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Monday, 9 August 2010

True Things About Me

True Things About Me 

You do anything long enough to escape the habit of living until the escape becomes the habit. — David Ryan



It’s hard writing a blurb. How do you encapsulate an entire novel in a couple of hundred words and make it sound compelling? It’s an art. Here’s the full blurb for this book:

This is the story of a woman brave enough to risk it all. She understands better than most the things that we keep hidden. She comes to learn how the heart is usually stronger than the head. And she cannot help, despite her better instincts, being drawn into a sexually charged and highly volatile relationship. True Things About Me is a brilliantly written novel of survival that reveals simultaneously the strength and vulnerability of one ordinary woman. With great honesty and unexpected humour, Deborah Kay Davies takes us deep into the mind of her unforgettable protagonist, and in doing so asks us to consider seriously what we might sacrifice for our desires.

There were one or two reviews already online when I’d finished this and we all agreed about one thing: the protagonist in this book is not brave; she’s a stupid, stupid girl. Question: What’s the difference between bravery and stupidity — there is, after all, supposed to be a thin line between the one and the other? Answer: It’s all to do do with the risk factor — a brave person does the right thing despite the risks involved whereas a stupid person takes unreasonable risks for no good reason. Fire fighters are brave but not stupid. They assess the risks and make judgement calls.

The only fire in Meg, the narrator of Davis’ debut novel, True Things About Me, is a sexual one, at least on the surface. You have to watch the quiet ones. And she is a quiet one, an insignificant benefits officer. Meg lives alone, not even a cat for company. Her parents are still alive but they’re not especially close. Her happily married best friend, Alison, works in the same office. We never get much backstory on Meg, not even her age. And that’s probably the biggest problem with this book. Or maybe it’s a peculiarly masculine reading of it. Males tend to be more linear in their thinking than females — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and all that kind of stuff — and so we look for reasons for everything. The problem is that sometimes people do stuff without thinking things through: there are no reasons. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any answers but if they come at all they come after the fact.

The book begins with an unreasonable act. That is why looking for a reason is pointless. She acts purely on impulse. It’s a day like any other day. One claimant follows another. And then he sits down in front of her:

Name? I said, and wrote it down. I read his paperwork. He’d just come out of prison. Nothing serious, he said, and stretched. Just having a laugh with an articulated lorry and a lamp post. He settled back in the seat and grinned. I grinned back. I don’t know why. It wasn’t at all appropriate. Address? I said. He leaned near the barrier. Why d’you want to know? he said, his breath briefly etching an oval on the glass. I told him I was just doing my job. Nothing personal. Pity, he said. I leafed through his papers and picked up my pen. Married or single? I said. Single. Very, he said, and laid his hands palm down on the surface. Good hands, nice nails and what could have been a wedding ring.

He flirts with her a bit more and then he’s gone. No harm done. A bit of flirting never hurt anyone, did it? Only he’s not gone. Alison and Meg work late:

It was getting dark as we left the building, the air slightly chilly still. He was standing opposite the entrance. There’s that man, I said to Alison. He was walking towards us. Which man? She said, peering around. Suddenly he was right in front of us. Hi, he said to me, ignoring her. Coming?

The next thing she knows she’s in an underground car park:

He backed me up against a pillar. Take your underwear off, he said and grinned, showing his teeth. Stand on me. I mean, stand on my shoes. You mustn’t get your feet dirty. He supported me while I struggled out of my tights and knickers. My mind had stretched and blanked, like a washed sheet on a clothes line. He had one arm round my waist. He put his hand up between my legs and pressed his fingers inside. I love the way that feels, he said. Then he unzipped his trousers and pushed his penis into my hand. It tapped heavily against my palm.

I’m so ready, he said. Are you? Yes, I said, and opened my legs for him. Say fuck me, he said so I did.

