The death of a parent does funny things to children, even when those children are of mature years. Powerful mixtures of grief, guilt, love, anger and relief are often toxic to clear thinking and uncomplicated feeling, even in those who have come to think of themselves as clearheaded and balanced in their emotional responses.
Tim Parks’ powerful new novel is not an easy read. It starts off with a hundred and more pages in which his fifty-seven year old narrator, Thomas Sanders, sets off on journeys (two) to his dying mother’s bedside. The journeys turn into those you have in anxiety dreams, delays and diversions at every turn. Anxiety dreams are exhausting and so too is Parks’ narrative; he doesn’t really let up. Worse, Sanders is merely acting an exaggeration of his normal self. He is anxious and obsessive anyway, his stream-of-consciousness narration constantly lurching from one source of stress to another. Where Beckett’s Molloy counts his farts – Parks reminds us of this on page 122 – Sanders counts the number of times he pees. He does that for the whole book. But he also finds time to obsess about grammatical correctness (whom / who). And about a solution he has found to his peeing problem, anal massage, which figures largely though I am not sure whether anal massage really is a distinct therapeutic technique (I can’t be arsed to Google) or simply another name for the prostate massage which qualified sex workers offer. Whatever, Sanders spends a lot of time both literally and metaphorically up his own arse.
He is not very endearing. He is addicted to his mobile phone and laptop, which constantly distract him from his distractedness. Remarkably, he has a lover thirty years his junior who is only lightly sketched but who is clearly very tolerant. The drama of the novel hinges partly on whether Sanders will see sense and count himself lucky to have Elsa love him, as his “shrink” urges (she is never dignified with any other title), or whether he will retreat back into the marriage he has only recently left, do the right thing even if he has to self-anal massage forever to stay alive.
As if this extraordinary literary evocation of conflicted anxieties is not enough, we then proceed to very powerfully written deathbed scenes. Someone who drops dead from a heart attack spares us the horror of observing a body disintegrate; those who die of cancers may have some of their pain and distress relieved by drip-fed opiates but it doesn’t really alter the visible facts of what is going on as we sit there, day after day. Dying smells, as Parks observes in a novel which places itself in a tradition of novels which foreground the body: its orifices, its failings, its smells - rather than the mind, the soul, the spirit.
The novel keeps going after the death of Sanders’ devoutly Christian mother (who would not acknowledge the body) and for fifty or so pages I felt this was a mistake; the novel felt unfocussed and miscellaneous, cluttered by sub-plots which are now given opportunity to develop but with too many characters making cameo appearances. But then Parks pulls the novel back together with another powerful narrative of the funeral, both moving and withering by turns, but which still leaves us on tenterhooks about which way Sanders will jump. In this, the narrative echoes the conflicted uncertainty of, say, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers ( where, by the way, Paul Morel does actually administer what he hopes is a fatal dose of opiates to his dying mother).
Parks does answer the Which way? question in a two page Epilogue which closes the book with a Joycean Yes to life, but you feel it has been a close-run thing and the epilogue is so perfunctory that you rather fear a relapse.
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