:: Article

Anatomy of a Disaster

By Max Dunbar.


Sherry and Narcotics, Nina-Marie Gardner, Future Fiction London 2011

In ‘Mayakovsky’, Frank O’Hara writes:

Now I am quietly waiting for

the catastrophe of my personality

to seem beautiful again

and interesting, and modern.

I thought of this line in connection with the protagonist of Nina-Marie Gardner‘s visceral first novel. Mary Cartwright is from a wealthy Boston family and has spent her life in dedicated hedonism at the fringes of the art world. In her late thirties, she’s emerged in London with an MA in creative writing, a job for an online essay farm and a serious alcohol problem that she treats with sporadic visits to AA. Life is a round of drinking sessions and encounters with unreliable men. Family members, bailout-wary, hover like censorious guardian angels.

At this point Mary is contacted by Jake Potter, a Northern writer who has checked out her online profile. Their email correspondence features heavily, and is worth reading. Critics who believe that the internet has killed the epistolary novel should read Sherry and Narco. Communication between individuals is the prime driver of story and character arc; and, for the novelist, one of the hardest things to get right. But Gardner understands how people speak and write. She knows every tic and quaver of an individual voice, and the result is so good it’s unnerving, a soul-signature replicated on the page.

Jake is married with a child and, despite his passionate emails, has expressed no real commitment. Nevertheless Mary moves to South Manchester to be with him. In a city where she knows no one and is not known, sustained only by intermittent email and text contact, Mary succumbs to a swift and lonely decline, which Gardner chronicles with cold precision. Another of Gardner’s strengths is her ability to capture a sense of place – the feel of a city. In a country where most novelists write as if their characters are suspended in a timeless limbo, Gardner’s fidelity to urban detail is refreshing.

Here’s what I mean. As an American living in London, the idea of the north makes Mary apprehensive: ‘Something about Manchester as a city seems particularly feral and dangerous.’ Gardner then sums up, beautifully, the stock cliches that pass for knowledge of the city in outsiders, gained from popular culture and half-remembered anecdotes: ‘brutal elements, physical danger, Communism and disaffected sadness’. Mary gets off the train at Piccadilly and starts drinking in city centre bars. A football match has just finished and supporters are everywhere: ‘It’s terrifying – the air is vicious and alive – every shout, every unidentified slam and siren might be coming from a fight.’ Gardner does not just describe the scene – she makes it happen. She writes about Manchester far better than any Manchester writer I’ve encountered. Fresh eyes see clear.

Mary’s problem, of course, is that she has no home. She doesn’t feel safe anywhere, and bounces between cities and continents on the geographic cure. The sense of place is therefore married to a chaotic placelessness, a rootlessness, and the contradiction twists through the book like a hot burning wire. You feel it in the scenes where Mary wanders, half-drunk and lonely, through the suburbs of South Manchester in the dark. Anyone who’s ever tried to make a new start in a new place will be taken straight back to those initial weeks of spooky acclimatisation, where the buildings are like dark sentinels, and there is a dance of light and laughter on the edges, the fringes, but no way to reach it. Mary’s insecurity seems to touch on a panicky atavism that is hardwired into the human soul. What is death like? Will I ever be loved? There’s no answer.

Jake’s character comes across well. Jake Potter is the kind of man we rarely encounter in fiction, but see all the time in real life: the middle-class hipster male who is ‘liberal’ in his politics, but barely evolved in his attitudes towards women. Evasive, manipulative and pretentious, he’s a man who appears to have a lot going on but in reality is stagnated into a life of well-worn pleasures and old games. Superficially charming, and attractive, there’s a real connection between them (again, Gardner captures like no other the buildup of chemistry between a man and a woman) but Mary stakes her happiness on a single person: and in the end she regrets it, deeply.

You could criticise the protagonist for such a disastrous overplay of the hand. But then, isn’t that what we all do? When we fall in love, we place everything on a single spin of the roulette wheel. We are high-risk gamblers in our hearts, if not always in our actions. It’s not sensible, but nothing about romantic love is sensible.

The ending is ambiguous, and somehow circular; we don’t know if Mary will learn from her mistakes. We’re conditioned, through film and books, to believe that the past must always be confronted and resolved. In reality, few people ever have to do this. The fact is that your past doesn’t matter, and you’ll be amazed how easy it is to walk away from it. I’m thinking of that moment in Mad Men, when Don Draper visits his most talented creative, Peggy Olson, who has been confined to a psychiatric ward after a full nervous breakdown. She wakes to find Draper sitting by her bed. With calm authority he tells her: ‘Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.’

Or, as O’Hara puts it:

It may be the coldest day of

the year, what does he think of

that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,

perhaps I am myself again.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 10th, 2011.