9 January 2011
This has become one of those must-read novels – there was an article about it two days ago in The Telegraph despite it having been published in 2009 – and, at this point, that’s the only reason I’m carrying on reading. So far, I’m having trouble believing any of it, I’m not engaged by the characters and, basically, I’m wondering what all the fuss is about.
You know the set-up. On graduation day 1988 Emma and Dexter are in bed contemplating their separate futures. Separate, because he’s not finding her different enough from all the other girls he’s met at university, and because she can’t really believe someone as (gulp) handsome as he is could ever be interested in anything long-term. She’s right – he’s thinking about leaving as she sleeps but it’s in the nature of things in Nicholls-land that nothing ever turns out how it would in the real world. Dexter doesn’t scarper, because she’s made enough of an impression on him, but…
…by Chapter 2 they are a thousand miles apart. Each chapter moves the action on one year, and she’s in an implausibly awful theatre-in-education company (following a series of implausibly awful other projects in the intervening months) while he’s got as far as Rome. On his travels he’s been sending her curt – as in one-word – postcards while she satirises her own predicament in a series long letters. She puts up with amateurish prima donnas and audiences of kids who sound like a difficult class on a Friday afternoon. He teaches EFL – which manifests itself, on the fateful 15th July, as going to bed with one of his students. His life is as implausibly easy as hers is hard – he seems to have simply walked into the job, and… and why on earth are we supposed to be bothered? And why have we been introduced to his beautiful, not-quite alcoholic mother, in Rome for a holiday with the husband she married for security before she had the chance to make it big in show-business. (Are you believing any of this?)
By Chapter 3 Emma has got a McJob in an implausibly awful Tex-Mex restaurant chain somewhere on the Kings Road, while he’s reached India. As she shows a new employee the ropes – after a few months she’s the longest-serving employee – Dexter relaxes with beer and a scrawled airmail letter to her. Reader – gasp – he has a drunken plan for her to come out to India but – gasp, gasp – he manages to mislay it before sending it. He’s got another easy job, which is a good thing after he was drummed out of his teaching post in Rome for – guess – sleeping with the students. (He admits this in his letter, but pretends the girl was 21. In Rome he was talking in terms of 19, probably another over-estimate. He’s a one, isn’t he?)
Hurrying on…. A year later, plausibility is stretched beyond breaking-point. No change there, then. Dexter is a good amateur photographer, and on the basis of this (and a chance encounter with a woman in India who must be very big in the media in England) he’s an assistant producer on youth tv. Yeh, sure. The lazy, half-competent nobody – who happens to be good-looking – gets the plum media job in a new company – beneficiary of Thatcherite de-regulation (proving, if you believe some of the reviews, Nicholls’ sure-footed negotiation of the early 90s Zeitgeist) while the ultra-bright, hard-working Emma – who happens to have low self-esteem and a tendency to over-eat – is still serving barely edible crap on the Kings Road. But at least she’s stopped writing the poems, which seem to consist of half-literate fragments of self-pity.
I’ve been thinking about the satire. He, the privileged son of wealthy parents, has it all fall into his lap. She, daughter of working-class Northerners, finds nothing but glass (or concrete, or breeze-block) ceilings thwarting her ambitions at every turn. Ironically, the inequalities of the British class system, including the career options that open, or don’t open, even after a university education, are a political bee in my own bonnet, so I love what David Nicholls is doing, right? As if. Dexter wanders through a kind of career Fairy-land while, Pilgrim-like, Emma is beset by the perils of the Slough of Despond. (In fact it’s North London, but you know what I mean,) It isn’t satire, it’s fluff.
Hmm. It’s made made me think about the suspension of disbelief. Sometimes I’m as willing as the next reader to do it, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Maybe if the satire was sharper, if the comedy was, well funnier, I’d tolerate the nonsense. But now, Dexter has got into the habit of showing up at Emma’s restaurant, much to her embarrassment, because he’s concerned about her and wants her to give it up. On this particular day she’s just been offered the managership of the shit-hole, and Dexter, with a media-friendly girlfriend in tow, has offered her a rolled-up tenner as a kind of good-will gesture…. Yet she’s still gone out of her way to meet him near where he lives on Primrose Hill. What bollocks. When he offers to find her a job she turns him down.
