Joy by Jonathan Lee (Cornerstone - June, 2012)
I Trick I Learned from Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge (Vintage - July 2012)
Death, corporate oppression and unfulfilled ambition are not cheery subjects. Luckily for readers of Joy and A Trick I Learned from Dead Men, Jonathan Lee and Kitty Aldridge respectively approach this territory with a dark comic cheer that keeps the pages turning.
Joy tells of the joyless existence of a solicitor (called Joy) at a City law firm, about to be made into partner, but who decides to kill herself rather than accept the accolade. A Trick I Learned from Dead Men features a trainee undertaker learning to make corpses look their best, whilst coping with his own personal bereavement and battling against redundancy in the wake of a corporate takeover. We are thus in two secret worlds, with their own mysteries—the City law firm and the undertakers’ repair centre.
Lee was an inhabitant of the former secret world being an ex-City lawyer himself, and this tells in his prose. The hours spent in a corporate environment infuse his text with a throwaway richness. In what is perhaps the best-observed sentence of the novel, packed into a short parenthesis, Lee talks of ‘the precedents, preambles, kind regards and chauffeured cars that constitute a career in law.’ This level of detail is a real endorsement of a ‘method’ approach to writing—living in an environment, absorbing its essence, before committing it to the page. From the force, passion and urgency of his prose—particularly pacey when he is pastiching the legal world—one senses that Lee has not simply chosen to ‘write what he knows’, but is compelled to.
Also a City lawyer myself, I make absolutely no comment on whether the more cutting remarks or picture of desolation ring true, but it is certainly an amusing satire. One wonders whether non-lawyers get so much from the novel as lawyers do, or whether all the talk of ‘con calls’ and ‘disclosure’ is baffling, but Lee does not compromise, and that is a point in his favour. In multiple first person viewpoints, Lee uses the vocabulary and language that those individuals would actually use, rather than adjusting this for the audience, which gives a real authenticity to his characters.
Aldridge does not have a history of working in the undertaking business, but she has clearly researched the world well, putting in little details to fascinate the uninitiated—the sewing of thread through the lips and nose to keep the mouth shut, the fact that eyes sink into the skull after death, the strange objects that people are buried with. Unlike Lee, Aldridge explains these arts to her reader. However, as Aldridge too has chosen a distinctive point of view for the novel, the intentionally cliché-ridden prose of the trainee undertaker, this does not feel like inauthentic exposition; the trainee is learning his trade and takes the apprentice’s joy in sharing his new found ‘expertise.’ Although his delivery is made up of cliché after cliché (‘Sticks and stones. You have to rise above it.’), which is initially alienating for the reader, there is an aspirational quality to it. He wants to find the exact phrase that suits a moment, and why not use a phrase the world, and his esteemed funeral director boss, has already deemed fit for the occasion? When that cliché breaks down as he deals with a family death, the effect is powerful—he is genuinely accessing his own emotion for the first time, expressed in staccato, disjointed fragments of sentences. The reader is aware of the deliberate shift in style, but this doesn’t make the protagonists disintegration any less poignant.
If Aldridge and Lee are all-knowing about their respective worlds, they make different choices about the state of knowledge that their readers should be in about the fate of the protagonists. Both novelists create compassionate and frank accounts of what can lead to death by one’s own hand, and the effect on survivors, but their structural approach is polarised. Lee tells us from the start that his protagonist will try to kill herself. Using his clever structure of alternating between a third person account in Joy’s point of view of the hours before the suicide, and first person accounts from the other characters to an occupational psychologist after the event, Lee’s mystery for his reader is why a successful City lawyer would kill herself, revealing fragment by fragment the less obvious reasons that push her over the edge. By contrast, Aldridge’s linear novel adopts the more traditional approach of foreshadowing and a doom-laden prologue. We know that there will be a violent occurrence, but are shocked when it happens.
Amid the bleak subject matter, both Aldridge and Lee are adept at finding the laughs. Lee draws out the comedy of somebody trying to clear their desk the day before they commit suicide, and his minor comic characters, as well as sexual high-jinx in the office, ease the tension. Aldridge adds humour as her sensitive male protagonist converses with crows and dead people, and diligently but hopelessly follows the advice of a magazine article about what women want in a man.
But the humour isn’t enough for Aldridge and Lee—they both feel the need to console their readers after the event. We are given happy epilogues about the protagonists, reassuring us that life is good and worth living after all. Joy lives up to her name and the undertaker breaks free of a joyless existence. Whilst Lee cannot resist a further twist, going dark again in penning a quasi-postscript for one of the lesser characters, thus giving the novel a lopsided arc, it has the additional effect of saving his protagonist as a heroine—she is able to triumph over the weakness of mind and body in a way that the minor character is not. Equally, for Aldridge, individual triumphs; casting off a joyless previous existence. A bolder choice might have been to resist the temptation to add such an obviously redemptive ending. Just as her protagonist embellishes the corpses in his care after their death, Aldridge’s post-script does have that ‘painted on after the end’ feel to it.
Overall though, there is a striking authenticity about both of the novels and the reader is taken into difficult territory without feeling lost there, ably guided by the genuine characters that Lee and Aldridge place in their own, now less mysterious, worlds.