Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Domestic Adventure

Stephen Clarke: A Year in the Merde
John Grogan: Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog.

That I liked one of the Domestic Adventure books that I mentioned last Tuesday much better than the other is not really of interest. I could try to explain why Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde tickled me, while John Grogan's Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog didn't (it did make me cry, though), but in essence I would just be talking about myself, not the books. Just.

What is "Domestic Adventure," you ask? The titles give some clues. Both tell stories that are purportedly encounters with something alien. In keeping with the promise of the Adventure genre, the adventurers present self-portraits that have been truncated to permit the peaceful co-existence of characteristics not often found in harmony in human nature. Sensitivity and "manliness," for example. (Each writer is politely but insistently heterosexual.) Both men are evidently mature and responsible adults, but they never miss a chance to let their inner adolescent make an appearance. The candor of true autobiography is deftly avoided, and neither guy is on the couch. Or, if he is, his feet are on the coffee table. That is at any rate what he wants you to believe. In fact, both men are professional writers, more clever and probably more complicated than their literary stand-ins.

In A Year in the Merde, the writer recounts his abbreviated year of doing marketing work for a French fast-food company, and he never misses a chance, at least in the earlier part of the book, to make fun of the French. He is, in fact, howlingly politically incorrect. It is all a great put-on, though, a sort of vaccine reaction. The jibes are not really jokes about the French, but rather camouflage that allow the narrator to insinuate himself into our affection. We worry about his housing situation. We follow him through a couple of romances with real concern. And we smell the rat at the office from the start. The book ends up both triumphant and sequel-bound.

Looking for housing, Paul West falls back on an offer to room with the boss's daughter - although this offer is by no means made by the boss. Rather, it is his daughter, the fetching Élodie, who makes the proposal. She tells him that she lives in "social housing."

Her building was as much like social housing as Chanel No 5 is like the emanations from a marathon runner's socks.

For a start, it was slap bang in the middle of the Marais, which was not the bog that my dictionary had told me about, but the hypertrendy medieval center of the city, awash with cafés, clothes shops, and stores selling décor accessories that only gay men understand what to do with. [Maybe he's not so polite...] There was also one estate agent per square meter, all with slavering clients window-shopping. And here I was, waltzing in, effortlessly.

The apartment building itself was fairly modern - 1930s, I guessed, made of pale orange brick, in better repair than any brickwork I'd ever seen, with every bit of grunting or groping of whatever they do around bricks in perfect condition. The windows were tall, with glossily painted white metal shutters and small balconies. The art deco ironwork on the balcony railings was decorated with what looked like giant sperm but were probably meant to be flowers. Real red flowers were tumbling from window boxes in front of several of the windows.

"These can't really be social housing," I said.

"Oh, yes, they are." Élodie was enjoying my stupefaction (and relief) that she wasn't inviting me to doss down with a bunch of dealers and social outcasts. "They're ashlem," she announced.

"They're what?" It sounded like some sort of oriental commune. Oh no, I thought, not compulsory yoga at six every morning.

"HLM." She spelled it out in English. "It means habitation à loyer modéré or something like that. Low-cost apartments." She giggled. "Although all the residents are lawyers, doctors, etc. Or the sons and daughters of friends of politicians. Papa got me this apartment from a friend at the Hôtel de Ville. You know, the City Hall?"

"Cheap housing set aside for the chronically overprivileged?"

"If you prefer, you can live in that cave [basement]."

"No, no, my goal in life is to become chronically overprivileged."

In the Merde for Love has done well in Britain and has just been published here. (That Mr Clarke throws a thin veil of fictionalization over his story does not by any means make it a novel.) I think I'll wait for paper.

Marley & Me was a gift from Miss G, so I never even thought about not reading it. I find the cover intensely off-putting: an "adorable pup" not looking at the camera. This is not a dust jacket that I would want to be seen with in public. I plucked it from the pile after seeing a somewhat reassuring stack of Marleys at Shakespeare & Co (when I was buying Merde).

Early in the book, as in his marriage - the Grogans are both reporters working for different newspapers in the Palm Beach area - the author gives his wife a houseplant. There's no occasion; he just wants to do something nice.