And he does, in the process managing to whack her head against the pillar as he climaxes and ruining her new leather jacket against the rough wall. Then he dumps her in a cab where she sits gathering her thoughts and feeling his ejaculate ooze from her. We’re only six pages into this novel, two of which are white space, and it all goes downhill from here. You can only imagine where Meg allows herself to be led over the next 198 pages. Put it this way, if what you’ve just read disturbs, upsets or offends you then stop reading this now because this is not the book for you.

requiem_for_a_dreamI saw a film a while ago called Requiem for a Dream based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr. which shows how the lives of four people are utterly destroyed due to various forms of addiction. The director, Darren Aronofsky, had this to say about his film:

Requiem for a Dream is not about heroin or about drugs… The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. […] But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, 'Oh, my God, what is a drug?'

[…]

The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person's head when they're trying to quit drugs, as with cigarettes, as when they're trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. — Jeff Stark, ‘It’s a punk movie’, Salon, 13th October 2000

Deborah Kay Davies could say much the same about her book. This is not a book about sex although there is a lot of sex in it and some rather unpleasant sex too. The descriptions are graphic but not pornographic. She describes what goes on, what is said, what is done to Meg, but the intent is not to titillate, merely to record. This is where a first person narrator is essential. The book would lose much of its power if told by a third party.

Some people do bad things, some simply make bad choices — they’re not bad people — they allow bad things to happen. The question that refused to go away, from the start of the book to the very end, was: WHY? Why does she get involved with the man in the first place? Why does she go back for more? Why when things start to move in a direction she is uncomfortable with does she not get out? It’s not as if she’s on drugs. One could understand if she was on drugs. But then why do women who’ve lived in an abusive relationship jump straight back into another and then another?

We never find out. We do get to see her parents. They’re parents; not very interesting; the kind to express concern but not likely to do much to help. Or do they realise that someone needs to need to be helped before any offer of help would mean anything? People who try to quit drinking or smoking for someone else usually fall back into old habits. You have to do it for yourself. But what if you’re not worth doing it for? What then?

The Trick is to Keep Breathing The other book this reminded me of is Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. In that book we see someone not coping with the loss of a loved one and falling into depression and anorexia. That book was a better read for me because we were helped to understand why the protagonist – ironically called Joy – is behaving the way she does. Her response to death is not reasonable but it is believable. The only thing that I could say about Meg is that she is reacting to the stultifying monotony of her life.

If we don’t learn much about Meg then what about “him” as she refers to the man? Put it this way, he doesn’t like being asked questions. After a day out, where he avoids paying the bill and they have sex round the side of a pub (during which she cuts her cheek on the pebbledash), she invites him to stay for the evening:

You can relax and watch TV. He stood and tapped the gatepost, he was already turning away. No, he said. I’ve got stuff to do. He was gazing down the street. What sort of stuff? I said. He looked at me without speaking. Then he pointed his finger at me. You need to be very careful about that, he said. Then he walked away. About what? I called after him.

So we learn nothing about him except what she sees or experiences. He tells her nothing. He begins to come and go as he pleases. He borrows her car and never returns it. She starts to get in trouble at work because of too much time off. It’s the civil service so they go through the whole procedure by the book — verbal warnings, written warnings — but it’s only a matter of time before she’s going to lose her job, we all know that. She stops going out — he likes her to be at his beck and call — and soon her life, who she is, was and might be, is being consumed by this man who gives nothing bar sex — and sex on his terms and to his tastes — in return.

We know this is going to end badly. And it does. The ending is not inevitable but by the time we’re a hundred-odd pages into the book we can see that her options are vanishing as is her capacity to take advantage of any window of opportunity that might come her way. She could run away — both Alison and her parents have offered her sanctuary (that said he does know where her parents live) — she could tell him to leave her alone (like that’s going to happen), she could kill him or be killed by him or end up in a mental institution or something equally horrible. I’m not going to tell you. Suffice to say when the book was over I was glad it was over. I really didn’t want to see her go through any more.

In an interview in The Short Review the interviewer asked the following question:

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

DKD: Ouch, difficult question. Something you fall into and claw your way up from? Something you dive into and swim about in? Something you walk through and stumble out of? I don't have a definitive answer. Something that speaks to you, that you care about, that stays with you. Or not...

Did I care about what she was putting Meg through? Not really. I was angry with Meg. I wanted to give her a good shake. I wanted to intervene. I was angry too with her ineffectual friends and family. The man I had less of a problem with. You don’t blame the train for crashing into you, you should know better than to be mucking about on the train lines.

