Nothing You Can Do – Lewis Nene

1 June 2013
1-4 – Therapy Sessions 1 and 2, alternating with two sets of ‘written stuff’
This isn’t an easy read because, I suspect, it isn’t supposed to be. Lewis Nene has chosen a difficult subject – the painful illness and eventual death of an ageing father and the effect on the middle-aged son he seems never to have loved – and there’s nothing at all straightforward either about the lives of the main characters or about the narrative structure.

There’s a framing device in Helen James, the main character’s choice for a therapist some months after the diagnosis of his father’s cancer and – we don’t yet know how recently – subsequent death. Her own life is problematical: her husband is sarcastic about her practice, which she seems determined to run down, and by approximately Section 3 she hasn’t enough money to pay the bills. Ok. But we don’t know this when the angry, desperate Sam Dickens comes crashing into her professional life in the first couple of pages – or crashing back, because she helped him and his wife previously – and offers her thousands of pounds to get his head fixed, sharpish. What’s a woman to do? She takes him on, but at her normal rates and in a series of normal sessions. Except…

…she agrees to read his written accounts of the trials he goes through from the time when he first heard of the cancer diagnosis, and so far these make up the main body of the novel. Sam, who dropped out from an English degree at Cambridge, writes a literate, novel-like narrative about how it’s been for him. So far, terrible… but I should start at the beginning, because there’s a lot more back-story. Like, Sam’s father had been the headmaster of the highly traditional independent school Sam himself had attended. Like, Sam’s first love was his cousin Libby, still in the background and the cause of low-level – or not so low-level – jealousies on the part of Sam’s wife, Caryl. She, Caryl, is a Cambridge lecturer seeking, and not finding, tenure. And there’s the favourite older brother, Richard, the one his father wants to care for him but who is too busy making money to spend the time. Meanwhile Sam, despite apparently having cornered a niche in the middle class building and designing trade, feels constantly patronised.

A mess? Wait until you hear about the children who, so far, seem to be there to remind Sam that he’s not much better as a father than he is as a son. There’s a nephew, Richard’s son Toby, who he seems to have had a better relationship with until something’s gone wrong. (I’ve probably got some of the details wrong, but I’m doing my best. If it’s important I’m sure it’ll become clearer.)

All this, of course, is coming at us by way of Sam’s fortnightly instalments of ‘Stuff written for Helen’, as he labels it. He’s lucky to have landed on his feet at all, following the bullying he got at school for being the son of the uber-traditionalist head and his dropping out of Cambridge when he discovered that strings had been pulled to get him a place. He appears to be successful in the determinedly non-academic career he’s carved for himself, was lucky in the inflated Cambridge property market of the 1990s…. He is careful to let us know that his house is ‘Edwardian’ and worth a million, just as he is careful to let us know that he would have been perfectly capable of getting a place at Cambridge unassisted. The latter information comes via a story that shows up a tutor in a bad light because everything to do with the university is anathema to him now. It sounds like snobbery – but the way he peppers his story with carefully chosen references to literature and art seems to signal his insecurity. Who’s he trying to impress?

Another question: how plausible is he? He’s clearly not the most reliable of witnesses, so we can take some of his complaints – about Cambridge, about his father – with a pinch of salt. But sometimes there seems to be good cause for his complaints. Academics really can be as self-centred as he suggests, and his father really does seem to have some pretty monstrous views… so I often can’t decide whether to find him sympathetic or not. Maybe, again, that’s how Lewis Nene wants me to feel. This man is lost, floundering about in a social milieu in which he isn’t the only one struggling. And we’re right there with him.

But I’m not telling you the plot. His narrative begins with him and his family on holiday in Italy, out of mobile phone range despite the company’s promise and worrying about his father’s health. On his arrival back in England he finds out he was right to worry: Richard tells him that the old man is riddled with cancer. He also finds out that he’s the one who is going to have to sort things out, because Richard’s high-powered job means he can’t just drop everything like some people can. (This is Sam’s presentation of it, obviously, and I’m not going to comment just now.)