Where’s the psychological plausibility in any of this? Dexter has the sensitivity of a rottweiler – he thinks it’s ok to tell Emma about the kind of sex he has with his girlfriend – while Emma, who has known the joys of university life in her ‘beloved’ Edinburgh, is willing to live like a skivvy. She’s holding a torch for him, while… while in the real world, she’d be more likely to use it to set fire to him.
Finally, the literary conceit. A whole year’s worth of emotional development and, er, other stuff, all vacuum-packed into one day: guaranteed surprises, cliffhangers, running gags. Fine. And the various litter that finds itself embedded in the otherwise conventional alternating point-of-view narrative: bits of letters, poetry, diaries. Fine, again…. I’m running out of things to say so I’ll stop.
…which takes us to the end of Part 1. They’re on a Greek island-hopping holiday – yes, really – but, this being Nicholls’ alternative universe they can’t even contemplate it without a list of rules to prevent any, you know, embarrassments. No flirting, no skinny-dipping, that sort of thing. The reader, of course, knows that these two are made for each other, that Dexter’s other girlfriends are just his way of pretending that it isn’t true. So, as their first full day takes its relaxed course, we’re not a bit surprised that the rules get broken and that the long wished-for consummation is definitely going to happen. He’s even manoeuvred her into accepting a shared bed, made sure she’s seen him naked, and that they both have just enough to drink… etc.
Haven’t you been paying attention? Nicholls is playing the same teasing game as ever, tries to convince us that neither of these adults can recognise self-deception when they see it – has a typical unlucky event spoil things just in time. (This time it’s the theft of Dexter’s clothes as they go skinny-dipping. How we laughed.) So, in case we were ever thinking that all these two really needed was to spend more time together, well, Nicholls decides not. As I said, end of Part 1.
[Later] What it is that I don’t like about this book? I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s to do with how bland it all is, how dull. The main characters are dull – and I’ve literally just realised what the problem is. If you look at the handful of minor characters you realise they are no more than thumbnail sketches with two, or at most three, notable attributes. Ian, Emma’s colleague in the shit-hole restaurant, is a no-hope standup comic with a comedy accent. Her flatmate is slovenly – think grey-looking underwear draped around, teethmarks in the cheese. Dexter’s mother is, basically, an older female version of him: privileged, good-looking, full of bad habits and an inveterate flirt.
And, reader, the problem is that the two main characters are just like this. Dexter I’ve summed up with his mother’s attributes – except, in his case, instead of flirting he takes women to bed. As he says in the Greek Island chapter, a mouth is just a mouth. (The tone of this novel is fixed with superglue to ‘inoffensive’, otherwise he might have really spoken his mind.) Emma? Clever, self-mockingly funny, earnest. Er… that’s it. And because there’s no roundness to either of them, and therefore no possibility of recognisable patterns of interaction, Nicholls has to come up with other ways to keep our interest. The tired running gag of their inability to see what’s right in front of their eyes is the most obvious of these, and the even more tired gag of their self-imposed chastity stems from it.
And, like the sprinkling of attributes his characters have, their experiences feel like ingredients simply added to the mix. Dexter’s easy life and meteoric rise up the media ladder; Emma’s shitty life and stupid jobs that seems to have been cobbled together from a ready-made list; the chance mishaps that spoil things…. It all seems, well, unimaginative. Now, to press home the point, while Dexter is doing what everybody knows is the stupidest job in the world and being overpaid for it, Emma is about to apply for what everybody knows is one of the most worthwhile and under-valued jobs in the world: she’s going to be a teacher. Hands up anybody who can think of a more obvious choice for Nicholls to make for either of them. Nobody? Didn’t think so.
