This is the story we like to hear: a modest, hard-working writer who takes ten years to write his first novel, and hits the big time with it. The book earned a million-dollar advance and has been longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.
Warning: spoilers all the way. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know what happens in this book!
As an inhabitant of the domain of self-published writers Gert is only too aware how much really rotten writing there is out there, and all too aware, reading Thomas’ comments about writing, of the frivolity of her own approach. Thomas’ consciousness of his own limitations, his willingness to take criticism on board and look with detachment at his work, and his utter dedication to the craft, show the gulf between really serious writers and the rest of us. How many people would be prepared to sit down every day at 2am, after doing all the preparation for another day as a teacher, and work on the book even when it feels, as Thomas says, ”more like long-haul trucking”, and keep doing that for ten years? He spent those years well. It’s a rich, engrossing read, with a cleanness of purpose that’s an aesthetic pleasure in itself in a book that could easily be carried away by the emotive possibilities of the story it tells.
Very early on Eileen Tumulty resolves not to be like her poor Irish parents, clinging on the tatterdemalion fringes of American society. Her cleverness, beauty and determination will take her to the peaceful, handsome suburbs where gas lamps stand “like guardians of prosperity”, suburbs that “contained more happiness than ordinary places did. Unless you knew that such places existed you were content to stay where you were.” (16)
Eileen has no intention of letting Nature, messy passions and human weaknesses like her parents’ drinking, command her mind, to echo the epigraph from King Lear:
We are not ourselves
when Nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
to suffer with the body
She will construct the self she wants. But she learns, as Lear does, that we don’t have the power to prevent the mind from suffering with the body. If we lose our minds to dementia, as her brilliant husband Ed does, we are not the self we intended to be, or the self we’ve constructed over the years.
But Lear can be read another way, that we are most ourselves when the mind has to fight it out with Nature. Here’s where the book, which has started to yaw, kicks up into another gear as Ed’s illness eats away at his bonds with Eileen and their son Connell. The course of the illness is wonderfully depicted (Thomas’ own father suffered from early-onset dementia), with scrupulous observation and a complete absence of sentimentality.
He often exhibited what looked like glimmers of awareness, but she knew they were more likely her own projections….
A few days before Valentine’s Day she was wheeling him down the hall to his room. The home was decorated with pink streamers and heart-shaped cardboard cutouts, as though it were not a facilitator of human expiration but a middle school full of yearning adolescents. She had to walk close to the wall to avoid someone being wheeled in the other direction, and in that instant, Ed had reach out to one of the hearts on the wall and plucked it off. ‘Reached’ was too strong a word; likely it brushed against him and his hand closed around it reflexively. He clutched it the whole way down the hall and into the room. It was only when she wheeled him into place and sat beside him that he dropped it and it fell on the floor between them, His hand twitched after it; he could almost have been pointing. She picked it up. She was on the verge of asking if it was for her when she realized she didn’t want to hear the lack of an answer, so she just placed it on the nightstand. (558)
This sober, rather stately prose, the voice of the novel, is the way Eileen’s thoughts work, and it’s a voice we come to identify with more and more as the focus narrows and deepens. There is a sense from the beginning of the book that she is holding herself in reserve, building towards some achievement, some sense of completion. In the end, we see that all Eileen’s life has been preparing her for the long struggle of caring for Ed and going on loving him. And being forced to give up the constructed dream of even-tempered prosperity shows her the richness of the world she already knows. Not a new idea, as could be said of much of the book, but the spareness and gravity of expression lifts it from the banal.
She’d never imagined the scene from the visitor’s vantage point, how complete a picture of life it might have presented, how much it might have looked as if everything that mattered in the world was there already. (610)
The book ends in the mind of Connell, who has taken the full distance of the book to emerge, for us and for himself, from an adolescent fog of amorphous intentions and ineptitudes. He’s now a teacher, like the author, and considering taking the risk of having a child, aware that Ed’s dementia might travel down through the family. Ed, for so long silent and out of reach, has not gone without a trace. This is what he leaves his son:
He could honour his father by loving the kid the way his father had loved him. And if he had to be vulnerable in front of the kid, if he had to be defenseless and useless and pathetic, if he had to forget things and piss himself and get lost on the way home, then so be it. If the kid didn’t handle it – well, that was what kids did. They went out too often, they stayed out too late, they said things that cut to the quick, they forgot their responsibility, they broke your heart. Years later they thought about it all (619).
Matthew Thomas has thought about it, long and well, and made this book out of it with intelligence, feeling and judgment. It’s a very impressive debut.
*Fourth Estate, 2014.
Postscript: just as I finished this post, I came across a very enjoyable article about procrastination. Could there be an author more different from Thomas than Albert Cossery?
Until his death in 2008 the elegant novelist, living in Paris, maintained a strict schedule of idleness. He slept late, rising in the afternoons for a walk to the Cafe de Flore, and wrote fiction only when he felt like it.