So that’s what he does. He goes to stay with his father, trying to deal on the hoof with his father’s decision first to stay at home in the house – the family have actually just sold it, with his permission, and Sam has found a flat for him – and then to move into a nursing home. It’s early days – I think we’re into about the third day – and he’s had to deal with nurses and other caring staff who don’t quite seem to know what they’re doing, and the staff of nursing homes which seem to be, in their different ways, in meltdown. One highly competent carer arrives, a male nurse Sam’s father spots as gay as soon as he sees him – you can guess what he thinks about that – but, as soon as he establishes some order and calm he’s ‘reassigned’ somewhere else.

And, as Sam writes about all this, he tells Helen about his early life with his problematic father. He’s the hero of his own story, telling us of the forthright way he did summer jobs in preference to family holidays arranged by his father and, basically, shows how he didn’t let himself be pushed around. And there’s another back story, the speedy decline of the once prosperous manufacturing town where he grew up, but which he now refers to as his father’s town rather than his own. (It has the whiff of autobiography about it. I kept being reminded of how, in The Soldier’s Return, Melvyn Bragg clearly based a lot of it on his own childhood and adolescence.) As he writes, he’s living separately from his wife and kids, in the flat that was going to be his father’s. We don’t know why yet, but things are already rocky when he first finds out about his father’s illness.

I found myself thinking of a recent book I never got around to reading: Is it just me or is everything shit? At the moment, for Sam, I’d say both.

8 August
5-7 – Therapy Sessions 3 and 4, separated by the third set of ‘written stuff’
I’ve stopped at this point because there’s a lot going on and I want to keep hold of it. As if.

It isn’t just Sam who’s an accident waiting to happen. Helen is as well, and now the overwhelming impression is that they’re both happening at once. To one another. At one level it’s little things going wrong in Helen’s house – overheating toaster, sticking lavatory ball-cock – that Sam is able either to fix or, apparently, make worse. These seem to be echoing something less tangible. Not far into Therapy Session 3 it starts to appear that Helen feels something for Sam beyond what is usually deemed acceptable. That’s ok so long as she keeps her feelings under wraps – we’ve seen In Treatment with Gabriel Byrne, so we’re all experts on the correct protocols, obviously – and, so far, she hasn’t blurted anything out. But little things like mentioning how attractive he still is, and the occasional lie about why she has tears in her eyes as he speaks – it’s hay fever, honest – are danger-signs. And now she’s responded to one of his barbs – that she’s a comfortable, in-control little middle-class girl – by reacting emotionally and telling him, in detail, exactly why he’s wrong. Some of their conversations are beginning to sound like lovers’ tiffs.

Now, after seeing Sam only three times, she’s made a life-changing decision about her own marriage. She’s kicked out Michael, the unsupportive husband with the neat line in sarcasm. Is it a coincidence that she’s having the locks changed just before Sam arrives for his fourth session, and speaks to Michael by phone as he impatiently waits outside her door just after it? I couldn’t possibly comment. But it’s clear that Helen is far more than the ‘framing device’ I called her when I first started.

What else in the therapy sessions timeline? Sam, who has been drinking too much, has given up between sessions 3 and 4. Unfortunately, that’s too late to prevent him breaking his toe in one of those nocturnal incidents when you forget that you left that thing just there. At the end of Session 2, when he was supposed to be fixing her lavatory cistern, he is voluminously sick into the wash-basin. Helen doesn’t find this out until later – or, rather, Michael finds out. You can imagine the sarcasm. Sam has taken to keeping his worldly goods – or the things that are currently important to him, anyway – in carrier bags. These include things he wants to burn, such as his early poems and love letters from Libby when they were in their late teens. (They had assumed they would always be together, but then he went to university. She sort of tagged along, but got depressed and things didn’t last, if I remember rightly, beyond the first term.) Helen doesn’t want him to burn things in the therapy room, but we know by now how she tends to bend her own rules for him.

And there’s a revelation. At the end of Session 4 – i.e. just before the conversation with her husband in which she tells him he isn’t coming back in – she confronts Sam with something he’s been keeping quiet about in his ‘written stuff’. Toby, the favourite nephew, is dead. She’s found this out through a Facebook account set up to mourn his death – so Sam is pissed off she’s been going behind his back, while she’s pissed off he hasn’t been frank with her. After all, she says, wasn’t he dropping hints at the beginning of all this that he’d killed somebody? (I’ve just thought: Sam, attempting to make a novel of his own life, has had a major plot coup spoilt by the person reading it. I’m sure he, or I, or Lewis Nene will come back to that idea.) I told you there was a lot going on.