… which consists of Chapters 6-9. As looked likely, the trajectory of Dexter’s fortunes is onward and upward. Emma, meanwhile, leads the life more ordinary. But the clever thing is, y’see, while Dexter’s life is exciting – fun, he insists on calling it – it’s hollow. Nicholls even has him, at the end of one of his days soaked in alcohol and coke, imagining himself having been literally hollowed out. Whereas, reader, Emma’s ordinary life is incalculably richer in more ways than you can count. And anyway, by this half-way point in the novel Dexter’s star is falling: ten more years of this and he’ll be the new Simon Dee. Whereas… well, Emma has tried her hand, with no success, at writing – but in a novel like this, absolutely anything is possible. She’ll probably end up writing a memoir called One Day, based on the true, bittersweet story of a romance that takes 20 years to come to fruition. Who will be the famous one then, Dexter Meldrew? (And am I really predicting that this is what’s going to happen? I think I might be.)
I’ll be quick. Dexter becomes more and more of a media luvvie, based on nothing but his ability – ‘Darling, you’re a natural’ – to present the kind of tv that goes down well with mid-1990s youth. His programmes sound like a slapdash pastiche of any number of them in the 80s and 90s, and the brief glimpses of his on-screen persona that Nicholls offers us are similarly crap. (As with his alleged personality, the one that makes Emma laugh and want to be in his company, Nicholls mainly tells us about it. There’s precious little evidence on show.) The satire of tv is as clunky as most of the other satire… so I’ll shut up about it.
Emma… is now a teacher in a proper North London comprehensive. By Chapter 8 she’s in charge of the school’s one and only performance of Oliver! – which, this being the novel it is, takes place on exactly the same night as Dexter’s big break into mainstream tv. Guess which one represents the triumph of faith and hope over adversity and pubescent hormones? Guess which one is an hour-long car-crash, largely on account of the host’s inability to do anything without first swallowing huge amounts of vodka? Ho-hum. (One little thread that Nicholls keeps feeding in: the attractiveness of Emma. The married head of her school tells her how beautiful she is – and there are rumours in the staff-room. In Chapter 9, after a disastrous restaurant meal, a glamorous cigarette seller notices how pretty she is.)
By the end of Part 2 Emma is ready to give up on Dexter. He’s been boorish all night, and – gulp – in a final moment of exasperation she tells him that she loves him, always has… but that she doesn’t like the person he’s become. Alleluia, she’s noticed he’s an idiot. The problem for me is that the person he is doesn’t seem all that different from the person he’s been throughout: self-centred, complacent, lacking any notable qualities except an ability to charm.
But we’re supposed to care, and Nicholls leaves us on one of those cliffhangers he goes in for at the end of these sections. Last time it was the question of what their Greek holiday would bring. (Nothing, as it happens.) This time it’s to do with the engagement ring sitting in the sock-drawer of the man she’s living with. (It’s Ian, the no-hope standup comedian, as if I’m bothered.) He’s planning to propose on their holiday on a different Greek island in three weeks’ time. We know she doesn’t love him, because she’s just finally admitted it to herself. But we also know she’s vulnerable after the disastrous night out with Dexter – and her warning that she doesn’t want him to call her again.
There’s other stuff before this. Dexter’s growing problem with alcohol and drug use – leading, for instance, to a disastrous day visiting his dying mother at the family home, ending in a huge row with his long-suffering father. Dexter’s girlfriends and Emma’s solitary boyfriend, who are all, well, unsatisfactory. Nicholls’ riffs on the all-round crapness of 90s culture – the tv, the laddish habit of going into a routine of half-arsed jokes instead of having conversations. (Ian is particularly guilty of this, which is one of the problems Emma has with him. It’s one of Nicholls’ neater jokes that Dexter dislikes Emma’s habit of doing exactly the same thing herself.) Er…. Will that do?
… which form most of Part 3. Chapter 13 ends with one of this novel’s set piece scenes between Emma and Dexter, to go alongside those that end each of Parts 1 and 2 (island-hopping, disastrous restaurant meal): every few chapters Nicholls reminds us about just how close these two are, how right for each other if only…. If only what? If only this was something other than what it is: a clever idea for a rom-com. We know from the start that these two aren’t going to get together until the end, when they’ll both be 40 and Emma won’t need to hold Dexter to his promise of marrying her for pity because he will, finally, have recognised her true value by then. (I’m assuming it really is as predictable as this. If I’m wrong, well, who cares anyway?)
