Resignation and Resolve

Jeremy Cooper, Brian

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 184pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781804270363

reviewed by Jonathan Gharraie

From his first novel, Ruth, to his latest, Brian, Jeremy Cooper has been remarkably, even grimly consistent in his inclination towards narrative portraiture. The simple titles are deceptively suggestive; his characters are intensely individual but edge towards anonymity. There is nothing secretly noble here. Men and women are mulched back into what feels particularly true and this verité approach extends to the form of the novels, which are reliant on letters, diaries, and catalogues of collections. It doesn’t take much effort to keep a record. It’s harder, and far more dramatically interesting, to want one to exist.

Brian is a self-pronounced ‘expert at forgetting’ who is ‘able most of the time to erase unwelcome thoughts and happenings’. His story begins on the cusp of middle age, in the mid-to-late 1980s, cuffing stray footballs back to the teenagers who lose control of them in a Camden park. He stays in a hostel near St Pancras until he becomes too old, eventually landing in a small flat above an Indian restaurant on Kentish Town Road.

From there, the narrative skims across the years, potting at least a decade into a relatively modest container. Brian finds work at the local council’s housing department and discovers his love of the British Film Institute after plucking up the courage to see a screening of The Outlaw Josey Wales. We know he was born in Northern Ireland and that his Loyalist mother, ‘the least inadequate of his parents’, brought him over to live in Kent.

Early in the novel, the prose is poised between an extremely impersonal diary entry, charting routines and enumerating habits, and a biographical profile that could have been written for one of the programme notes that Brian collects from his near nightly visits to the Southbank. There’s a lot of information about what Brian sees but at first it seems that the significance of this raw data is merely cumulative, intended to acquaint the reader with the critical mass of Brian’s interactions with the art form and not to draw patterns or generate suspense.

The BFI supplies not so much a frame through which the reader can glimpse Brian’s life as a shelf from which he can access different experiences that enrich and expand his own. Early on, he asks Lorenzo, the owner of a neighbourhood café where Brian has simple lunches of cottage pie and cannelloni, how he manages to prevent his passion for music from taking over his life. But Lorenzo is an active musician and Brian only intends to watch films. And yet he does want to be consumed by them. Film offers him nightly rations of variety but also some protection from the perils that might come from an unmediated engagement with life. One of the first films he sees is Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, which affords him ‘the vital discovery . . . that a nakedly emotional film on themes and feelings close to his own story did not necessarily shake alive his stifled memories of the past.’

His trips to the Southbank serve as a sort of psychic tent-peg, allowing him to extend the geographic and social compass of his routine while fixing the scope of his imagination. Brian makes a friend among the resident buffs, Jack, who manages to lure him to the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hall for a concert of Toru Takemitsu’s film music. He eventually becomes a living repository of filmic lore and is considered, among the buffs, an authority on Japanese cinema. But no obsession can be completely single-minded. Favourites emerge and these, in turn, introduce Brian to fresh perspectives on his most dogged commitments. Brian’s affinity with Japanese cinema, and particularly the films of Yasujirō Ozu, leads him to the work of the agriculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka, which confirms he was ‘right . . . to resign himself to his limitations and not try to run away.’

This is a strange bargain, resignation and resolve, but it helps Brian to confront history when it barges its way into his story, much like a late entrant to a screening. The most important event in the novel occurs when Brian wakes up in a hospital ward, heavily disoriented, and surrounded by the victims of the 2005 suicide bombings in London. At first, Brian assumes that he must have been injured in the blast too. Even after learning that he was actually the victim of a hit-and-run on Camden High Street, he still feels part of the bombing’s aftermath. As a reward for returning to work early, his ever solicitous boss sends Brian to an expenses-paid conference in Leeds, where he considers visiting the mother of Hasib Hussein, one of the bombers, ‘though he knew he could not, should not, that it would be wrong to do so.’

What could he possibly want from the meeting? The prurient motives he ascribes to himself don’t seem to fit. There’s an eerie moment in Bolt from the Blue when Lynn’s mother confesses that she punctuated their 18n-year separation with incognito visits to her daughter’s openings. It’s not clear if Brian sees himself as performing a part here, but his identification with the people involved in the attack could help him understand something real. The bombing is, we are told, ‘the one major event in which he had been peripherally involved’ but it also breaks down ‘the aesthetic safety gap’ that helps him to ward against unwelcome surprises. If, as Brian believes, after watching Mel Gibson’s jingoistic We Were Soldiers, that ‘the enactment of actuality was by definition a deceit . . . deliberate and damaging,’ it might be better to engineer a connection, to develop a resonance within the chosen parameters of one’s life. But then when he sees Dušan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, he feels outraged at the porousness of the fourth wall:

People in movies were meant to act not be themselves.
What was the point otherwise?