There’ll be other stuff I’ve forgotten in the therapy sessions, but I should get on to the dying dad timeline. This is taking place during November, seven or eight months earlier. The main things are to do with his father being moved into the nursing home, Richard taking on the power of attorney on his own to save messing about – anyone else hearing alarm bells ringing? – and Libby making occasional appearances, much to Sam’s confusion. Sam’s relationship with Caryl limps along. He clearly feels a lot for her, sees her, Juliet-like, as a colourful jay among some other, dowdier birds when she’s in company. But – and I’m not sure he ever states it in so many words – she isn’t Libby.

Meanwhile there are the children. Jess, the daughter… seems ok, as far as I can remember. Gabe, as ever, seems almost invisible compared to Toby. But there’s pressure between Sam and Toby. Toby has found some of Sam’s old poetry, recites it at some kind of performance, and causes a massive rift between them both. (Is it just me, or does Sam really over-react to absolutely everything that happens to him?) And now Richard wants Sam to persuade Toby not to take year off from his studying to go travelling. At the point I’ve reached, Toby has texted Sam that it’s all cool and that he’ll explain about the ‘free’ travel he’s mentioned to Richard. (When we hear about Toby’s death in the later timeline, we wonder what this mysterious arrangement is all about….)

Anything else? I know that in the later timeline Sam is still living apart from Caryl and his children, that some rift – to do, I wonder, with the arrangements for power of attorney? – has taken place between Sam and Richard, resulting in at least one punch being thrown… and that Sam is still a mess. His way of making amends to Helen following the vomiting episode is to disappear for so long from the fourth therapy session that Helen thinks he might have topped himself. What he’s actually doing is fixing the cistern, but it leads, indirectly, to the shouting match that ends the session and precedes Helen’s rather cooler conversation with her husband. Clearly, she’s still a mess as well.

9 August
8-10 – two long pieces from Sam separated by a short interlude at Helen’s
What did I say about Sam early on? ‘I often can’t decide whether to find him sympathetic or not.’ Hmm. For two long sections now we’ve been inside the head of this self-obsessed, self-destructive man who keeps turning up the emotional dial until it reaches 11. And then he turns it higher. I was going to describe him as emotionally undisciplined but, somehow, that doesn’t come close as Lewis Nene takes us through what an almost complete breakdown feels like from the inside. It made me feel tired.

The two pieces by Sam take us through his father’s ‘first death’ – in fact, a mistaken telephone call by a careless care worker, typical of the unlucky accidents that happen to Sam – to the real death, the funeral and its aftermath… and, finally to news not only of another death, Toby’s, but of why the wicked brother blames poor Sam for it. Sam had discovered Toby’s passport in a set of books returned by someone else – don’t ask – so he could have stopped him leaving the country. How does the idiotically crass brother put it? ‘I begged you not to give it to him. You killed him.’ I’m reminded of that feature of novels by Thomas Hardy: just when things can’t possibly get any worse, the author heaps on more punishment. And, like Hardy, it relies on a convenient accident. Who killed Toby Dickens? Lewis Nene, that’s who, first by establishing Toby as a reckless rider of motor-bikes, and then having him ride a quad-bike next to a Turkish ravine.

One of the things I’ve liked most about this novel – I’m not at the end yet, although my Kindle is telling me there’s only 8% to go – is its most painful feature. Not death, because death is easy – Sam blithely prays for it as he flies home from an American wedding because, inevitably, he has a long-standing fear of flying – but dying. The way that Nene takes us through the everyday indignity, pain, disorientation and – what? – the sheer nitty-gritty nastiness of it bears the mark of a writer who knows what he’s talking about. Given the emotional makeup of Sam Dickens as a character, it’s no surprise that he cracks up. In fact, from clues we’ve had not only in Sam’s own written accounts but from his behaviour in the therapy session, it’s a given.

