'Random is never really random'
Amongst a select group of readers there is a lot of enthusiasm for Keith Ridgway. They may not agree on what his best work is but there is certainly consensus that he is one of the most interesting writers working today. His latest novel is the first to be published by Granta who have been making all the big waves in 2012 with fabulous titles like Peter Stamm's Seven Years, Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station, Justin Torres' We The Animals and Denis Johnson's Train Dreams still to come. One book I had been eagerly anticipating, after enjoying his story collection Standard Time, was this new novel from Ridgway and those of you who read John Self's Asylum site or follow him on Twitter will have already been bashed around the head several times with how good it is. It really is very good. All the more dispiriting then to learn that on its publication day Waterstones, which has over 300 stores nationwide, had ordered a grand total of 18 copies.
I can't do anything about how Waterstones buys books, all I can do is bang on about this cracker sufficiently hard enough to send you to your preferred book outlet of choice and order a copy. I fail to see how you could be disappointed. How can I be so sure? Well, it seems to me there are two kinds of thing that can excite you about a book. The publishing industry as it stands can create plenty of buzz behind debut or event novels, books that like to stand up very tall on their own and demand that you all read them and discuss them. The quality of writing in those books is not the point. Amidst all the hubbub that is the insane phenomenon of 50 Shades of Grey (which took just eleven weeks to sell over a million copies, smashing the previous record held by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code which took a leisurely 36 weeks to do the same) I only ever hear people saying how badly written it is, but who cares? Other books like Room or The Slap used quirk or debate to fuel enthusiasm, the kind of water-cooler chatter that helps build word-of-mouth success. I've read plenty of interesting debuts only to be disappointed by the follow up before watching that author fade away (presumably having made enough from the much publicised six-figure advance to not have to worry about writing much more).
What I get excited about is finding an author who I want to read time and again. Philip Roth, Denis Johnson, J M Coetzee, Graham Greene, Stefan Zweig, W G Sebald, John Burnside - these are writers who haven't just written one good book, but several, and provided innovation and exploration for those readers devoted to them. Locking on to a modern writer like that seems to be getting harder with publishers less wiling or able to nurture writers as in days of old. Fail to shift enough copies or win an award and you may find yourself being forced to write a werewolf trilogy to keep the...erm, wolf from the door. Why is Ridgway amongst the writers that you should be interested in reading? Lets start with just how enjoyable this book is. There is nothing quite like reading a novel and getting a kick out of each successive page in terms of pure enjoyment. Ridgway writes with that deceptive ease that makes you feel as though the book is an easy read even whilst it dares to reach the parts other novels cannot reach.
Hawthorn and Child are two detectives whom we meet in the opening chapter within a dream of Hawthorn's. How's that for a playful beginning? They go to investigate a seemingly random shooting in which the victim claims to have been shot by a vintage car, we might expect this to go on to be a police procedural, albeit of a rather unusual kind, but don't expect to get any answers to this case or indeed any other. In fact don't expect this book to give you any of the usual assurances of a narrative novel. Whilst Hawthorn and Child may lend it their names you would struggle to even call them the main protagonists. 'We are not at the centre of things, said Child' and he is right, as the book's various chapters introduce us to new characters and storylines, the two detectives returning periodically a little like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hawthorn is the most fascinating of the two, a somewhat depressive figure, 'crooked somehow', prone to drifting off; making cryptic, literary notes that have little bearing on the case in hand. He is also gay and in one bravura section entitled How To Have Fun With A Fat Man Ridgway manages to write about Hawthorn policing a riot and attending an orgy in a sauna at the same time. Sometimes it is clear which location we are in but all too often Ridgway's brilliant use of language keeps it ambiguous and points up the similarities between these two seemingly opposed scenarios.
At a signal they move away form the wall. They move towards he others. It is always a confrontation. It is always a stand off. Hawthorn is shoulder to shoulder with men like himself. He is eye to eye across the air. He is picking out certain faces. He is making calculations. There are certain things he wants to do. There are things he doesn't want to do. These things are always people. He accepts or declines each face. Each set of shoulders. He is agreeing to and refusing each body in turn. His mind is ahead of him. He is saying yes to that one, no to that one. He is choosing. Choice is an illusion.
Each chapter has its own title, inviting us to treat this like a collection of linked stories. Some of these are so successfully independent that they give the pleasure of reading a perfectly honed short story. When this happens more than once in the novel you get the slightly giddy feeling of too much of a good thing. No complaints here however. Goo Book for example, in which we meet the driver of the elusive criminal Mishazzo and enter his relationship with his girlfriend, neither of whom can actually say tender things to one another but choose to write them instead in a notebook for the other to find, thus freeing themselves up to indulge a far more exotic sexual life (involving some of what is presumably making 50 Shades so popular), is a brilliant, self-contained gem (so much so that it was printed in the New Yorker here). It could stand alone as a short story and satisfy you completely but placed where it is in the novel it adds not only a frisson of something unexpected but also something close to sentimentality; a moment of genuine romance no matter how tainted.
They lay next to each other in the bed and touched each other and laid their faces one against the other and when they were tired of talking they fucked and when they were tired of fucking they talked, and many different afternoons became one afternoon that persisted in his mind for the rest of his life and he never knew what to make of it, then or after.
Marching Songs is another section that thrives out of context (again there's the opportunity to read it as such thanks to the publisher themselves here). It is a quite brilliant monologue, not just because of its distinctive voice, scattered subjects and obsessive detail but because whilst it is like a direct address monologue it is very much a piece of writing that makes virtue of itself as a piece of writing. I'm sure it could be read brilliantly out loud by an actor or the author himself but it reads so well on the page that the perverse pleasure is there for everyone who picks up the book (or clicks on the link above). A piece that captures brilliantly the morbid curiosity of the modern world, where videos of every kind of accident and atrocity can viewed whenever we like and as often as we like ("You can watch it all. Over and over.") actually had me personally unable to stop myself viewing some of the videos detailed. There is something compelling about the heroism of Formula One driver David Purley as he seeks to save the life of his friend and fellow driver Roger Williamson in the Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 but Ridgway manages to make even more of it with his simple description and commentary on the event.
I have read novels before that use the linked story format to make up their whole. Some of them work better than others. Ridgway almost goes one step further by eschewing the idea that these linked stories should come together to provide a narrative. As I said earlier, there will be no solution to the shooting incident that opens the book (sorry, spoiler!), but that is never really the point. The combined narratives of each chapter satisfy on their own in the same way that an unresolved short story can. The fact that there is not one but several of them and that they all inhabit the same world and share some of the same characters is what actually made the book such a success to me. Along the way you will meet criminals and the men who pursue them, family members, a premiership referee who sees ghosts, a secret brethren of wolves in conflict with other animals (yes, really) and yet none of it ever seems absurd. It is quirky in all the right ways and all goes to show what I said at the very beginning. There are some writers you read and come back to again and again because they consistently produce work of quality, variety and ingenuity. Ridgway has joined that list for me (in fact I enjoyed this one so much I read it twice - and I never do that), I can only hope that he will do the same for other readers too.