Six ways to begin a review of The Large Door

Jonathan Gibbs, The Large Door

Boiler House Press, 210pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781911343547

reviewed by Neil Griffiths

1. The Large Door started life as short story. The novel is better. I haven’t read the short story but The Large Door is better than most novels, and as novels are more often better than short stories (deeper, richer and more enriching) there is a high probability that this novel is better than the short story from which it is derived. Expanding short stories into novels is risky. There is a high probability of failure. Most novels that start out as short stories aren’t very good. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love comes to mind. There are others. Short stories require a single pivot to give them structure, flow, a reason for being, and part of that reason for being includes, in some intangible way, the reason for its length, that is: short. I have no idea whether great short story writers know what or where the pivot is in each story, but I am certain great short stories don’t disclose it to the reader. I suspect great short story writers knows when a work is moving too far from the pivot, because stress fractures appear. To continue moving away is to risk fragmentation and collapses. This is not the case with The Large Door: its form is shapely, its surface immaculate.

2. Let’s get it over with. Jonathan Gibbs is male and four of the five central characters in his new novel The Large Door are female, and these female characters spend a lot of time thinking about clothes: what they are wearing, what they plan to wear, what other women are wearing. This is risky stuff. A single wrong note and the novel becomes a case study for Gender Studies, more proof if we needed it that this is what men think women think about. It doesn’t matter the four women are academics; at heart, they just want to look pretty. What I say about the success or failure of this aspect of the novel is also risky. To say it works may well be seen to collude with this sexist notion; to say it doesn’t work, however, wouldn’t be true of my reading experience. What I can say is that throughout the reading of the novel I remained aware that four of the five main characters are woman and talked a lot about clothes, and that this explicit awareness of what was at risk gave the writing a kind of general performative aspect, a high-wire act-ness, which meant I was both inside the action and aware of its creation, as if one were looking at an extraordinary building and in the same glance seeing the architectural drawings at the same time. A doubly satisfying experience.

3. One of the many writers this novel doesn’t remind me of is Iris Murdoch. I’ve read a lot of Iris Murdoch and no matter what she’s writing about, there is always a solid layer of metaphysics; it’s there in the multifarious philosophical and theological positions of the characters. It acts as a deep structure to the action; it is the vector from which we must judge the consequences. There is no metaphysics in the The Large Door. There is, in fact, great materiality. Even thought and light have a kind of precision that can only be applied to that which has physical form. It’s a novel that reifies; a more difficult enterprise. After all, language and metaphysics are bedfellows. The closest to anything metaphysical in The Large Door is the general discombobulation one feels at conferences, but that isn’t really the same as wondering on the nature of the transcendental and how it might be being expressed in our deepest selves. I mention all this because Iris Murdoch seems to have been referenced a lot around this novel and I don’t know why.

4. At the beginning of Jonathan Gibbs’s new novel The Large Door, a British academic living on the west coast of America is packing a suitcase while she worries about writing a keynote speech she has agreed to give at conference on Linguistics in Amsterdam. The keynote speech is in honour of her erstwhile academic mentor, a leader in the field, who few years before made a drunken pass at her one evening at party. She remains disturbed by this. Giving the opening address is a former lover for whom she still has tender feelings. This disturbs her in a different way. The action takes place over three days, at the conference (main hall, corridors, breakout sessions), in cafes, in the rooms of a tall brightly painted and brightly lighted canal-side house. It is a novel of conversation and encounter, of past conversations and encounters, recounted and enacted in that strange state of somatic and psychological suspension familiar to anyone who’s been to any kind of conference for more than one day, especially when suffering from jet-lag.

5. Great sentence-making is cumulative. Which is to say, while sometimes sentences can leave us breathless, try to isolate and utter a great sentence out of context and be left breathless. It’s harder than you think. James Salter, the stylist of stylists, knew this. And it’s especially the case with him. My favourite paragraph of writing ever is the second paragraph of chapter two of Light Years – Nedra at a kitchen sink preparing for a dinner party. Its clarity, its beauty, its poise is all in the sentence-making, but its effect, its power is built cumulatively over a page. Taken separately the sentences seem little more than lists. This is the case with Jonathan Gibbs in his new novel The Large Door. You know he’s working at the level of the sentence, you can feel it, but there is no one example that demonstrates this, at least not without surrounding it with other sentences. After finishing the novel and agreeing to review it, I was certain quoting from it would be easy. I’d make my case for its beauty, clarity, its poise with quotes from the novel. But I can’t, the writing is too integrated with its purpose, it’s too felicitous.

6. Full disclosure: I have met Jonathan Gibbs, the author of The Large Door, a couple of times. Once when we were on a panel together, and before that on a long walk around the green spaces of Hackney organised for the publication of a work psychogeography. We talked briefly about teaching creative writing and I told him I owned a copy of his first novel, Randall. That was it. I am also acquainted with the three people who provided the endorsements for The Large Door, although the third I have only met in passing. There is more. The Large Door is published by Boiler House Press, and the team behind this new venture includes the academic partners of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, of which I am the founder. If that isn’t enough: a friend of mine appears in the acknowledgements. All of which means I don’t have a lot of wriggle room if I don’t like novel, which is to say any criticism I make needs to be entirely defendable in social, academic and professional situations. However, I am in luck. My first and only instinct when thinking about this novel is to say: ‘buy it, read it, it’s very fine indeed.’
Neil Griffiths is the author of the novels Betrayal In Naples and Saving Caravaggio. His latest novel, As A God Might Be, is out now.