For me the question remains as to whether Nene presents a plausible account of a breakdown. I’m not convinced that we’re on such safe territory here as with the details of the old man’s death… and, now I think about it, I’m not sure Nene is convinced either. So he doesn’t merely put Sam through the emotional grind of the death of a parent. There have to be other things to turn up the dial of misery. For a start, there are those statistics that everyone knows, to do with what causes most stress in a lifetime: bereavement – two, or two and a half if we count the night-time phone-call – house-moving, marital difficulties, worries about job security. To these, Nene has added Sam’s lifelong sense of failure, his fear of flying, a wedding in America where he is expected to field barbed comments about the Brits… and, worst of all, the final touch: his brother Richard really is as big a bastard as he alleged right at the start. Then, I didn’t know whether to believe Sam’s description. I’m almost disappointed that by the end there’s no choice.

However…. The emergence of Richard as a proper bad guy makes possible some of the best episodes in the novel. Richard always thinks the worst of other people, including Sam, whilst giving himself the benefit of finer feelings than he’s really capable of. To him, there’s a kind of equality between his own single visit to the nursing home – where Sam had to drag him, totally against his will – and Sam’s weeks of care and final vigil of five days and more. ‘We did the right thing,’ I think is the way he puts it. Another time, in the most open show of jealousy we see, he presents Sam’s mentoring of Toby as a kind of grooming – because there’s no way that the unlikeable, overbearing father can understand why a sensitive son might seek guidance elsewhere. At the reading of the will it turns out that their father, quite rightly, sets aside a sum to cover some of the huge expenses Sam has incurred over the months – which Richard assumes he must have asked for. And so on. There’s nothing like an unjust accusation – or a series of unjust accusations – to raise the reader’s hackles… and then he comes out with his final stab concerning Toby’s death. Given the monster he’s become, it’s believable. And whatever ambivalence we might sometimes feel, this time we’re definitely on Sam’s side.

Anything else about Sam’s life at this time? Caryl gets her longed-for tenure just before they set off for the wedding in America… which Sam doesn’t have much to say about. But, judging by his other insecurities and the rockiness of things, it doesn’t press the right buttons for him. (Talking about insecurities… he never, ever mentions a car, watch, item of clothing or anything else without mentioning the brand. There’s a Philippe Patek watch, his brother’s BMW, that overpriced Boss suit bought for the funeral. Status anxiety, or what?) And, while I think of it, there’s the escape from America. There’s a bizarre scam involving bolt-cutters to make sure they get the right price for their father’s house, a hastily arranged, sleet-swept valedictory meeting with Libby outside the same house, now inaccessible to them and… enough, already.

Except, seven or eight months later in that short interlude I mentioned, Helen finds out from Caryl or somebody that Sam has been rushed to hospital. Hang on a minute.

[Pause]

I’ve just checked. In fact, at the very end of a short episode during which Helen is tying up some loose ends of her own, news of Sam’s being in hospital is an almost throwaway line. Caryl has come looking for him because it’s the time when he would have had a session with Helen, and he isn’t replying to her calls. Helen is unscrewing the name-plate outside her front door, and later asks someone to make DVDs of some old video tapes of hers. They are all of David, her first husband who died of cancer – did I ever mention him? – and Sarah. Who she? Presumably the daughter she lost at age two, the one she has only ever mentioned in that blurted-out splurge when she was telling Sam about how her own life has not been free of its own stresses. Ah.

Is the remaining fraction of the novel going to be enough to resolve any of this? Has Sam tried to top himself? And have I just been imagining the Helen and Sam storyline – or, if it’s real, is it any more than a red herring? Helen has only appeared once since the 57% mark, in her little ‘burning boats’ interlude, and now I’m on 92.

10 August
11-12 – to the end
These sections are a sort-it-out ‘Road Trip’ taken by Helen and Sam, and the short phone conversation preceding it to confirm the arrangements. She’s driving him to see Richard, of all people, waiting for them on a beach at the nearest seaside town. She’s hired a car that she asked to be big enough to take a cat, so the hire company has found her a Land Rover Discovery with a ‘cavernous’ boot. (This novel is full of droll little touches I’ve tended not to mention in passing. This section also has a running gag about Helen’s bad driving, possibly a wry comment on Sam’s earlier jibe about how in control of her life she is….)