I had a similar problem with M J Hyland’s book This is How, which I read recently, because, just like Camus does in The Outsider, the reader is kept at a distance. We are allowed to watch and deduce but that’s as far as we get to go. One of the quotes on the back of the book is by Niall Griffiths, author of Grits, who says: “True Things About Me has a kind of Greek tragedy inexorability about it which made my scalp tingle and palms sweat.” I get that. It’s not the gods, nor destiny but inevitability that’s at work here though. Popping a pill takes no thought and very little effort, even less effort than dropping your knickers in a car park, and we know where that can lead. So is the end of this book inevitable? No, she could have gone home after page 6, taken a shower, washed her skirt and enjoyed the recklessness of the moment. She could have thrown his address in the trash but as soon as we saw her putting it in a drawer then it was only a matter of time.

To be fair I found this book to be a fast-paced page-turner. None of the chapters are long and they all have headings like ‘I go underground’, ‘I don’t value my possessions’ and ‘I serve my usual nibbles’ To be fair the true things of the title To be fair which reminded me of the titles of the episodes of Friends. The fact that everyone, even Meg, is kept at arm’s length makes me think that really what we have here is an everywoman, or I suppose everyperson. The book is not without its humour To be fair I can’t pretend the chapter where she chastises Alison’s kids with a French loaf isn’t funny To be fair but that’s not what you take away from it. And frankly the sadomasochistic sex isn’t that memorable either apart from one scene with a beer bottle. Most of the book Meg is in limbo, waiting for him, waiting to get her act together, waiting for her friends to say enough is enough, waiting on an opportunity, simply waiting . . . for him.

The book is well written with an effective use of imagery. What isn’t said is what Davis has chosen not to say. It’s not sloppy writing. Chick lit it is not. Yes, good girl meets bad boy but there’s no reforming the bad boy in this book. This is an uncomfortable and frighteningly plausible read despite my reservations about the lack of backstory. If this book is a train wreck then what we get to watch is someone clawing their way through the wreckage and we can’t do a damn thing but watch.

***

Davis Deborah Kay Davies was born in Pontypool and has lived most of her life in the Eastern Valley of South Wales.

Deborah has an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing and a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Cardiff University. She has taught Creative Writing at Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan. She was awarded an Arts Council of Wales New Writer's Bursary in 1994, a Writer's Bursary in 1999 and an Academi Writer's Bursary in 2005.

Her first collection of poetry, Things You Think I Don't Know, was published by Parthian in 2006. Her stories have been published in Mslexia, Planet, New Welsh Review and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She is a three-time winner in the Rhys Davies competition.

She won the 2009 Wales Book of the Year award for her debut short story collection Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful.

16 comments:

Rachel Fenton said...

Do you think the need to know "why" is the point - that people bahave like this because they don't know the point or there is none at all...addiction is pretty pointless and it usually fills some void but then...hmn..clearly, a lot to think about and I'm not going to ramble on and on...

Thanks, Jim.

Will check it out.

Kass said...

If you're stupid and willing to risk it all, what are you risking? The possibility of getting smart?

I'm guessing the book is written better than the blurb.

Relationship addiction is harder to recover from than drug addiction. The self-produced chemicals are just as strong, if not stronger than synthetic ones. Rachel is right. There's little satisfaction in asking why one does these sorts of things.

Jim Murdoch said...

The theme to my third novel, Rachel, is, as expressed by one of the characters in the book, “There are no reasons for unreasonable things.” That doesn’t mean we can’t find answers. We all do things in life without thinking about them and then, after the fact, we assume we did what we did for a reason. That’s not the case. The woman here acts purely on impulse, like picking up a bar of chocolate at a checkout. I get that. It’s why she continues that puzzles me.

And, Kass, yes, good blurbs are terribly hard to write I find. You make an interesting point about relationship addiction. I just find it hard to understand why a reasoning person would stick with a situation like this. The bottom line is that we are the sum of our experiences and so I kept looking for some past experiences which would explain her actions. The only thing I can think of is that here we have someone who has had a humdrum life and one day snaps.

