Jenny chose this iconic early-nineties novel about a group of three educated late-twenties escapees from corporate life, Andy, Dag and Claire, looking for a deeper meaning while working at 'McJobs' in California and telling each other stories that reflect their frustrations, fears and longings.
As soon as I arrived in the already full room I was aware of an attitude of contempt, and Mark said straight off that he hadn't read the book as it was clear from the blurb that it was self-indulgent and he found the format pretentious - he had the early square format edition in which illustrations and, in my opinion, wittily ironic definitions of contemporary phrases are situated in wide margins at strategic points in the text. He said he even found the typeface pretentious and unreadable.
Notwithstanding, Jenny then introduced the book and said that she had enjoyed it, that she saw that it was about anomie, but that there wasn't actually much of a story in that nothing much happened, so she didn't really have a lot to say about it, and that what she liked most of all were the footnotes (which is how the definitions appear in her later edition).
I said, isn't the book more specifically about the fact that these young people have inherited a soulless materialistic world which makes it difficult for them to fulfil themselves?, a comment which was met with derision by those who hadn't even read the book. Pretty annoyed at having to defend the characters, and the book, against such opinionated condemnation from people who hadn't even read it, I said that I had found the characters touching, especially in their relationships: they were a platonic friendship group (of two men and one woman) who cared for each other in a touching way. Yes, said Clare, who had read the book: They snuggle up together in a hippy-dippy way - making it clear that she wasn't enamoured of the characters either, and eliciting vindicated groans from the others. I had praised the narrative voices of the characters as astute and witty - I loved for instance the description of Toronto as giving 'the efficient, ordered feeling of the Yellow Pages sprung to life in three dimensions' - but Clare said that she had found the voices slick and the characters consequently smug. I said but surely, as well as being ironic about the world around them, narrator Andy is self-ironic. It's best evidenced, I think, in this 'footnote' which however I didn't quote at the time: 'KNEE-JERK IRONY: The tendency to make flippant ironic comments as a reflexive matter of course in everyday conversation'. Clare said that she really wasn't sure that there was self-irony. She said that the characters and their attitudes reminded her very much of those in Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (discussed previously) which she had also disliked - but which I had admired. It turned out too that Doug, who had also read the book, couldn't relate at all to the characters and had found them unengaging.
There was much derision about the fact that the characters drop out of supposedly soul-destroying yuppie jobs only to get 'McJobs', working in shops and bars, which are hardly more fulfilling! Even Clare defended the characters on this, saying that the point is that they are no longer defined by their unfulfilling jobs, but that didn't wash with the detractors: surely, the answer came, they are just messing about, knowing that they can depend on their middle-class parents, so they are hardly rebelling against their parents' generation. And they go home for Christmas!! Only middle-class people can afford to drop out, it was cried. Ann, had, like me, liked the prose and especially the 'footnotes', but did now agree with the detractors that the characters' situations were something of a middle-class indulgence. In fact, there is a 'footnote' which comments on this, self-ironically in my opinion, but I didn't recall it during the discussion: 'SAFETY NET-ISM: The belief that there will always be a financial and emotional safety net to buffer life's hurts. Usually parents.' There was more derision about the fact that the characters choose to do their dropping-out in California. I should have quoted a passage from near the beginning which I think carries conscious irony about the compromise involved. Noting the lordly luxuries of the rich retired inhabitants of the area, narrator Andy says,
Nevertheless, the three of us chose to live here, [that, surely, is self-ironic, even potentially straightforwardly self-critical] for the town is undoubtedly a sanctuary from the bulk of middle-class life. And we certainly don't live in one of the dishier neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods here where, if you see a glint in a patch of crew-cut Bermuda grass, you can assume there's a silver dollar lying there. Where we live, in our little bungalows that share a courtyard and a kidney-shaped swimming pool [more self-irony, surely?], a twinkle in the grass means a broken scotch bottle or a colostomy bag that has avoided the trashman's gloved clutch.But in a discussion in which people arguing vociferously and dismissively hadn't even read the book, such textual focusing was hardly possible. I did say that what we hadn't discussed were the vivid descriptions of the detritus filling the environment - notably, as John pointed out, the fact that as the book opens Andy is clearing from his dogs' nostrils a fatty substance that he suspects is from the bins of the nearby liposuction clinic. Those who had read the book now cried with recognition and agreement, but I'm not sure if I got my point across, ie that what's indicated by these descriptions is that these young people have inherited a mess of a world not of their own making.