I found this last section rather satisfying. It turns out that Helen and Sam have never been an accident waiting to happen to one another, as I’d suspected, but whatever the opposite of an accident might be. Helen tells Sam, eventually, that his written pieces about his bereavement have helped her to come to terms with the grief she has never been able to face before now. During the short chapter containing the phone-call, we’ve seen her engaged in another activity to go with the earlier transfer of VHS tapes on to DVD – the careful arrangement of photographs of her dead child and first husband. She doesn’t spell it out, but her second marriage was a poor substitute for a proper process of grieving. We realise now that once the process began, she could see her marriage for what it was – and she never did like that cat, which she has now decided to give her sister, another person whose sarcasm she can apparently live without. Therapy didn’t help either – neither the therapy she received from her supervisor nor the therapy she offered to others – so she’s given that up as well. Fine. Although I do wonder how she’s going to live now she’s given up all her income.

This leaves Sam. He seems to have come out of the other side of the breakdown he describes in his written pieces. All that was many months ago now, and he is able to speak rationally not only about his behaviour around the time of his father’s death, but also of his more recent confrontations with Helen. How to account for this turn-around, rather swift in the case of his uncontrolled rages at her in and around the therapy room?

He puts it down, as perhaps we know he would, to the power of writing. It might only have been his version of events – I’ll come back to that, because the novel does – but it was just what he needed. His account of the process, with its mixture of careful drafting and occasional bouts of free-flow, seem to have opened up a wellspring of creativity we know he has allowed to be closed up in himself. It’s easy to be persuaded that the relief of going through that process, so long denied, can lead to relief of another kind. He can finally begin to come to grips with the complexities of his relationship with his father, and the effect of his death.

Perhaps that’s what is so satisfying. The form of this novel – or Sam’s share of it – is shown to be far more than a literary device. The way writing forces him to seek for exactly the right form of words – described in highly novelistic terms in his account in the car – is precisely the therapeutic process he needs to go through. And it’s just struck me that in Helen’s share of the novel there’s a similar overlapping. She has clearly been losing her faith in therapy since long before the opening of the novel, and in her sessions we have seen how she has peeled away hidebound protocols of professional therapy. I thought it was to do with a growing attraction she felt for Sam, but I think it’s really to do with her discovery of the power of ordinary human interactions, in all their simplicity and complexity. Those pesky rules of the therapy room have been getting in the way, and we’ve watched her ridding herself of them, one by one. Her unscrewing of her name-plate – and throwing it into a skip, if I remember rightly – is another literal manifestation.

So that’s it. Nearly. Sam’s writing and Helen’s valedictory series of therapy sessions – a neatly symbiotic process as presented here – have helped them to discover something essential about themselves. He is back with his family, she is learning how to face life on her own, and now there’s just the loose end of Sam’s brother to be tied up. As they approach the beach, with Sam having taken over the driving in a spirit of self-preservation, she tells him that she has sent Richard a copy of everything he wrote for her. Aargh, thinks Sam. All those things he said…. Helen has broken the strictest rule of all, concerning confidentiality, and he thinks it’s going to be a disaster.

In fact her instincts, or whatever she is relying on now that she’s thrown away the rule-book, prove to be spot-on. I don’t know how plausible it is, but plausibility isn’t what we’re thinking about as Richard, looking thin and drawn after what is clearly a meltdown of his own, hugs his brother. He never said that about Sam killing Toby, he says – who possibly could say such a thing? A monster like the villain of the piece in Sam’s account, that’s who, and if there was time we’d have to look back and reconsider the version of him presented by a narrator I referred to from the start as an unreliable witness. But there isn’t time. All this is happening in the final pages, and whatever the truth might be, by now, it no longer matters. Helen has got them talking.

So, all loose ends tied up? Well, maybe. This final section doesn’t contain the eponymous phrase that has echoed through the book, that ‘there’s nothing you can do’ – tacitly marking an end, I suppose, to Sam’s pessimistic view of things up to now. But… Nene hasn’t made things easy for Helen, despite her extensive reorganisation of her life. Her bad driving, I’m sure, isn’t merely an excuse for that running gag I mentioned: she really isn’t quite in control. There’s that sarcastic sister of hers, for example… and that other little issue: at the end of a novel full of money worries – including, explicitly, Helen’s own, what on earth is she going to live on?

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