Elisabeth said...

Wow, Jim, this is some review.

My guess is that there are always reasons for pretty well everything that we do, however bizarre they might seem. That the protagonist here doesn't make this clear doesn't mean there are no reasons.

I'm sure you're not suggesting this.

I'm a sucker for MJ Hyland but I've yet to read her latest book. She's a person who has suffered furiously through her life. See: http://nadineoregan.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/mj-hyland-interview-sbp-july-09/

I know fiction shifts away from the autobiographical but I suspect your writers here are both struggling with issues that touch on their own cruel experience in some way.

It's terrible stuff but I'm glad that someone is trying to write about it, and yet I can understand that it's sheer relentless and seeming meaninglessness can exhaust and/or offend.

Thanks for persevering with these books and for offering your take on what has to be difficult material for anyone with reasonable sensibilities.

Not too many people 'enjoy' reading about self destructiveness gone berserk and yet it needs to be written about.

Kass said...

I posit that impulses may come from some past unresolved psychological orientation and as Elisabeth has suggested, may provide a reason why they are sometimes compulsively acted out. I offer my personal experience and assessment:

From a very early age I was attracted to frighteningly tough men. While my friends were swooning over Elvis, I was fantasizing about Yul Brenner, especially as the unreasonable Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments. The more he frowned and stood firm with hands on hips, legs spread, the more I liked him.

My explanation: Being raised in a rigid Mormon household, the only way I could release my sexual desires in fantasy was through a man who could overpower me - 'take' me against the tyrannical will of my upbringing.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re quite right, Lis. Carrie and I watched a film last night, There Will Be Blood in which we have a similar scenario, a man consumed by insatiable greed but since we first meet him as an adult and learn very little about his upbringing we never know quite what drives him.

I have no doubt that both writers in question here were drawing from personal experience and extrapolating, taking their narratives to obvious, if extreme, conclusions. I can see the point in presenting these tales in a matter-of-fact way without any moralising – we learn that letting our feeling get the better of us (whether those feelings be anger or lust in these cases) is probably going to end in tears – but I think it could be argued that they fall short in not helping us to clearly understand why people do things like that to themselves.

And, Kass, I think you’ve made my point for me here. I have always taken a causal view of life: everything that happened in the past is responsible in whole or in part for the things that happen in the present which means that everything can be blamed on God or the Big Bang depending on your persuasion. So nothing is my fault, that’s what I’m saying. I get what you’re suggesting about the men you’ve come to find attractive but I think that most effects are the result of a series of indirect causes.

One has to ask the question though: Does it matter how I got here? It’s what I do now I’m here that’s important. It’s not an unreasonable statement for me to say that my dad made me the man I am today. He did not, however, make me the kind of man he wanted me to be. Not because I didn’t want to be that man but because I wasn’t capable of becoming him.

Brent Robison said...

I'm also in the camp that says there are reasons why people do things. Trouble is, the reasons are very hard to spot unless you're on a path of self-inquiry, digging up the old stuff to trace its subconscious workings. Relationship addiction is re-enactment of primary trauma: the pre-verbal knowledge that your parent does not love you. The search for that love will be endless and lead nowhere without the requisite inner work.

I usually prefer a glimpse of those deep causes in stories; it helps me trust the author and reveals a worldview based on compassion rather than cynicism.

And Kass, recovering from my own Mormon upbringing is a big part of my life journey....

Jim Murdoch said...

That's where I struggled with this one, Brent, because we do get to see the protagonist's parents and they're pretty beige to be honest. Maybe that's the point here that her actions are a reaction against the blandness of her life. Her job is bland. Her friend works with her. She has no life outside work it seems.

Roberto said...

Jim it's interesting that you begin by mentioned the back cover blurb - it really is shockingly bad. Despite your highly engaging and sensitive review, JIm, that copy has really put me off ever reading it!

Dave King said...

