As I mentioned in my last post, I have been having a rather desultory clear-out of my books. My hand fell on Emotionally Weird, a book I initially read not long after it was first published, in 2000, and I seemed to remember thinking it wasn’t very good. Ripe for culling, I decided, and yet I felt I might just read a few pages to check if my earlier assessment was one I still agreed with. But then it went a bit like Pooh with checking his pot of honey to ensure there was no cheese lurking anywhere in it, and one book later...
(a) Was I a sterner critic in 2000?
(b) Had I no sense of humour in 2000?
(c) Was I a complete idiot in 2000?
All of these may be true, you needn’t try and answer. (Especially if you think (c).) Suffice it to say I was wrong wrong wrong in 2000, this is an entertaining, funny and dark novel which is just the thing if you enjoy reading fiction about fiction, universities and layabout Scottish students in 1972. And if you can get straight-faced through the Eng. Lit. seminar with the structuralist enthusiast Dr Archie McCue, I despair of you:
Ten minutes after eleven in Archie McCue’s room [...] The gloomy atmosphere was made gloomier by the absence of electricity. A candle, stuck in a Blue Nun bottle, burned at the window like a signal. The university was still managing to run its heating although no-one knew how – perhaps they were burning books, or (more likely) students. [...]
‘When words no longer strive for mimesis they become dislocated and disconnected. They illustrate in themselves the exhaustion of forms. Writers who eschew mimesis, looking for new ways of approaching the fictional construct, are disruptivist – challenging what Robbe-Grillet refers to as the “intelligibility of the world”.’ Archie paused. ‘What do you think of that statement? Anyone?’ No-one answered. No-one had any idea what Archie was talking about. [...]
Archie, scooting round the room in his chair like the glass on a Ouija board, came to a sudden stop in front of Kevin. He looked at him vaguely as if he thought he recognized him from somewhere and then asked him an impenetrable question about Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. [...] Kevin was saved from Gramsci by Professor Cousins, who wandered into the room at that moment. He caught sight of Archie and seemed confused.
‘Looking for something?’ Archie asked, rather impolitely, and under his breath muttered, ‘like your brain perhaps?’ Professor Cousins appeared to be even more puzzled. ‘I don’t know how I ended up here,’ he laughed. ‘I was looking for the toilet.’
‘You found it,’ Terri murmured, without apparently opening her mouth, or even waking up.
Effie Andrews and her mother Nora are weathering a storm in a semi-ruin on a tiny Scottish island, uninhabited except for them, assorted sea birds and some inbred and feral Siamese cats; Effie is there recuperating from a serious bout of ’flu she caught at university in Dundee, her mother is there because she is a bit of a reclusive nutter. To pass the time, Effie tells Nora about student life in Dundee – how much of this is true is open to interpretation – and Nora occasionally discloses to Effie a little about her past, for Effie has no father and her origins are shrouded in mystery. The narrative is further interspersed with pages from a detective novel Effie is writing for her creative writing course, and splattered with snippets of other characters’ novels, most notably Kevin’s interminable opus set in a fantasy world called Edrakonia (‘And the Murk will fall on the land. And the Beast Griddlebart will roam the land and the dragons will flee’), although Archie McCue’s experimental and paranoid work, The Expanding Prism of J, and his wife’s doctor-and-nurse romance, also feature.
In the Dundee narrative, in which she shares a flat with her slacker boyfriend Bob (‘The rays from television sets were vital to Bob’s continued existence on this planet, in the way oxygen is for other people. He claimed the three-day week was having an adverse effect on his metabolism’), Effie is avoiding writing an essay on George Eliot and cultivating dissatisfaction with Bob. Plagued by frequent losses of electricity due to the unions’ strikes, subject to bad weather and decrepitude and peopled by drifters in Afghan coats and Victorian pinafores, it’s a strange and lethargic world in which altered states of consciousness are the norm and a sense of apathy pervades everything. However, Effie-in-Dundee is becoming aware that there is a mysterious yellow dog haunting the streets and that someone is following her. And who is killing the old people? Just because you’re paranoid, as everyone reminds each other throughout the book, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Nora’s tale, when it comes, is much more Gothic.
Nora is not terribly impressed with Effie’s story and interrupts with her complaints: too many characters, not enough plot, too many kettles and loos. There should definitely be no death: ‘No no no no no, Nora says, very agitated, you said this was a comic novel – you can’t kill people.’ Effie changes the story to please her, but Nora’s using the word ‘novel’ is odd since, although this is a novel, Effie is apparently telling it out loud to her mother. Is it a comic novel? It is funny, but it also grows darker towards its conclusion. Effie muses over an essay title, ‘“Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy”: Discuss’. Is the opposite true, ‘Comedy plus Time equals Tragedy’? The book circles around itself, events recur, people echo each other’s words; darkness bubbles up but subsides again. Is Effie’s essay question relevant to life or even literature? It is fair to say that Emotionally Weird is predominantly comic. Atkinson certainly adopts plenty of devices from Shakespearean comedy: puns, missing parents, mistaken identities, coincidences, people running about. She also considers her characters’ many weaknesses with a benevolent eye. And (almost) everything does work out (reasonably) neatly in the end.
(Tower Building, University of Dundee; from here)
The layers of different stories – Nora’s account of Effie’s family, all those novels in progress – and Nora’s interpolated criticisms of the Dundee narrative (too many characters! etc.) push the novel into meta territory, where it frolics about happily. It’s packed full of references, some – like Terri’s poem – fairly obvious even to me:
I drank the glass of
milk you left on the
bedside table. it was
sour. thank you.
Others are more obscure. The yellow dog who precipitates a bizarre car journey is so random that I looked it up, and it’s a nod to Maigret, who appears in a novel called Le Chien jaune. Alas, I can’t tell you what the significance is as I haven’t read the Simenon – have any of you? What did the yellow dog mean? For everything, from the novel’s epigraph (Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass), to the page of black (Tristram Shandy) to Effie’s essay on Henry James’s interpretation of Middlemarch, helps you to read and understand this complex novel.
As the novel progresses, the different narratives start to elide. First it’s just echoes – phrases and tropes cross from characters’ novels into the Dundee narrative, Nora’s story begins to influence Effie’s. Then Dr McCrindle, the wolfish love interest in Philippa McCue’s doctor-and-nurse romance, suddenly crops up in the hospital. Characters die and are resuscitated as Effie plays with alternative versions of her Dundee story. The strangest instance of this is when someone plunges over the banisters to his death, only for Effie-in-Dundee to realise she is carrying a page of Archie McCue’s novel in which the protagonist, J, meets precisely the same fate: Effie-in-Dundee burns the page, reality shifts and rewinds and the character is alive again. Towards the end, as Effie-in-Dundee grows increasingly ill with ’flu, the borders between all the different narratives become more and more porous.
All in all, if you like your fiction tricksy, funny and unconventional, this is well worth your time. If you have a lot of time, you could write a thesis on it...