Friday, October 15, 2010

Existential angst in Sussex (Books - The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson)

How much is enough? At its core, William Nicholson's The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life is about abundance. When I began reading this book I was immediately grabbed by the quality of its prose, its succinct communication of character and situation with the right collection of details:
She recognizes the handwriting on the envelope. She drinks from her mug of tea, looks across the kitchen table at Henry, sees him absorbed in the triage of the morning post. One pile for the bin, one pile for later, one for now. He uses a paper knife when opening letters. Not a kitchen knife, an actual slender, dull-edged blade made for the purpose. The children silent, reading. Rain outside the windows puckering the pond.
There is a ton of information in that opening paragraph. A family is introduced. We know Henry is fastidious. And, although we are reading a third-person narrator, the woman who is the subject of the opening sentence is still nameless. Somehow this seems to make the point of view of this paragraph her's and, by the use of the word actual, we might conclude that she is something other than fastidious. Then there is that letter, who is it from? So Nicholson has also created a little suspense. Good writing.

Not only is Henry fastidious, his deep love for his wife, Laura, and their children makes him anxious about their possible loss. While Henry dotes on his family, he hates his job as a the writer and director of a television program on history, which features a celebrity scholar who receives all the credit for Henry's work. Laura's letter turns out to be from her first love, and so the lives of these upper-middle class Sussex suburbanites or really, villagers, is thrown into existential disarray. Henry, Laura, her first love, their employers, and family are the center around which revolve several other characters - a divorced mother and journalist whose child is bullied at school, the vicar who is more interested in preaching about kindness than about a god he has trouble believing in, a school teacher who would rather write for the theatre - we make desultory jumps from story to story as all fight the mundane battles of their exterior lives as well as the troublesome inner battles of doubt, disappointment, and what-ifs that can plague an adult life lived with ambition and insight. The central characters' more or less converge on a performance of Nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne, which Nicholson uses as a suggestive scaffold for his own plot, which shares superficial similarities with the opera, including multiple characters' sexual hi-jinks, troubles in marriages, mistaken suspicions, and ultimate redemption.

On the one hand Nicholson treated the secret dread of his characters with loving depth and insight and he is capable of laying good prose on the page. However, I felt this insight was reserved for the characters who are (as far as I can tell) most like himself. Although he shows compassion to the only farmer left in the village, he never enters this character's head. He is pitied from the outside. He does try to enter the mind of an elderly, mentally-addled landlady, but that character comes off feeling satirized, rather than loved. The wealthier urban sister of Laura, who also attends the opera, is mocked outright:
Laura's Sussex life has no bearing on Diana's metropolitan concerns, and when her bored gaze passes regally over Laura's house and husband and children it's only to confirm that there's nothing here to merit her attention. Her habitual expression when spoken to is one of mild surprise, as if to say, 'How curious to think that this person imagines I want to hear this.'
This came off as its own kind of snobbishness to me. As if to say, if you have more money than me and live in the city, you cannot possibly have an interior life worthy of my examination. Nicholson likes to plumb the depths of disappointed adult ambition and desire, yet I found his writing of sex somehow not quite believable. I thought the two characters whose point of view he captured with the most verisimilitude and tenderness were the vicar, who offers more loving compassion to his parishioners as a doubter than many a bible-thumper, and the children. Nicholson writes beautifully of a two young childrens' psychic pain as they are the victims of their own heartache and attempts at social mobility.

Nicholson seems to have trouble trusting that his story will get his points across and can't resist peppering the narrative with instructions for what to read in it:
When are we supposed to be satisfied? Monogamy is just a social arrangement, introduced to protect property rights, subsequently elevated into a secular religion.
It's not that I disagree. I would just have Henry's point of view revealed from his behavior than have it close-captioned.
People want to tell their stories, but they're afraid they're too trivial to deserve the attention of others. They are trivial, perhaps, compared to the great dramas we read about in the newspapers. But if you could enter the minds of hearts of each person you meet in the course of a day I think you would be surprised by the intensity of their feelings. I may think I'm the only one whose voyage is through the wild seas, but we're all sailors in the storm.
Ok, ok, I know this is probably the paragraph that led to the creation of this entire book but really, if the novel doesn't communicate it well enough to leave this paragraph on the cutting-room floor then I'm not sure one can say it does its job. George Eliot pulls those grant thematic pronouncements off but from Nicholson's pen they read to me as a trifle insecure. At the end of the day, the use of the Nozze di Figaro and one of his character's own plays makes it obvious how the action will conclude, so the dramatic tension slackens over the concluding chapters of the novel and Nicholson fails to knit the separate skeins that comprise this novel's actions together as a cohesive whole. I loved the themes, but the overall impact of The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life fell a little flat for me.

1 comment:

Marie Cloutier said...

sorry it didn't work out for you. on to the next one, I guess.