I said, maybe in the wider context the ability to choose to try, at least, to 'drop out' from it is a middle-class privilege and the doing so therefore a middle-class indulgence, but that didn't mean you could characterise these three young people as simply personally self-indulgent: they were thoughtful, and concerned with the conundrum of it all, and also suffering. In a more thoughtful and measured discussion I might have been able to draw attention this early passage:
We live small lives on the periphery; we are marginalised and there's a great deal in which we choose not to participate. We wanted silence and we have that silence now. [An ironic sentence, that last, I'd suggest: the silence isn't exactly unproblematic.] We arrived here speckled in sores and zits, our colons so tied in knots that we never thought we'd have a bowel movement again. Our systems had stopped working, jammed with the odor of copy machines, Wite-Out, the smell of bond paper, and the endless stress of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause. We had compulsions that made us confuse shopping with creativity, to take downers and assume that merely renting a video on a Saturday night was enough. But now that we live here in the desert, things are much, much better.The overprotestation of that final repetition and stress carry especial conscious irony, I'd say.
Mark said that it was all well and good to complain about the state of the world but the book doesn't provide any answer (not that he'd read it), and then we had a skirmish about whether or not novels need to provide answers, which Mark insisted they do. Some people referred to fact that the trio finally go off to Mexico with the notion of starting a hotel, and Mark's derision quadrupled: another kind of running away!! And in order to run a hotel, he objected, wouldn't they end up needing the very structures (accountants etc) they were supposed to despise?! People told him, no it's not that kind of hotel, the characters say they wouldn't charge for rooms: it's just a kind of idealistic dream really; and Mark's derision went through the roof. Backed by John, I said, yes, it's flakey, but that's the point: the book is about the fact that if you can't face the structures society endorses - you're unsuited to them or you disapprove of them - then there aren't really any other very viable options. John brought in the question of the situation for artists, which I thought confused the issue, but Jo, who up to this point had been a detractor, took up his point and agreed that there are certain jobs in our society that are rewarded and others, including artistic endeavour, that tend not to be. To some extent this did back up my point, but, I said, the characters here are not artists, and so don't even have the compensation of artistic fulfilment. Having rejected the endorsed structures they have nothing (just that 'silence'). I said, surely that's a legitimate subject for a novel - ie the fact that there aren't any answers - and several people agreed. Mark said, well, in any case the characters were unlikeable, and now we had that other old skirmish about whether or not you need to find characters likeable in order to like a novel, Mark insisting - I'm damn sure for the sake of argument! - that you did, until John brought in Jane Austen and Vanity Fair with their unlikeable but endlessly interesting characters. But then Clare said that she simply hadn't found these characters or their situation, or indeed the book, interesting.
Earlier, in response to the initial accusations of superficiality, John had pointed to the frequent apocalyptic references in the novel: it begins with Andy remembering seeing the eclipse of the sun at the age of fifteen, and Dag is fascinated by the nuclear test sites in Nevada and brings back from there melted sand which terrifies Claire in case it's still radioactive. Their dreams and stories are full of death and nuclear annihilation. Towards the end Andy sees the smoke from farmers burning their fields and thinks it's the fulfilment of his nightmare, a nuclear cloud. Trevor now spoke up at last and said with a great air of reason and calm, which at long last made people shut up and stop interrupting, that in his opinion this book, far from being superficial, was about very serious, important and current matters: the ruination of the world and the wastage of the lives of future generations through environmental pollution, financial collapse and nuclear threat.
Mark, however, was intransigent and went on pooh-poohing the book while the conversation broke up and people began to talk about other things. Ann, Clare and I happened to be sitting together around one corner and the three of us continued talking about the book, and I had what I felt was my first proper and thoughtful conversation of the evening. Clare is a brilliant one for stopping and searching through the text to examine the truth of points that are made in the conversation (I'm hopeless at it at the time, as I find myself swept on by the conversation and the interruptions). In response to the points about death and the apocalyptic, she had remembered Andy's dream about his own death - which I hadn't remembered - and she had been looking for it in the text. She now found it and reminded us that in it a pelican gives him a fish, and she now related this to the end of the novel when he and a party of other travellers are standing watching the nuclear-cloud-like smoke from the fields. An egret flies over, so low that it sears the top of his head, and a party of children with learning disabilities come over and touch him and hug him to comfort him, and this is precisely how the book ends. It's as if, she said, the book is about Andy's search among all the superficiality and cleverness and harshness of the world for simple human comfort, and this then seemed true to Ann and me. The only trouble was, she said, that she hadn't liked the slick voices - which I had earlier pointed out were really one voice, the characters all tending to talk the same. This last I acknowledged as a flaw in the book, and which perhaps to some extent justifies Mark's conflation of the author and the characters. Nevertheless, Ann and I said that we had been really taken with the wit of that voice, but I did concede that the cleverness of the voice itself was in danger of making the book seem more superficial than I considered it to be.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here