the depth of our ignorance of ourselves and others, the sheer contingency of life where everything is visible but nothing seen, and where two contradictory statements can be equally true of the same person.  Goldie’s book is titled The Mess Inside. It is hard to think of a better summation of Lee’s project in JOY. In the collapse of his characters’ narratives Lee has constructed a stunning one of his own.

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Hari Kunzru: The Impressionist

The Impressionist

Hari Kunzru’s first novel is an ambitious and nuanced exploration of the destructive forces of empire, culture, and convention on the individual and society. Pran Nath, offspring of an upright but lost Englishman and a wild, doomed Indian woman, stands as a cipher for India’s paradoxical and destructive experience of Empire, and, eventually, for the futility of a life striving for conformity. Kunzru writes with great clarity and an eye for the telling detail in a story which sweeps from the Raj, through Oxford, to Paris and the plains of Africa, as Pran occupies successively more nuanced characters in an attempt to find a place of safety, of repose and belonging. In so doing Pran bears witness to the twin mirrored poles of the occupier and the occupied: mutual disgust paired with fascination and cultural misunderstanding. He eventually comes to personify that paradox and finds that it cannot ultimately be resolved.

For all that, Kunzru undercuts the pomposity of the English at almost every turn, that attachment to convention that is intensified and fetishized once the homeland is left behind. Such a fetishized conception of culture and etiquette finds its personification in Pran, who finds that the England he is trying to become, and that some he encounters still believe in, died on the battlefields of the Great War. In his attempts to out-English the English, he is ultimately left behind by the developing character of national identity and the youth he desperately wants to love and be loved by.

It is no surprise, then, that anthropology, the great homogenising tool of empire comes to the fore in the novel. The anthropological instinct of power is to catalogue, to generalise and generate regulating principles from the messy and recalcitrant mass of humanity. Kunzru gives the lie to that idea. Individuals are flashes of light playing on the surface of the world, lent depth by the flow of culture, history, geography. That fluidity of identity and the attendant problems of self-knowledge and belonging find expression in Pran’s inability to locate any core to his being: a problem many will recognise, but exaggerated here by the ceaseless search for stability and order in appearance and behaviour, for belonging. Such bad faith as Pran displays in his search for a role he can inhabit stands as an indictment both of doomed power – Britain after the Great War – and the corruption of national character through occupation.

To that extent, despite its depiction of repression, mutual distrust, and inhumanity, Kunzru’s novel is optimistic in its rejection of inauthenticity, its humour serving to emphasise the absurdities of attachment to convention whilst grounding each character’s humanity even as they stand as symbols for greater cultural currents, for visions of corrupted empire – as if there were any other kind.

It’s certainly very good indeed.

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