Bizarrely, by chapter 13 he’s already realised – but Nicholls has done that thing, again: introduced the immovable obstacle. It comes in the form of the hugely attractive What’s-her-name, the one Nicholls teasingly makes Dexter get everything wrong with the day he meets her family the previous year. She’s a cipher, with no function that I can detect beyond getting in the way – and being controlling enough to make Dexter, naughty schoolboy-like, to cut right down on the drink and drugs. And fags. And, really, most of the things he likes. The moron thinks he’s in love with her and her intolerably controlling ways. Yawn.
As I said, he’s already realised in some deep part of himself that Nicholls insists on keeping hidden from him that Emma’s the one. They are in a maze, having their first proper conversation in years, and Nicholls actually uses the word bitter-sweet in the text to nudge us into realising how we should be feeling. Oh, if only Dexter wasn’t using the opportunity to give Emma the wedding invitation, if only – just to make sure there are no rubs and botches in the work – he hadn’t got What’s-her-name pregnant. As if. Given the thumbnail sketch of her character – and that’s all we have to go on – she’s more likely to turn into a pumpkin than get herself up the duff. But Nicholls needs it for the plot, and in this novel Plot is King because there isn’t anything else.
What’s happened in the four years since Emma told him she didn’t want him as her friend any more? Well… for a start, Nicholls has done that thing where he has his cake and eats it. I haven’t mentioned this habit of his before, but it keeps cropping up. Perhaps the most obnoxious thing that Dexter comes up with in the restaurant scene in Part 2 is a comment he makes about teaching: ‘You know what they say, those who can….’ In other words, teaching isn’t a real career for somebody who’s got anything about them – and Emma is suitably infuriated. But – hey, presto! – three years later she’s resigned to do what she really wants to do, and not be a boring old teacher any more. David Nicholls, the profession salutes you.
He’s always doing it. He satirises the way men think it’s clever to make every conversation into a comedy act – but his novel depends on that conversational quirk in both his main characters (especially Emma) for most of the humour in it. He sends up comedians and tv personalities who go all nostalgic about what was around a couple of decades before – and makes this one of the novel’s selling-points. He has Emma regret that she hasn’t got the requisite bunch of quirky mates to hang out with – a transparent reference to fictional gangs like those in Friends or Four Weddings and a Funeral – and then makes Chapter 13 into a straight pastiche of both of them, with university years being held up as a time when a crowd of kooky kids all knew one another and were, y’know, incredibly close. (Or irritated, or both.) It’s as though Nicholls is aware enough to comment on the limitations of certain forms but needs to use them anyway. If something is there, ready-made, why not use it?
Plot details I should mention: Emma has dumped Ian after his disastrous proposal on Corfu. She’s had an affair with her bearded head teacher. (The beard is his only detectable attribute, as far as I can tell.) She’s started writing full-time, having previously (and implausibly) been able to fit it into the gaps between teaching full-time at a London comprehensive, putting on drama productions and shagging the boss. Meanwhile Dexter’s star has fallen about as far as you’d expect – he’s reduced to presenting a BMX and skateboard programme on satellite tv, the graveyard of the 1990s tv personality. Nicholls has to find rather crude ways of explaining why this has happened: in Part 2 it was the tabloid headline – ‘Is this the most smug man on television?’ – while in Part 3 it’s his agent, on his way to dumping him, telling him how unreliable and arrogant his colleagues in the media say he’s become. But… Nicholls also needs him to survive, so – enter What’s-her-name to sort him out and, as a bonus, become a kind of narrative road-block, no doubt for several chapters to come.