I'm in two minds about this one, Jim. On the one hand I don't usually go for stories based on addiction. They tend to be too repetitive in my experience. And I find the chapter headings rather off-putting. On the other hand your blurb makes it sound interesting (as always) so I'm thinking this might be one of the exceptions... but I still don't know.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you liked the review, Roberto, but I really wouldn’t judge the book by its blurb any more than I’d judge it by its cover. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to encapsulate 50-odd-thousand words in a single, short paragraph but it is not easy. It’s like taking the Mona Lisa and reducing her to an 80 x 80 block of pixels. I really had a hard time doing the blurbs for my books.

And, Dave, I actually liked the chapter headings. They were preposterous and really belong attached to a situation comedy. This is more of a situation tragedy kind of a book. I didn’t feel this woman was so much addicted as mesmerised; like a moth she’s drawn back to the flame even though it’s burning her. It’s not a fun read though despite the moments on humour. I agree with Lis though, I think books like this need to be written. Getting them into the hands of the people who really need to read them, and to take their message seriously, well, that’s another thing entirely. Personally I think books like this should be read at school. Maybe even this one. It would certainly provide the basis for a lot of good discussion.

Kirk Jusko said...

It seems to me that if this sex addiction is portrayed without any kind of psycological insight or background, what you basically have is exploitation. However, you stop short of calling it that. So is there any other reason to read this book? It's not like addiction is unexplored territory. Some of your other commentators seem familiar with this writer. Does she have an interesting enough prose style to lift this above mere exploitation? Why should I choose this book over a documentary or made-for-cable movie about the same subject. You seemed to find the book worthwhile on some level in spite all your misgivings, and that's what's piqued my interest.

Titus said...

Piqued my interest as well, Jim. I want to read it now to see where I think the self-destructiveness comes from.
But I don't actually need a "why?".
Some things are just an "is", and I don't find the behaviour unusual. A lot of people, most usually women, allow themselves to be in harmful relationships for those 2 minutes of actually being needed for something, anything. And there are surely some general truths of the value society (still) places on women, and their objectification by it?
I think I will check it out.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s probably a bit harsh, Kirk. I think the situation here is that, like all addicts, she has to hit rock bottom before she can recognise that she is an addict. Addicts are notorious for justifying their actions. What annoyed me more than the women in the story was the friend and family none of whom took her by the lapels and gave her a good shake. But you’re right, I can see that the author here is trying to say something. She could have ramped up everything but she doesn’t. Nothing that bad happens to the women, she’s not tortured or anything, she’s just taken advantage of. I’ve not talked about how the book ends but I wonder if her solution to the problem is justified. Yes, I have reservations about this book but it still raises important points which is why I think it would be good to get it into the hands of older school kids, the kind of kids who might not read a book like this after they leave school.

And, Titus, if you work it out then tell me. There is the argument that there could be a lot of reasons why she is this way and that that is not important, that is not what the book is about, explaining how she reached the cliff edge, it’s what to do now she’s there. I can imagine that, after the events that take place here, the woman would end up in therapy. There is where someone will ask the important questions, the questions it seems that her family and friend are incapable of asking.

Brent Robison said...

Jim, I appreciate the thoroughness of your review(s). This one helped me know I won't be reading this book. Not because I don't like dark material (I do). But because I believe Leonard Cohen's truth: "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

I don't mean this in a Pollyanna-ish way, but rather in a balanced worldview way. I have respect for writers who know that all is not darkness. It's a tough challenge as an author to honestly explore the bleak facts of the world, while at the same time using a subtle hand to let in a ray of light. For me that can be done through deeply-felt narrative empathy, even if "causes" are not explicitly explored. Or with a hint of potential for redemption. Example: Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son." Without that element, the work wallows in self-pity, often disguised as streetsmarts or sophistication.

OK, call me an old hippie. I want a little Love in there somewhere.

Jim Murdoch said...

Is there a crack in this book, Brent? Things are resolved. In fact I’ve just reread the last chapter and there is a short scene where our protagonist stands in a pool of moonlight – a moment of clarity in the darkness? Other than that, no, it’s dark to the very end. Only on the last page does she realise that she’s in a tunnel and if she keeps going will she get to see actual light. We follow her, we watch her but we’re not allowed inside her. We see how things end but we don’t understand. She doesn’t understand. This is a woman who has stopped thinking. She responds solely to her emotions and her physical needs.

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