Nick Laird's second novel proves that these days, everyone's a critic
With Glover's Mistake, novelist and poet Nick Laird shows just how complicated personal, creative and sexual relationships can become.
Tyrone-born Laird's second novel follows a trio of characters, dissatisfied 35-year-old teacher David Pinner, his younger, more carefree (and more handsome) housemate James Glover, and internationally acclaimed 45-year-old American artist Ruth Marks who returns to London as part of a residency.
A former student of Ruth's, David abandoned studying art in favour of literature. Now a teacher, he elbows his way into Ruth's circle but becomes embittered when she begins an affair with Glover.
Left with only the embers of his own frustrated artistic and amorous ambitions, David hovers on the edge of jealousy as the relationship develops. Spending less time in the city and more time alone in his bedroom, he posts anonymous and increasingly malicious posts on his blog, The Damp Review. Passing judgment like a capricious god, he is unhappily relegated to the background of his own life but can't keep from manipulating the fates of his friends.
Laird himself is no stranger to ill-tempered and often ill-informed criticism from people writing on the internet. His debut novel Utterly Monkey was well-received by enough reputable newspapers to populate the paperback edition with pages of praise and was awarded a Betty Trask and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. But online, Laird’s work was criticized for being published at all... and because he is married to the author of White Teeth, Zadie Smith. Insinuations of nepotism and phrases like 'literary mafia' persist in Amazon reader's reviews of Glover's Mistake. But justly, there are more positive individual reactions this time around.
Writers in the mainstream media - with a few exceptions - are also reacting more enthusiastically. A review in the Guardian uses the word ‘brilliance’. And while John Crace’s digested review in the same paper is typically sardonic one feels it’s an achievement to have the book ribbed by such a high-profile curmudgeon.
Two reviews appear on the Times Online. One praises Glover’s Mistake as ‘a fine, thoughtful piece of work that combines a compelling plot with pithy insights into the relationship between creativity and criticism'.
The other says the book is effective, marred only by the odd bit of adolescent fine writing: ‘A silver bank of cumuli had aggregated. It was shining eerily, lanterned from within by an invisible moon.’ But then, a Financial Times review quotes what must be the same passage (albeit, perhaps, from a different edition of the novel) saying that this polished paragraph is worth pages.
In the Independent, however, John Boland’s review (which trickled down the media’s pipes to appear in the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent) dismisses not only Utterly Monkey (‘a callow and shallow piece of picaresque whimsy’), but also Glover’s Mistake (‘essentially a lad-lit story with pretentions’), on the grounds of plot (‘it’s hard to find anything deeper going on behind the threadbare story’) and character (‘we never feel the bond that’s supposed to exist between David and Glover… nor are we persuaded of the allure of Ruth.’)
‘We’ is a dangerous word, and perhaps it’s as dangerous to present individual opinions under the cloak of collectivity as it is to pass comment anonymously. Glover’s Mistake can't be the literary train wreck that Boland perceives. The Irish News says it's 'superbly crafted', in an article entitled 'Unmistakable Talent'. All these differing viewpoints serve not to create a critical consensus so much as reinforce the idea that that appraisals – in newspapers, in the art world, on the internet – are as subjective now as they have ever been.
The text of Glover’s Mistake, divorced from the context of the author, is rich and pleasing. There are plenty of sharp descriptions and fine phrases which keep things rolling along. ‘Her nose was still a little pointed, oddly fleshless, and its bridge as straight and thin as the ridge of a sand dune; one lit slope, the other shaded.’ Or, at home for Christmas, ‘David mined a tin of Roses for the hard centres. Relatives rang and the phone was passed around with dumbshows of refusal followed by enthusiastic words of greeting.’
The writing is tighter than in Utterly Monkey, the book leaner. In his first novel Laird fictionalized Cookstown (the famed retail capital of mid-Ulster and location of the widest street in Ireland) as Ballyglass. He nailed the description:
‘Ballyglass is really only this street. Other thoroughfares run off it at right angles before petering out into lanes and housing estates and fields.’
But he faltered, perhaps, when two characters happen to pass through Belfast on the 12th of July. They see not one police Saracen, not one drunkard, not a single tower of palettes ready to burn.