There’s a parallel-narratives chapter to go alongside the one in which they both have big production nights in Part 2. It’s called ‘Two Meetings’, and Nicholls plays one of his tricks on the reader. Interleaved with the excruciating meeting in which Dexter’s agent tells him he’s no longer got a job is a meeting Emma has with a publisher. We think this is ridiculous, that Nicholls has stretched plausibility too far even for this novel. But, reader, he’s playing with us. Having had ‘the full set’ of rejection letters she’s resorted to asking a favour of a friend who works in publishing. The meeting quickly, and clunkily, collapses into farce: it isn’t going to be quite so simple after all. Bu..ut… later that day she resigns as a teacher, and a year later she’s scraped a big enough advance to live. Her novel for young adults is based on the experience of doing Oliver!, presumably so that Nicholls can get us used to the idea of her learning to write about what she knows. I haven’t changed my mind about the book that will really make her name.
Chapters 14 and 15 – to the end of Part 3
Chapter 14 is about babies, and Chapter 15 is about Dexter and Emma in Paris. In both of these Nicholls appears to have trawled through whole collections of ready-made situations and stock responses. In the babies chapter, Dexter is driven almost to the point of distraction as Nicholls takes him, and us, through a selection from every ‘Isn’t parenthood difficult?’ newspaper feature ever written. Meanwhile Emma is being driven to a slightly different point of distraction by the way that suddenly ‘all’ her friends have become parents – which is Nicholls’ cue to come up with every single one of the clichés, trawled from the same source as the Dexter sections. It’s lazy, and if it formed part of one of the standup routines Nicholls is fond of sending up it wouldn’t last 30 seconds.
I wouldn’t mind quite so much if in the following chapter he didn’t have Emma attempting to avoid ‘riffing’ – going into one of ther nervy comedy routines when she meets Dexter – and being annoyed at herself for resorting to ‘off-the-shelf’ remarks. Huge sections of these middle chapters are off the shelf, for god’s sake. Like, where would be a good spot to get them, finally, to realise they should get together? Paris, obviously. Nicholls has Emma gently send it up – she lives in the 19th Arondissement, ‘the Hackney of Paris’ – but it’s still Paris. And what always happens in Paris…? Well, Nicholls isn’t one to go against anybody’s expectations.
Is this a surprise? I mean the fact that they appear to have come to the realisation about one another that we always expected with a quarter of the novel yet to go…. Well, yes, a bit – unless it’s one of Nicholls’ little tricks again. A year later Dex is in bed with a woman in his former bachelor flat in Belsize Park – I know, because I peeked at the beginning of Chapter 16 – but Nicholls doesn’t make it clear whether it’s Emma he’s talking to. He has played a trick on us before, after Dexter has been drunkenly calling Emma all night. When Nicholls presents us with a conversation we assume it’s with her – the wrong name he uses is a drunken mistake, surely? – but he’s actually speaking to one of his exes. Nicholls might be doing it again in Chapter 16. Mightn’t he?
There’s definitely been one trick in the Paris chapter. Dexter’s there, separated and talking about his impending divorce – Nicholls has let us in on What’s-her-name’s adultery (she’s actually called Sophie, as if it matters) at the end of the babies chapter – and when Emma drops the bombshell that she’s been seeing a French bloke for over a month we think he’s the latest in the string of obstacles Nicholls has strewn in the path to true love…. But she phones the new boyfriend to put him off and… and the rest is the kind of stuff you’d expect from two people who fancy one another, had sex a couple of months before, and are in Paris.
What have I missed? Dexter’s marriage is on the rocks during the baby chapter – to the extent that it’s impossible to believe the relationship could have lasted for the necessary year and a half before the wedding. He behaves like a complete idiot when he’s left alone for one night with their daughter (a fags and booze binge, since you ask). He’s working for an old university friend – the very man that Sophie is with on the Saturday night – and hating it when people ask him if he used to be famous. Meanwhile, the trajectory of Emma’s fortunes continues, predictably, in the opposite direction: she has become a successful children’s writer, with a published novel that Dexter reads on the train to Paris. Nicholls seems to have based her on Jacqueline Wilson, just as he based Dexter’s tv persona on Terry Christian, famous for what Dexter used to do, ‘car-crash television’. If you go for a recognisable type you don’t have to do any of tha boring character description stuff.
Parts 4 and 5 – to the end…
… thank god. I thought the earlier parts of the novel were irritating enough, but Nicholls outdoes himself. There are some moments at the end of Part 4 and the beginning of Part 5 which left me speechless as I read them, and not in a good way.