These slight hints at contradiction help to fictionalise Brian in a novel that is stuffed with facts, trivia, and arcana.

When we finally learn what he’s trying to forget about Northern Ireland, after a visit to his mother’s grave in Rochester, these attempts to understand the experience of being close to the unfolding of history make more sense. Nothing is secret here. Brian has been in complete possession of the facts all along and some of them have been alluded to from the beginning of the novel. But the absence of a truly immersive passage feels like missing a step in the dark. Granted, graveyards (especially ones in Kent) are conventional stages for the disinterring of the past, but a longer departure from the narrative’s precise organisation of affects and encounters would have been welcome here.

There are enough hints throughout the novel that Brian’s past is an anguished problem for him, perhaps even one he’d like to confront without any mediation. He becomes convinced that he can see his estranged brother, Peter, ambling menacingly around the approaches to Embankment Station. Even his love of British cinema is presented as part of his reflexive ‘flight from all things Irish’, while a fraught visit to a Bloomsday celebration at Upton Park becomes ‘a peripheral form of acknowledging his Irish heritage.’ What should Ireland mean to him? There’s no suggestion that he cleaves to his mother’s sympathies and we know that he abjures his Unionist father’s beliefs. Indeed, he shrinks with revulsion at the realities of British state violence, abhorring the invasion of Iraq and becoming agitated at his colleagues’ attempts to label him a ‘film fanatic’.

At one point, when Brian abruptly dismisses the Catholic belief in absolution, the narration steps in and tells the reader that Brian was ‘unaware he was parroting the prejudices of his grim father.’ In an otherwise tightly controlled novel, through which we shadow Brian very closely, registering the sound of his indigestion, this is quite a startling moment, one that suggests a clear departure from the documentary mode of Cooper’s previous two novels. Dramatising the life of an expert in forgetting obviously requires the crafted ironies of a more recognisably fictional narrative; a diary wouldn’t necessarily be true to the fantastical properties of memory or its unbiddable powers of recollection.

Like many contemporary novelists, Cooper seems to have discovered a measure of artistic freedom in the novels of W.G. Sebald; he’s quoted at length in Kath Trevelyan, and his sudden death is described in Ash Before Oak. Perhaps it’s the poetry of expertise that Cooper admires so much? He is, after all, an authority on Victorian furniture as well as a chronicler of the Young British Artist scene. But, like Rachel Cusk, he’d already started writing novels before The Emigrants was first published in English in 1996.

Some influences just hit writers at a tangent, interrupting them at a moment when they were already feeling frustrated with their own creative habits or uneasy about the terms of their contract with realism. This seems to be what happened when Cooper read Sebald. Kath Trevelyan remembers a line from a Marina Warner lecture that some friends she made on holiday tell her about: ‘Leakage between simulated and actual reality is not trapped inside the cinema or the Gameboy.’ No, it’s something that’s long soaked through the novel pretty much from the off.

But there’s a cautionary note sealed inside the same envelope as this invitation. Why does Kath remember this line so perfectly? Wouldn’t a paraphrase have been more persuasive? And where did this couple come from to deliver this miraculous rationale for the narrative within which Kath is encased? There’s sometimes the slightest air of convenience to the way a writer can make use of an artistic precedent or an historic figure and Kath Trevelyan is not even the most discursive of Cooper’s novels. But Brian’s self-education never creaks, even when it leads him to intuit the artistic decisions his author must have taken to represent him:

Brian could not recall the quotation precisely, but he remembered agreeing strongly with a note he had taken down of Kieślowski talking about the lasting effect of film, just as much as all those things which actually happened, movies no different from real events apart from the fact that they were invented.

And who knows if Brian is invented? For all Cooper’s aesthetic commitment to plausibility, it doesn’t matter. As with Lynn’s mother in Bolt from the Blue, Brian productively eludes Cooper’s curatorial instincts. Novelists have always had to find ways of incorporating characters who can’t confidently narrate their lives or are reluctant to connect vivid experiences to a cohesive whole. It may be that the whole is an illusion.

For the novel's final act, the prose subtly shifts again, noting the unmistakable symptoms of Brian's physical and possibly cognitive decline. His friendship with Jack inches into the foreground and right at the very end of the novel, he tentatively embraces a relationship with Ireland. And Cooper leaves it at that. There's no more need for him to burrow on into a distressing future than there was for him to dig further into Brian's past. This novel achieves a great deal with its close insistence on the dignity of a quiet life invigorated by the most defamiliarising art form of them all. But giving us access to more of its hero's consciousness wouldn't have compromised that.

Jonathan Gharraie has written a novel manuscript and lives in Swadlincote, Derbyshire.