Still, there was a prescience to the book that many critics missed. In the hustle to file copy most filled columns with the story of the writer; the marriage, the supposed autobiographical nature of the text. Few could have seen, for example, the relevance of a plot point putting jobs at Ulster Water in jeopardy. Utterly Monkey was on the shelves when water rates in Northern Ireland were held up as a major election-time issue (and as evidence that politics in Northern Ireland did indeed now revolve around ‘normal’ issues). Graffiti on the walls of Belfast had changed from declaring ‘Ulster says No!’ to ‘Ulster says no to water tax'.
Glover’s Mistake forgoes Northern Ireland completely, despite, I believe, the character of Glover being originally conceived of as a small time Northern Irish boy in London. As it happens he’s from Suffolk and his last appearance, following the titular mistake, offers one of the book’s finest passages.
Found in the section ‘Variegated Bruise’, the words are blessed with a graceful acceleration and forward momentum – an effect that the best writers can spend years chasing. The passage, not two pages long, is a showcase for Laird’s poetic gift and builds to a balletic, sympathetic peak.
The author is, of course, already established as a poet of relative esteem. His first published collection was To a Fault and his second, On Purpose, followed Seamus Heaney’s 1966 debut Death of a Naturalist by winning the £1,000 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
Increasingly, though, phrases and ideas are lifted wholesale from Laird’s poetry and transplanted into the novels. Although David Pinner wouldn't allow it ('...if one of the functions of art is to conceal the mechanics of its production... myeaaah yeeaah...') when reading Utterly Monkey, with its first-novel status, one could make a concession to feeling familiar with phrases like the ‘face closed to the public’ or the idea of transcribing the history of a person’s (or nation’s) speech.
But Laird has a line for an unfinished poem which says, 'Poets sit by the window, while / Novelists choose the aisle.' There's some truth in it, he says. If so, reading similar little repetitions in Glover’s Mistake is like grappling with an unruly shopping trolley. The first time the wheels stick you shrug off the small embarrassment. The second time, you tense and look around. The third time you want to whack a salesperson and leave red welts about their eyes.
A degree of overlap is, perhaps, part of the process of building a bigger world between the covers of an author’s books. Glover’s Mistake is less evidently in thrall to the work of London’s most famous chronicler, Martin Amis, and he repeated exact lines in his first two novels. When invited to discuss one of Ruth’s £950,000 black papyrus sheets, Pinner pounces. ‘He had given it much thought and started listing pieces and their attendant strengths and problems, then discoursing generally on the difficulty of such an undertaking, the element of overlap and competition with other artists…’
There are motifs found in Utterly Monkey which reappear in Glover’s Mistake. The profound import of a latin phrase, or the hat-tip to Graham Greene. But, in opposition to Pinner, I’ll say that pedantry is easy and it’s often harder to praise. These little cues hint at what might prove to be part of Laird’s larger literary project, or at least major themes.
With Glover, impious but faithful to his Church, and Pinner, irreligious but acting with the concealed hubris of a bedroom puppet-master, Laird creates space to examine and unravel the received narratives which inform opinions, religion and a sense of identity.
In the tapestry of the text, there’s an effort to mix or reconcile the discourses of science and poetry in portraying the character’s lives. From this angle the focus on three principal characters might be criticised as narrow but their lives can be illustrated with more breadth. The dialogue, too, flows nicely from the blokey badinage of David and Glover to more consciously high-minded exchanges that take place in the big-money art world.
There’s a continued linguistic interest in negation, also found in the poetry, that runs from the PR blurb unthinkingly copy/pasted by real-life bloggers (‘David Pinner is not content... he isn't a writer or a boyfriend or a father') to the dénouement where, ‘He was not always thinking about her, but he was never not thinking about her.’
Despite being set in a London rich with people, potential and possibility, a moody isolation affects each individual in Glover’s Mistake. As a book-buying reader (I spent E14.99 on Glover’s Mistake in Dubray’s on Grafton Street when my account was in the red... buy it online) it’s nice not to be placated with pre-packaged understandings and commonplace explanations of people. David, Glover and Ruth are not simple. They are governed by unclear urges and motivated by forces and feelings which they might not understand. They're complicated. And isn't life often like that?
Glover’s Mistake is published by Fourth Estate. Click here to buy the book on Amazon.com.