Monday, September 27, 2010
When I read Stephen McCauley's first novel The Object of My Affections, I was entranced. (The film of the novel is an abomination -- avoid it at all costs)
For a first novel, it was remarkably polished and assured. With such a highly promising start, I suppose it was inevitable (and unfair) that his subsequent novels would disappoint. Insignificant Others is about Robert and his long-term lover Conrad. Robert has an insignificant other, Benjamin, who Robert doesn't know about. Benjamin is married with two kids. But when Robert discovers that Conrad also has a lover, in another city, and it appears that he might leave him for the other guy, it starts getting serious.
Why didn't I like this as much as The Object of My Affections? I find it hard to explain. The writing is as excellent as ever: McCauley never misplaces an apostrophe or uses clumsy or ugly language. There are some funny, laugh out loud, incidents. Perhaps it's because his first novel was filled with the optimism and hope of youth, and this one isn't. An inevitable adjunct to getting older perhaps: there's good reason it's described as sadder and wiser. But as I get sadder and older I find myself preferring novels of hope and optimism. I have enough reality in my own life to keep me going.
George and Nina in Affection are perfectly drawn, well-rounded people, described with liking and compassion. Even Joley, George's horrid boyfriend, is entirely real. But in Insignificant Others, it feels a bit as if the characters have just been recycled. Robert seems to be another George, only more melancholy. Conrad is another Joley, not really very loving, selfish, thoughtless. Robert (who comes across as a sweet, lovable, hen-pecked bloke) could do better for himself, just like George. Only, George did, in the end. And Robert doesn't. McCauley's caustic description of the new America contrasts strongly with the political indifference of his first novel. But the bitterness (even though entirely understandable -- who didn't despise George W Bush and his administration?) jars.
The reviewers on Amazon love this book. I am reduced to damning it with faint praise. Yes, it's beautifully written; yes, the characters are real and convincing; yes, had it been a first novel I would have given it 5 stars. But somehow it disappointed. I shall blame the disappointment on my own dyspepsia and cynicism, and I will undoubtedly buy his next novel. And by all means don't let yourself be put off by this lukewarm endorsement.