Last month, we enthroned Adam Mars-Jones as our Author of the Month. This month, he's coming to the Bookshop to talk about his new memoir, Kid Gloves, a book that turns his famously sharp critical vision onto the material of his own life, observing the dynamics that played out in his relationship with his father. In an era in which literary criticism can seem more concerned with questions of whether characters are "likeable" enough, or plots sufficiently plotty, Mars-Jones is one of a very few critics at work who seems to relish getting his hands properly dirty, diving under the bonnet to expose for us how, exactly, the works he dissects are achieving their effects. And although known widely for his 'hatchet jobs', he's also often very funny. He's been writing for the LRB since 1993; here are five of his pieces that are well worth revisiting.
Armistead Maupin's 1993 instalment in his Tales of the City series, Maybe the Moon, didn't entirely convince Mars-Jones.
A later description, of a long-married couple, conveys the same impression of acidity brought artificially down to a more neutral pH: ‘You could tell at a glance they were one of those couples who do everything together. I just knew they owned matching nylon wind-breakers.’ Artificial fibres in fiction always betray authorial judgment.
A review of Matthew Herbert's album Plat du Jour expands to consider the nature of formalist art, by way of an anecdote about scrounging a cigarette off Angela Carter.
The late Angela Carter once told me I was a ‘formalist’. We didn’t meet often, and this may have been the first time we did, in which case it was at a party. It had slipped my mind that I don’t smoke, and I cadged a cigarette off her in exchange for reciting the first sentence of one of her novels (‘On my last night in London I paid you a small tribute of spermatozoa, my dear Tristessa’ – an opening that is actually easier to remember than forget). I felt baffled and obscurely hurt by her comment. I honestly didn’t know what she meant, but I understood that a formalist wasn’t a good thing to be. I knew that ‘formalism’ was one of the headings (along with ‘decadence’ and ‘bourgeois leanings’) under which Soviet composers of the 1930s were bullied into abandoning experimentation, but I didn’t connect with the word at all personally. Now I feel I’ve more or less worked out what the term means, and though I think I was misdiagnosed on the basis of a single symptom (an elaborately structured story), I wish I had defended an approach to making art which can claim Bach, Dante and Joyce among its dupes.
Adam and Jeanette were friends once. His 2012 review of her memoir is not entirely friendly.
The tone of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is highly unsettled. There’s a frequent effect of slippage, a grinding of gears between memoir and newspaper column, that secular sermonette. A lament for the well-meaning replacement of the King James Bible by more narrowly relevant versions reads like a transplanted think-piece. A passage describing the technicalities of roofing (‘with slate roof tiles your pitch can be as shallow as 33 degrees – with stone tiles you must allow 45 degrees or even 54’) doesn’t really suggest someone charting the history of Lancashire, more someone who has been doing up an old house.
Starring Mars-Jones as J.K. Rowling's creative writing tutor, gently helping her tease out the structural problems with her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy.
I imagine going over the manuscript of The Casual Vacancy with the author. I try for a warmly neutral tone, as if I was a trusted family doctor. I’m trying not to say: ‘If only you’d come to me sooner.’ I say: ‘Take your first section … what do I always say in class about openings? Do you remember?’
There’s a pause, but I’ve been here a few times before and I have learned the power of friendly silence. Reluctantly she speaks. ‘The first section of a book is like a front door – welcome your readers in – don’t slam it in their faces?’
‘Exactly right. Which is what you do if you start in the point of view of someone who drops dead, the way you’ve done. There’s no momentum – do you see? – nothing to carry the reader through. And I’m a bit unhappy about the way you keep shifting the point of view. It all gets a bit fidgety. You know how much I like the scene where Kay the social worker visits the problematic Weedon family. We’ve talked about that. A lot of it has to do with the consistency of the point of view. You stuck with Kay.’
‘But you said you liked the discussion at Parminder’s house the night before the council meeting! I’ve not stuck with anybody there!’
‘It’s a great scene, Joanne, but I think something different is happening in it.’ We’re on first-name terms now. There’s some real trust building up. She understands we’re on the same side. On the side of the writing.
"When this little book is famous," wrote Mars-Jones in August 2013 – well before Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing went on to garner a clutch of literary awards.
[McBride] opens up space where there shouldn’t really be any, by bruising the cadence and roughening up the grammar. The charged inconclusiveness of ‘I look him back from looking right at me,’ for instance, reproduces those aspects of the encounter. A group scene can be rendered more or less all at once: ‘People stoking up the range and crossing over teapot stretch to pour a pan of sausage out.’ The book is much fuller in its intensely cohesive fragmentation than a more conventionally finished literary product. The overlapping emotions don’t settle down, and combine differently on rereading. McBride takes particular risks with her presentation of dialogue, withholding not just the marks that Joyce called ‘perverted commas’ but any help from the layout of the page. James Kelman indents his dialogue as a matter of course, and Irvine Welsh, following Joyce, accords his readers the additional courtesy of the French-style dash. McBride lets the registers mix within the paragraph, with results that are mostly worth the effort: ‘I make my breakfast. Eat that. Don’t look. Don’t be letting my face get warm. I’ve done worse much more times again but. Drink up. Say I am going out. But love. But love. So much to do. Sandwiches and cakes. All hands on deck. Too many Mammy in here. Anyway you know well I can’t cook.’ The repeated ‘But love’ turns out to be the mother’s reproach to her daughter for selfishness, muted for company’s ears, yet it isn’t entirely divided from the sense it first seemed to have.
In the first of the 'Diary' pieces that later expanded to become Kid Gloves, Mars-Jones relates the story of finally coming out to his father at New Year.
That’s the formula for this rite of passage, though perhaps I should give myself the benefit of the doubt and say that I introduced some slight variation – ‘There’s something you need to know,’ or something of the sort. There’s not a lot of room available for improvisation. The coming-out speech is a relatively unvarying form because the event has only two parts, a clearing of the throat to demand attention (hear ye! hear ye!) and then a simple phrase that can’t be taken back (I’m gay). After that, as it seems to the person making the declaration, the fixed points disappear. All clocks return to zero hour and the speakers have new voices issued to them, voices that stray so far from any previous conversation they may as well be talking in tongues.
BONUS MATERIAL: Here's Adam talking about how he approaches the business of writing reviews (as well as more about his memoir).