Monday 17 May 2010

'life turned inside out'

A Meaningful Life 
by L.J.Davis

First of all, a hearty welcome to anyone who has found their way here as a result of the Spotlight Series NYRB Classics Tour.

Designed to shine a light on small press publishers, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to review another of NYRB's impressive list (other recent reviews can be found here, here and here). John Self gave this book such uncomplicated praise on Asylum that it was a no-brainer on my recent NYRB Classics buying splurge. Brought back into print after the persistence of fellow novelist and Brooklyn neighbour Jonathan Lethem, the book contains so much humour, so many good lines that my copy was roughly 50% post-it notes marking relevant passages when I was only half-way through. I shall try to resist quoting too much but it won't be easy. With that said, here's the opening paragraph.

Lowell Lake was a tall man, rather thin, with thin sandy hair and a distant, preoccupied though amiable disposition, as though the world did not reach him as it reaches other men and all the voices around him were pleasant but very faint. His attention was liable to wander off at any time and he was always asking people to repeat things. He gave the impression that people bored him, although not in a bad way: actually, they seemed to lull him. He was frequently discovered half-asleep at his desk, gazing vacantly out the nearest window.

It's just a brilliant opening to a book. I can see the man, I already feel a bit sorry for him and, crucially, I want to know more. Lowell has made the classic move of waking up one day and realising that he is not satisfied with his life, not satisfied that it even counts as a life. His job, his marriage and his isolation within both are all reason for discontent. Since marriage his life has not only plateaued but failed to get off the ground at all.

Nine years: an endless chain of days, a rosary of months, each as smooth and round as the one before, flowing evenly through his mind. You could count on the fingers of one hand the events and pauses of all that time: two promotions; two changes of apartment (each time nearer the river); a trip to Maine, where he realised his wife's legs had gotten kind of fat - five memories in nine years, each no more than a shallow design scratched on a featureless bead.

The remedy for stagnation is movement and the Lake's make the reverse of the American journey of hope by heading east to New York. Far from being a journey that unites them in a new beginning, it is here that the married couple begin their real divergence. His wife, here against her will, dreams of life on the Upper East Side whilst Lowell sees an opportunity to make something of his life amongst the dilapidated brownstones of Brooklyn (whose streets have 'the kind of emptiness that suggested that if someone else was moving in it too, he probably didn't mean you well. It was a thief's emptiness, the emptiness of a street in a city occupied by a hostile power.'). His exploitation at the hands of a ruthless estate agent provides just one of the book's memorable set pieces, Lowell touring the property divided into separate apartments by shoddily erected partitions whilst it is still occupied by a motley crew of unfortunates. After parting with the majority of his life savings and turfing out the current occupants Lowell is the proud owner of a crumbling pile, a focus for his restless energies; for if movement is one remedy then a project is another. His wife refuses to sleep in the new house, electing to remain in the cramped safety of their Manhattan apartment rather than the spacious ruin in Brooklyn. Whilst the two work together to clear the wreckage left by the previous tenants, this venture serves to exacerbate the Lake's disconnection, something Lowell has ruminated on earlier.

Sometimes he felt that he didn't know his wife at all, or at least not much of her. Sometimes he had the feeling that the person he knew and loved in the evenings and on weekends was nothing but a cunning impersonation, speaking in his dialect, acting out a charade of mildness and happy marriage, and that the occasionally glimpsed person with the news vendor's voice was the real one...What really disturbed him more than anything was the feeling that the personality he imagined for her, though crude and devious to an incredible degree, was in a strange way more complex and plausible than the one she really seemed to have, at least most of the time. 

If he cared more about it then it's possible their marriage could be rescued but Lowell becomes obsessed instead by his project and the man who originally built the house, Darius Collingwood. If progress is one American obsession then so is the country's nostalgic attachment to its relatively short history. Lowell throws himself into research on the man who built the walls that surround him, attaching a romantic hue to someone who turns out to have been 'one of the most perfect pricks that ever lived.'

To describe the novel as a black comedy would be to underestimate how far it pushes both of those aspirations. The humour is sometimes easy but all too often it is spiced with something far more daring. Even something as simple as Lowell's father-in-law, who insists on being called by his first name and takes acquiescence to new levels, leads Lowell to 'the disturbing impression that if somebody finally came and told him it was time to go to the gas chamber, he would hop right into the truck, asking them to call him Leo.' Davis' observations on the Lake's marriage are particularly acerbic and you can only imagine how much further it is possible to push that once Lowell is effectively separated from his wife. The real surprise in a book which always feels like a comedy is how far Davis is able to push his central character. His attachment to the historical significance of his renovation and the importance of filling the void that existed in his life are enough to turn the pursuit of the American dream into a project that a man would be willing to do almost anything for, even something that might seem beyond the realms of a mild-mannered 'managing editor of a second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.'

To discover an entirely new writer is always a joy, sending one straight to the Internet and a search for other titles (all of which it seems are currently out of print). I'm tempted by Cowboys Don't Cry but has anyone else read any Davis and want to direct me in the most rewarding direction?


Chrisbookarama 17 May 2010 at 12:40  

I haven't read anything by him but he sounds like an entertaining author. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for participating!

Aarti 17 May 2010 at 16:34  

What a fantastic review! I, for one, am glad that you included so many quotes from the text here. It gives me a great feel for the book and I will certainly be looking into it. Thanks so much for participating in the series, and I hope you stick around for the next one, too!

Isabella K 17 May 2010 at 17:50  

This book sounds wonderful! Thanks for the choice excerpts. I don't know this author at all, but I'll be looking this book up.

Cat 18 May 2010 at 21:50  

Great review. I'll have to look out for the book.

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