Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta - July, 2012)
A review (Or yet another Ridgway bandwagon jump)
In one of the nine dazzling, puzzling stories that interlock in Keith Ridgway’s corker of a novel, Hawthorn & Child, a fiction editor who may or may not be a murderer says the following:
I weigh characters in my hand like I am buying fruit. I purse my lips and roll my shoulders and I suggest this and that. It might make more sense if you did this. It would be more believable, the character would be more sympathetic, the story would flow better, the loose ends would be tied up if you did this or that or the other. And they do it. And people read these things. People actually read them from within their lives and the pages are numbered and the numbers are sequential.
Well, in this book too, the pages are sequential… but not much else is.
Granted, this telling passage could be a dreamed template for the quite extraordinary cover Granta have produced for the book: a copper’s face composited from a ripe banana, a braeburn, fags, pegs, a bottle neck, lipstick, pills and a dangerous looking kitchen knife. But the passage itself is a reverse prescription for the work of the novel. Loose ends being tied up is what this novel is assertively against. The book is all just ‘this or that or the other’.
Through the first four or so stories you think you know what you’re getting: an extremely high-class cop show. A kind of slick descendent of Derek Raymond, who perfected this kind of chilling ultra-noir for his Factory novels. And Raymond’s type, the nihilist Met soldier-outsider, is here too: in a dark loveless hero called Hawthorn and his partner Child. But then, slowly, you realise some things are missing from that set-up: Consequence. Follow-up. Any move toward a conclusion. Any conclusions. The mesmerising prose, insistent and plain, pulses you on through the chapters even when you know no resolution awaits. And that compulsion comes, one suspects, because that’s the point. Because the vexing, cold purpose of all this procedure is to shine an unforgiving fluorescent bulb on the prime fact of life: that nothing matters.
This goes deeper than the purpose of the book as stated by Ridgeway himself in an interview with the New Yorker, where the second chapter, ‘Goo Book’, appeared as a perfectly discrete short story. After stating, to certain groans in this household, ‘I was interested in writing about story itself really,’ he went on ‘…about our addiction to narrative. We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.’ There is no sense to anything, reminds the book. So we have the maybe-murdering fiction editor chasing to a grotty lock-up, and onwards to personal disintegration, a fable described in a manuscript. A teenage art fan tells tales of her cop dad’s ignorance of Jackson Pollock; a conspiracy theorist tries to get his story about Tony Blair told while watching Formula 1 deaths on YouTube: blank, endless narratives. And Hawthorn chases crooks he never catches. And pointless love. For structure, think Cloud Atlas with the second half ripped out.
Those YouTube films are just one example of the deft, casual use of technology on display. Phones email unostentatiously. An ex’s hard-drive is vilely corrupted. The tech is not present to show off how timely the novel is. It’s just another extension of the failed desire to impose order and meaning on messy, messed-up life.
Out here in the real world, though, this anti-narrative has a narrative of its own – one that exists through technology. A kind of Ridgway-mania has been impossible to avoid at least on my Twitter stream, thanks in large part to excellent book blogger John Self (he of The Asylum), who is thanked by Ridgway in the acknowledgements. The book has gained an influential audience this way, being reviewed far wider and far longer than his previous works The Long Falling, Animals and The Parts. It is one of several novels enjoying a buzz that is afoot, and Ridgway, along with Richard Beard, Stuart Evers and Greg Baxter, are enacting a happening to celebrate, reading in The Water Poet, Spitalfields, this Monday night. The danger of hype, of course, is failing to live up to it. But Hawthorn & Child delivers.
An Irishman and former Londoner who now lives back in Dublin, Ridgway has been described as being ‘as radically new and provocative… as Eugenides, Hemon, Houellebecq, Kunzu, Murakami, Eggers.’ With due caution afforded the native hyperbolising of the Twitter instant, on this evidence it is hard to argue.