Andrew Greig, Faber and Faber, 2002
Enjoyable page-turner, entertaining and humorous enough to hold at a distance the shadowy fears and anxieties that cloud around the action. Much of the humour is in the narrator’s self-deprecating Scottish maleness where silence is as virtuous as the bon mot that breaks it. A bit like Rebus, in fact.
Not driven by anything more than the plot of what happens when a group of randomly connected young men and women meet and bond, separate and rebond in various chemical elective affinities. There’s the narrator writing by the light of an oil lamp, come with the child to that place to recollect, and it’s a direct reference to Justine, first of the Alexandria Quartet, but the reference is intentionally debunking and puerile. A literary read this isn’t.
The settings are well done, from an out of season seaside resort in Ayrshire to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stirling, and climbing locations. There is a fair amount of expertly handled descriptions of climbing, unsurprising as Greig is a writer-climber as well as a climber-writer. The climbing up is thematic too, as is the falling down, and the book’s title taken from a description of the Electric Brae where a road going down seems to be going up, and a road going up seems to be going down. A certain sense, therefore, of use of environment and space to resonate with what is going on in the characters’ heads.
These characters could be from a late night BBC4 ‘lives of’ the thirty somethings: I had fun casting them. Although the ‘Justine’ character, Kim, is only 18 when the narrator begins his infatuation with her, he a whopping 28. Still, they fit innocently enough into the Thatcherite years when it was generally agreed that to protest loudly was to protest meaningfully; in fact, all of the characters are typical well fed western imperialists into hedonism, angst, sex , drugs, prolonged adolescent distaste for older people – and, of course, music, I mean that use of the term ‘music’ which dispenses with the need for seriousness or intellectual engagement by condensing the genuinely political and historical into a CD collection. Of course, it cannot last.
While the Thatcherite destruction of traditional socialist values goes on unimpeded, the mixed up characters in this novel are either screwing up or else wondering why they screwed up. A question as to the novel’s value is to what extent these people are representative of a vaguely liberal, depoliticised generation of degree level successes detached from any worthwhile roots or anything worth dying for. I’d say it is pretty accurate.
Something has to fall, and the momentum is partly given by a beautifully depicted treatment of a central character’s disintegration that seems to be perfectly congruent with the ambience of modern conceptual art where she is a rising star. There are other falls. People die. It comes as a shock but people die.
Past a certain age we may remember to the day a similar state described of the narrator (who shifts between first and third person) who “…realised he was now old enough to think of some couples as young. He’d assumed his life was a try-out and tomorrow he could start for real. Now he was nearly halfway through and each day went quicker than the past.” As his Dad may have told him, life’s not a dress rehearsal.
The narrator comes to reconsider his parents and notice his increasing resemblance to his father. Where the novel works wonderfully is its understated exposure of the vanities, conceits and diversions each generation uses to cover their deep and recurring fears and anxieties. In the end, the narrator realises, even the most hallowed of all conceits – romantic love and that rage towards finding the obscure perfect relationship – is hollow.
It’s not a heavy read but it is powerful because really it does touch on what we’d rather not know. We’d rather not stop “confusing anxiety with passion.” It is an uplifting read because it is honest and has in it that spirit of generosity which may be the only meaning we need to have.