Saturday, September 24, 2011

I'll Go to Bed at Noon - Gerard Woodward

Gerard Woodward's excellent 'I'll Go to Bed at Noon', (published in 2004) a novel on a family coming apart is one the most underrated works of recent years. It got a Booker nod, but by and large has been sadly not part of major discussions. Generally novels of the 'family' genre, fall into 2 modes of narrative, one is with hyper/hysterical realism with slightly larger than life characters bordering on manic eccentricity ('All Families Are Psychotic', 'Corrections') or fully dark novels with serious themes ('The Gathering'). But here Wooodward treats it in a different way, giving a more nuanced and minutely detailed potrait of a family's slow disintegration. The novel is the second part of a loosely connected trilogy ('August' and 'A Curious Earth' precede and succeed this novel), but can be read as a stand alone. The third part however is best read after reading the first 2 or at least the second. I am posting this in the order I read them.

The novel traces a particular period life of the Joneses, Aldous and Colette, their 3 sons and daughter. Of particular focus is Alodous a professor, Collette and Janus, the eldest son who is a very talented pianist. He is frittering away his life and career, a drunkard who goes through life doing menial jobs and who seems to take great pleasure in debasing himself. In fact the family itself has a drinking problem, with Collette herself being partial to the drink and has now somewhat recovered from it. The novel's main thread is one's inability to let go of a loved one, our propensity to put up with anything that a person we love does, however harmful it may be to all concerned. That's why Collette does not find the heart to exile Janus from her house for a long long time even though he cause great suffering and when she finally does it, it does lead to tragic consequences. Collete's brother 'Janus Brian' (same name as Collette's eldest son, not to be confused with him) too is a symbol of the same thing. The novel begins with the funeral of Janus's wife. We get the impression their life was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing passionate, at least outwardly. But the manner in which Janus slips into a state of apathy, the way he literally drinks himself to death again either points to a relationship with his wife that was more profound that is outwardly visible, or it could just be the emotional inability of a man to handle with his wife's loss. (Isn't it said that women are emotionally stronger than men). Whatever may be the reason, Janus Brian's descent into hell is a scary potrayal of a middle aged man with no children whose wife is no more. There is no melodramatic crying or outpouring of sorrow, but more like the nihilistic behaviour of a person who has lost interest in everything. It is this love and affection that keeps Collette hoping against hope that both the Januses will come back to the normal track, it is what makes Collette believe in the girlfriend that Janus (the son) keeps talking about, but never brings her home. (When all others think that the girl friend is a figment of Janus's imagination). Even Aldous falls prey to this at the end. At the beginning of the novel, he is aloof with his kids, tolerates Janus with great reluctance and is the one who pushes Colette to send Janus away.  His way of handling Janus's drunken rages is to barricade himself in a room with the complete works of Shakespeare. Except for Collette, he does not seem to have any major affection for any one else and that's why he tolerates Janus since Collette cannot bear to see him leave. After the tragic events at the end, Aldous reacts without any outward show of grief, but starts doing aimless travels through London.It serves as a precursor to what would happen later. 

The minutely detailed capturing of every day life and the understated yet beautiful prose makes the novel a great experience to read. Couple of instances from the novel bring these to the fore. In the beginning of the novel Aldous and Colette are sharing the bathroom, he shaving and she taking a bath. In the course of a couple of pages, Woodward shows us a clear picture of middle aged domesticity where passion seems to have taken second seat, but is replaced by a more deeper and stable emotion like contentment with each other. In another instance, the family has gathered for a sunday lunch and spending the afternoon and evening having fun generally. Janus too seems to be sober, though Aldous has his misgivings. Janus goes missing for sometime and when he enters the room again, the other suddenly get a realization that he is drunk. In just a couple of paragraphs Woodwards captures the shift in mood from one of lazy happiness to fear, revulsion and sadness at a happy evening ruined. The effect is not to get us readers to sympathize with the characters, but rather to feel the same fear, chill they feel on getting to know that Janus is drunk. May be this detailing and understated story telling is the reason for the novel not gaining more popularity,  certainly there are no great dramatic conflicts, no hysterical crazy situations here.

I did have a few minor quibbles. We never get to know about Janus, why he frittered away a musical career, why did he come a drunkard. Janus is the subject of most of the characters thinking, conversation, but we don't get to know what Janus himself thinks. It's one thing to be subtle and leave things for the reader to figure out and another thing to leave something completely out. The case with Janus is the second one. Though we get an inkling of his thoughts at the end through his dairy and his (supposedly) imagined girlfriend lets us a bit into his mind, he is mainly an elusive character for the reader, much like he is for his family too. The first book 'August' shows Janus with teenage angst, but still it does not justify his complete descent into depravity. However the part of Janus diary and the events after that right at the end are some of the most heartbreaking piece of prose one would read. Some characters like Janus's brother in law who joins him in his drunken escapades, Janus's younger brother who hates Janus are not fully drawn out. But these are very minor things which don't come in way of the overall flow. You will not read a more bitter sweet and heartbreaking novel than this. 

Mention must made of the 3 novels covers, very melancholic drawing you to them. It was the cover that made me buy this beautiful book and read in the wrong order.

No comments:

Post a Comment