She had adored both the gesture and the plant and thanked me by throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me on the lips. Then she promptly went on to kill my gift to her with an assassin's coldhearted efficiency. Not that she was trying to: if anything, she nurtured the poor thing to death. Jenny didn't exactly have a green thumb. Working on the assumption that all living things require water, but apparently forgetting that they also need air, she began flooding the dieffenbachia on a daily basis.

"Be careful not to overwater it," I had warned.

"Okay," she had replied, and then dumped on another gallon.

The sicker the plant got, the more she doused it, until finally it just kind of melted into an oozing heap. I looked at its limp skeleton in the pot by the window and thought, Man, someone who believes in omens could have a field day with this one.

Now here she was, somehow making the cosmic leap of logic from dead flora in a pot to living fauna in the pet classifieds. Kill a plant, buy a puppy. Well, of course it made perfect sense.

Marley will grow up to be the kind of "unstable" dog that Barbara Woodhouse, author of No Bad Dogs, makes an exception for, and recommends putting down. By now, however, Marley is a part of the four-member Grogan family. He has a heart of gold, or, to put it in colder evolutionary terms, he has turned on the con of displaying signs of adoration for his masters. Completely gulled, they throw up their hands and write checks to cover repairs. (John does learn the neat trick of kneeing Marley's chest when he gets tired of the dogs forepaws on his shoulders; this works.) Marley humiliates the author by violating Rule No 1 at Dog Beach - but there's a column in it. For Mr Grogan has become a columnist. He has also become the father of a daughter. In between canine episodes of destruction, the Grogans move through time, and to Pennsylvania as well, under the cover of an agreeable but inevitably uninformative discretion. The only thing that Mr Grogan is indiscreet about is the wilting effect that his wife's ruthless determination to conceive their first child has upon his libido. (Solution: spend three weeks in Ireland and do it with huge photos of the Virgin and the Pope looking down from thin walls on the other side of which hover matronly landladies.) Even this, however, just helps to make Mr Grogan appear to be a regular, American nice guy.

Even nice guys in Britain are expected to be a bit abrasive, but it's clear that Paul West is basically a sweetheart with a sterling character. (Except when it comes to late nights at pubs.) The curious thing about reading these books in tandem is that, for all the difference there is between scoping out Paris and coping with a Labrador retriever, and for all the difference between Mr Clarke's political incorrectness and Mr Grogan's gentler humor, there is not much difference between the sensibilities of the two writers, and don't think that that's coincidental at all. I come back to the point that both men are popular humor writers. That is, they write for a "popular" market. This is not a mass market, certainly; most readers, in my opinion, don't appreciate anything more subtle than the grossest jokes. But the popular market, while forgiving, does have its rules, and Mr Grogan and Mr Clarke are both in a position to know how not to turn off their readers. Both have undoubtedly written a good deal of material that didn't work, and they've learned from that. They're as smooth and shiny as wet pebbles.

Of course, each of them would tell you that you're not supposed to be paying attention to them. But I don't think that anybody would read either of these books if it weren't for strong, if restrained, first-person presences. Marley is funny because he's so unwittingly exasperating, and somebody has to be there to do the witting. Without that, you'd be urging someone to follow Barbara Woodhouse's advice. And without Paul West, Mr Clarke's book would be a soggy mess of sociological field notes. The angle of deflection that elides such rough patches and indigestible quirks as both men must possess if they're human beings (and especially if they're writers, eh comment!) is very much the same in each of these books.

I don't mean to say that either book is false, exactly, but there is a bit of shamming, and it interests me because one could probably assemble a composite of today's desirable professional male from them. (I will spare you my attempt, at least at the moment.) And I find that I respond with a strangely Foucauldian hostility to their implicit prescriptions about how to be a man. All right, to one implicit prescription: don't let your brains shine too brightly. This, I know, is an Anglophone peculiarity; men elsewhere in the world consider intelligence just another type of strength and are not shy about using it. I suspect that these writers are very clever men, with plenty of little twists in their minds; I am absolutely certain, from the many details that nobody as clueless as Paul West claims to be would ever notice, that Mr Clarke is a brilliant observer of life. And brilliant writer, too, sadly - sadly, because he uses his brilliance to conceal it. I know, I know: that's how it has to be, if you're writing for the popular market. Both books are literate best-sellers. It's a pity that they can't be more honest. (June 2006)

Permalink | Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me