This is the first novel by Lander Hawes, whose short story, “Differences In Lifts,” in Unthank Books’s Unthology 2 had already whetted my appetite. I wasn’t disappointed, as often happens in the quantum leap from short fiction to novel—quite the reverse. This is an impressively assured achievement.
Josh Haddon is a man in captivity, part recluse, part fugitive. He’s a jobbing actor who has, almost to his surprise, hit the heights of fame, and is now trying to cope with that fame. He’s secluded in a luxury serviced London flat, devising ways to outwit the besieging reporters under the tutelage of his neighbour, an international tennis star—ways that include disguises and roller skates. But he’s also in captivity to his past, to his ex-wife, constantly replaying their life together in its missed satisfactions, her coma after a head injury sustained in her job as a veterinary scientist, watched over in hospital by him and his briefly re-united parents-in-law. And he’s in captivity to – or captivated by – the textures of everyday life, continually trying to render the experience of being alive in the twenty-first century.
So we come upon a succession of detailed, meticulously observed riffs: on watching television news; late-night phone conversations with loved ones; behaviours in restaurants, in lifts… (He is, maybe a little suspicously, highly articulate for an actor.) These are not digressions from the plot – the plot is not that important, save as a structuring device – but the heart of the book, it seems to me. I kept grasping for a parallel. Then I found it: Don DeLillo, who similarly renders the textures of American life in such character-led examinations.
Consider these examples, chosen almost at random from DeLillo’s last novel, Point Omega:
“The gallery was cold and lighted only by the faint gray shimmer on the screen. Back by the north wall the darkness was nearly complete and the man standing alone moved a hand toward his face, repeating ever so slowly, the action of a figure on the screen. When the gallery door slid open and people entered, there was a glancing light from the area beyond, where others were gathered, at some distance, browsing the art books and postcards.
“The film ran without dialogue or music, no soundtrack at all. The museum guard stood just inside the door and people leaving sometimes looked at him, seeking eye contact, some kind of understanding that might pass between them and make their bafflement valid…” (p. 4)
“Then they left, just like that, they were moving toward the door. He didn’t know how to take this. He took it personally. The tall door slid open for the man with the cane and then the assistant. They walked out. What, bored? They went past the guard and were gone. They had to think in words. This was their problem. The action moved too slowly to accommodate their vocabulary of film. He didn’t know if this made the slightest sense. They could not feel the heartbeat of images projected at this speed. Their vocabulary of film, he thought, could not be adapted to curtain rods and curtain rings and eyelets…
“The film made him feel like someone watching a film. The meaning of this escaped him. He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him…” (p. 12, 13).
Compare that with this passage from Captivity, again chosen literally at random (there are countless examples equally telling):
“There are nights when I’ve fallen asleep in the chair, slumped before this view of the city, only to be woken by the reflected streak of a headlight across my face or a surge of noise from a duo of car horns. In those sleepy moments after waking, when too drowsy to move, the window facing me resembles a public TV screen, similar to those mounted at cricket grounds or outside the entrance to the courts at Wimbledon…
“And there is a freedom at this time of night, when a person is too tired to read anything serious or work related, when the eyes have had enough of computer screens, when the daytime’s opportunity of devoting oneself to any useful or wholesome or life advancing task has passed. These are hours when the channels are scanned, in the vague desire for pornography; hours when the breakdown in each channel’s usual content seems to mirror the fragmentation in one’s own personality, in response to tiredness, to the aftereffects of the demands of the week. The late hours, before a final submission to sleep, when one’s points of resolve and resolution, when one’s long established understanding of oneself, can seem to loosen and come under threat. Times when this or that project or plan begins to seem futile and ill conceived, naive and under financed; times when grievances toward friends or family seek to reinstate themselves as preoccupations; times when all half forgotten and pressing but undone tasks are remembered in full clarity: the clearing out of the garage, the trimming in the garden, the replacement of a piece of gutter, the email response to an acquaintance or the invitation of a particular couple to dinner.” (p. 118-119).
This is not to suggest a direct influence; Hawes is his own man. It is, however, to suggest that we watch out for how Hawes develops his talent. There’s a similar discriminating sensibility, a dexterity with unfamiliar banality at work. And in Hawes’ case, a wonderfully controlled sense of rhythmic movement, tidal repetition.
Ultimately, Haddon is in captivity to fame itself; to his desires and attempts to both belong and stand out, to be ordinary and extraordinary, to both sit in the audience and be up on screen. This is made plain in the novel’s climax – or maybe anti-climax – in a scene worthy, this time, of Fitzgerald. We understand the strains of that contradictory existence, so defining of contemporary life. Such is our engagement with this engaging presence, we actually sympathize.
We may be seeing the emergence of a writer to hold his own with DeLillo. I find that an exciting prospect.