The last book I read in which a main character dies was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Like One Day, this faux-philosophical bit of French nonsense is almost entirely plot-driven, and I was just as disappointed that time as I was just now. When I was writing about the end of Part 3, and the little surprise that Nicholls springs when he gets our star-crossed pair together before we were expecting it, what I was really wondering was what he was going to do to keep it going for another half-dozen chapters or so. And what he goes for is the most unimaginative coup he can come up with.
I’ve just remembered that Jonathan Franzen kills off a B-list character in Freedom, because he needs to give one of his A-list characters a good kick up the arse. What motive can Nicholls possibly have for topping the only interesting A-lister he’s got? I can think of two: a) their life together is becoming boringly middle-aged – we have predictable riffs about paunches and nostril-hair – with very little to raise it above the ordinary, and b) he needs to up the stakes on the bitter-sweet front – a word he has Emma use, again, in the chapter in which she eventually dies. In the chapter following it, as we see Dexter spectacularly not coping on the anniversary of Emma’s death – which is also the anniversary of (sob) so many other times – I seriously wondered if I was going to be sick. I’m not making this up, I actually felt the nausea rising.
(Before this there’s one short argument they have that I found engaging. Nicholls puts into Dexter’s mouth a clever rant about the predictability of right-on political views like Emma’s. Dexter is no thinker, but it’s as though Nicholls has decided to turn him into a more rounded character: he questions the consensus view of, say, Blair’s political sell-out in general and the war in Iraq in particular. There’s been almost no political content in this novel so far, beyond a coy reference to an election result or a brief mention of Thatcher. Suddenly, Dexter is saying something interesting that we might even find we agree with. When Emma is about to say the predictable thing about Bush’s motive for the invasion of Iraq, Dexter inwardly pleads, Don’t say it’s all about oil. She says it – and almost for the first time, the joke is on her instead of him.)
Do I think that Nicholls always knew he was going to kill Emma off, or do I think he simply ran out of ideas? I think he knew, although it seems so inept I wouldn’t be surprised if it simply occurred to him that he couldn’t keep things interesting without some kind of narrative earthquake. He doesn’t do character, so it had to come from a plot twist.
Before the death, things are carrying on as implausibly as usual. Dexter, one of whose main attributes is a total lack of initiative or enterprise, opens a little café/deli in an up-and-coming bit of London, and it starts to be a moderate success. Emma is writing the fifth and last novel in the feisty schoolkid franchise she’s got into, and is thinking about breaking into the real world of – gasp – writing for adults. They are trying for a child, and are just beginning to wonder about fertility clinics…. In other words, apart from the usual problem with credibility, it’s real life, and Nicholls isn’t comfortable with it. Mind you, neither was I. When there are no cataclysms happening, the world Nicholls describes has the consistency of cold porridge.
So we get the cataclysm, and the chapter following it is Dexter completely falling apart on the first anniversary. Predictability? Turned up to 11 on the dial. Then, after breaking his own narrative rule – we get the whole of the day after – Nicholls goes for a parallel narrative approach for the rest of the novel. We get the next two anniversaries, in which, basically, Dexter is sorted out by the remaining women in his life – his manageress, his ex-wife, and his daughter – and we get the day in 1988 that kick-started the whole thing. (And to think that you thought Dexter left in the morning. Where do you think that photo on Arthur’s Seat came from?)
This day in Edinburgh, described in parallel with the day when Dexter has finally braced himself for the task of sorting Emma’s boxes of memorabilia, is as believable as anything in the whole novel. Except for one thing: they are clearly besotted by one another, and in reality would have moved heaven and earth to make sure they stayed together. Dexter even chases her – after Nicholls has performed his usual trick of introducing the immovable obstacle – to make sure they have each other’s addresses, and their kiss, the sweetest that either of them will ever know (I’m almost quoting), ends the novel. There is absolutely no way that these two, in any universe other than the one Nicholls has cobbled together from scraps, would not get together, properly, very soon indeed.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that it’s over. (Oh, I already have.)