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Joseph O'Neill's first novel, This Is The Life (FSG, 1991), appears to belong to what Anthony Burgess once called "the tradition of native deadpan comedy." We have a narrator who at first seems ordinary and reliable but who presently betrays himself as not only unreliable but delusional. Like all such narrators, from Charles Pooter on down, James Jones is preoccupied by two things: the brilliance of his idol (star barrister Michael Donovan in this case); and his own worthiness to support the great man in some sort of plinth capacity. Jones is modest, yes; but not modest enough. As a student, he has dogged his way into an internship in Donovan's chambers, where, however, it is discovered (we infer) that he doesn't have what it takes to join the practice. By the time the novel opens, Jones has slipped down in the legal world to the level of solicitors, and his practice, it would appear, is every bit as banal as his name. But he still clings to the belief that he could have been a contender.
As the pages turn, Jones seems more and more pathetic. He has what could best be described as a Larkinian relationship with a woman to whom, if truth be known, he does not long to be closer. He is bored to sobs by a futile lawsuit, brought against "the responsible local authority," by an irascible client who tripped on a paving stone. And he cannot believe that Donovan would have faked incapacity in order to get an adjournment on a big EU case that wasn't going his way.
I was going to add that Jones is still steamed, seven years later, that Donovan failed to recognize him at an official "do," and not long after Jones ad been Donovan's clerk, spending hours a day in his company. But Jones is not steamed. Jones is admonished.
The moral was clear: Donovan was out of my league now. I had no business talking to him. I swallowed wretchedly at my glass. It was empty. When I looked up I sensed that everyone was waiting for me to say something, and I noticed Donovan's eyes were flickering around the room, searching for a getaway. I decided to act, it was time to put an end to this torture.
"Well, it's nice seeing you again," I said, and clumsily wandered off at the wrong moment, just as Donovan opened his mouth to reply. I turned round to repair my error but it was too late. Along with the others he had turned his back and doubtless had already purged the incident from his mind.
"Purged the incident"? What incident? Jones suffers from Legend-In-His-Own-Mind Syndrome by Proxy.
The action of This Is The Life revolves around Donovan's divorce from his wife, Arabella, the daughter of the former head of chambers. Donovan surprises Jones by consulting him about Arabella's petition, which, even more surprisingly, he wishes to contest. Why, of all the solicitors in London, Donovan should choose a man whose name he could not remember seven years earlier is a mystery to Jones, but not one that the flattered and elated solicitor intends to look into. (Not looking into things is a Jones specialty.) The experienced reader, however, may feel a different inclination. Donovan's subsequent behavior, as retailed by Jones, is a strange mixture of calm and incoherence. As the anticipated climax approaches — Will Donovan yield to his wife's desire to dissolve the marriage? Will he win her back? — Jones feels more and more at sea, not least because his client is impossible to get hold of. The scent of a ruse is incredibly strong. The reader suspects that Donovan has chosen Jones precisely because he's likely to be inept, the perfect foil for some sort of trick. Contrary to the ground rules of "native deadpan comedy," however, Mr O'Neill does not grant us a glimpse over Jones's shoulder.
Perhaps some readers require more clues than others. This Is The Life wastes no time on explaining the English legal system. Readers who don't understand the respective functions of barristers and solicitors will have to do some homework before making any sense of the story. At the end of the penultimate chapter, there is an unexplained reference to "the eggshell-skull principle" that, while familiar to Anglophone lawyers, may have lay readers scratching their eggshells in search of dangerous armchair explanations. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to do so, but I must confess that Donovan's ruse, if there is one, went over my head.
Which left me, rather discontentedly, in the company of James Jones, legal putz. It also left me — and this is a rather more serious problem — with miles of peripatetic tacking. Chapter Thirteen, for example, is given over to a golf game at Highgate; the players are Jones, Donovan, and Donavan's father, Fergus (referred to as "Mr Donovan"). Donovan plays very poorly, and at one point actually weeps. What does this unwonted breakdown signify, Jones wonders? Mr Donovan has been urging his son — and Jones, whom he mildly insults on several occasions ("you're exactly the push-over he says you were") — to win Arabella back by some means other than fighting her petition in court. Perhaps Donovan has finally realized that his father is right. But there is no sense in these developments of truth or deception. Things are murky. This is life.
In the earlier chapters, before any sense of letdown can creep in, Jones provides us with lots of inadvertent fun. Engaged to meet Donovan at his Notting Hill house one rainy night, Jones is very put out to discover that Donovan is abroad. Soaked in the downpour, Jones has to make the best of instructions delivered by Donovan's factotum. Among the instructions is the lead to a key hidden in the railing and a request to check the mail. The suggestion of set-up could not be stronger, especially given Jones's behavior in the house — which, we can easily guess, Donovan would have been able to predict.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not a snooper, or a Nosy Parker. I mind my own business and keep out of other people's affairs. It must be said that this is not a matter of ethics, or of principle, although maybe these things play a part; the simple fact is, other people's private goings-on do not interest me; what I do not need to know, I do not want to know. For example: I never once read the diary of my brother Charlie, with whom I shared a room in my childhood, although night after night he left it on his desk with its pages open and his innermost thoughts and his darkest secrets before my eyes. Never once was I even tempted to sneak a look. Indeed, if my brother had offered to read out a passage I would have told him to stop, or blocked my ears. As far as I am concerned, people can keep what they do behind closed doors to themselves. I am not one to spy through the keyhole.
I think it is clear from what I have just said that the last thing anyone would call me is a busybody. I never secretly steam open envelopes to read their contents, or press a glass to the wall to eavesdrop on conversations in the adjoining rooms. My life is complicated enough as it is. I am at pains to say this because, contrary to my usual habits, I spent the evening in Donovan's house reading his private notes, notes he had written for his eyes only, and listening to tape-recordings he had made for his ears only.
I could not help it. ...
This beautifully composed revelation is both funny and shocking, and we don't have time to get quite used the idea that our narrator is a stinker before even worse, and funnier, developments ensue. All the same, the sense that there is an objective reality just beyond Jones's cluelessness is as difficult to resist, and just as inconvenient, as the need to breathe is, underwater.
At the end of the novel — the dust jacket says as much — Jones doesn't so much wake up from his infatuation with Donovan (and with the world of elite barristers) as run out of the energy that it takes to sustain it. The last chapter is more tightly crammed with plot points than an Indiana Jones adventure, but it winds down through depths of disenchantment, right to a conversation with the irascible client.
Eventually — how or why I do not know — I got out of bed. I felt heavy all over again, like an astronaut suited up on Earth. But somehow I got around to cleaning up the house. I worked solidly for three hours. I scrubbed the kitchen, killed the flies and rejuvenated the living-room. I dusted the furniture and polished the silver and disinfected the sink. I took the rugs into the garden and beat great puffs of dirt out of them. For one reason or another, I just kept plugging away. I washed and shaved and walked slowly to the tube station and took the train up to the office. I felt empty as well as heavy. I felt scooped out.
A very hazy and uncertain twilight of redemption illuminates the final pages of This Is the Life. As comedy goes, Mr O'Neill's first novel is about as mordant as can be. It is difficult to judge, at least at a first reading, whether the book is a worthy apprentice piece or something so devilishly sophisticated that only the Michael Donovans of the world will be capable of understanding it. (August 2008)
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