:: Article

Marguerite Duras in Ballet Shoes


Joshua Spassky, Gwendoline Riley, Jonathan Cape, 2007

When Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water was first published it was quite literally a breath of fresh air — a debut novel so mouth-wateringly original in voice and turn of phrase you wanted to tell everyone that you had read it. Along came Sick Notes, her second novel, and that initial reaction, that frisson all great debuts create, soon fizzled out. I, for one, felt nothing for Sick Notes and I, like other people I mentioned this to, thought the game was up for Gwendoline Riley. Well, it seems that I was wrong. And I am deliriously happy about this.

Gwendoline Riley’s third effort, Joshua Spassky, is a triumph. It really is. Firstly it is a book of minute particulars, of movement, and observation of the human form. It also is a novel about boredom. But, more importantly, it is a novel that proves, to me at least, that Gwendoline Riley knows what she is doing. Joshua Spassky is two fingers up to all those who believe a novelist can only mature by writing tired, over-written, epic yarns. Gwendoline Riley keeps it flimsy, she keeps it hidden, and like the work of Marguerite Duras, whose flimsy little books hold more weight than anything the ponderous yarns we are subjected to these days could consider, the weight of her book, and her whole oeuvre to date, is in what is denied.

But first to those two fingers: ninety-nine pages into Joshua Spassky, Natalie [the narrator — a thinly-guised Gwendoline Riley most would say] mentions to him [Joshua Spassky]:

“I came across a good word recently,” I said. “You might like it: aposematic.” [Pg 99].

We are informed that aposematic refers to the danger markings on animals, and especially insects that serve as a warning to potential predators. Natalie then elucidates further, explaining to Joshua her theory of “the aposematic come-on”:

“I think it’s what a lot of some people’s behaviour constitutes. Like poking someone in the shoulder and saying, ‘Do you still like me?” Not caring about the answer particularly, asking the question again and again though . . .” [Pg 99].

It depends on your feelings towards Gwendoline Riley how one reads such posturing, either one reads it for the moment, within the fiction, or one reads it as authorial intrusion: Gwendoline Riley poking all those who thought progression for the young novelist should be joining the bourgeois homogenous mass of turgid epics masquerading as Literature. Gwendoline Riley has rightly refused and it is hard to answer “no” to her persistent questioning. Like the insect that uses aposematic markings to repel these markings also draw attention closer. We, those who felt nothing for Sick Notes, have been lured into her trap: she’s proved us wrong.

She may not be maturing into the writer bourgeois opinion demands of her, but it is obvious to all who want more from writing than thick, heavy sagas that Gwendoline Riley has possessed a maturity in her writing from the very beginning. Which begs the question: why on earth has her publisher festooned: “This is a young writer of immense promise” on the front of this – her third book? The mind boggles.

Joshua Spassky continues on familiar territory: the bored musing of an articulate writer, Natalie, in search of meaning and some kind of love in her life. The book is littered with Gwendoline Riley’s knack for exquisite prose and turn of phrase:

“A bad excuse for daylight was filling up Deansgate, and there were the usual wet people walking around in it.” [Pg 24].

An image any Mancunian the world over can relate to. Or:

“He lived near Warrington, in a terrace the colour of dried ketchup . . .” [Pg 31].

I grew up in a terrace, thinking back, of just this hue — only I have never been able articulate this fact so adroitly — and so brilliantly.

Gwendoline Riley, as a writer, is interested in the human minutiae: the movement; be it the twitches, ticks, glances, nods, blinks, raised brows, gulps, yawns, yawns, yawns of the individual. It is hypnotic, it hooks the reader. Though, rather annoyingly, she can still be quite vainglorious [those bloody pouting cover photos have got to go], Natalie, we realise, could never be plain, or, dare I say it, ugly – Gwendoline Riley couldn’t deal with that. So we get ridiculous smatterings of:

“’You’re so stunning,’ he was saying. ‘So important to me.’” [Pg 60].

Gwendoline Riley was once labelled, on these very pages I think, rather unfairly (although it was meant as a compliment at the time) as “Camus in hotpants”, and as much as I found this mildy amusing at the time I still felt uncomfortable with it for a long time. The writing of Gwendoline Riley, to me at least, is more like Marguerite Duras in ballet Shoes: like Marguerite Duras Gwendoline Riley knows what to leave behind, what to resist, to ignore; she knows that writing is much stronger for this; she realises that the spaces between the words matter — she is fearless, brave enough to turn her back, to deliver her own idea of contemporary Literature, and, more importantly, because of this remarkable maturity her prose, like Marguerite Duras’, is as delicate in movement as a ballet dancer’s.

Joshua Spassky is a novel that forces the negative reader of Gwendoline Riley to reconsider. It is a powerful thing. And I take it all back.

Lee Rourke is a Mancunian. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Scarecrow and Reviews Editor at 3:AM Magazine. His collection of short stories Everyday will be published by Social Disease in 2007.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 23rd, 2007.