‘What is a bag?’

Holly Pester, The Lodgers

Granta, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781783789832

reviewed by Trahearne Falvey

‘A ledge of any kind got me going,’ Holly Pester’s narrator declares on the first page of the poet’s debut novel The Lodgers, revealing a childhood fantasy of ‘climbing inside a small case or container, like a piano stool or matchbox’ to live a ‘pretend little life’. A life can’t be built on a ledge — it is, by definition, narrow and temporary — but anyone who rents in the turbulent UK housing market will recognise the narrator’s constant searching for something to hold onto while working out the next move. Clinging to the fraying fantasies of stability and security that revolve around the word home, paying more than half their stagnating salaries to landlords while house prices spiral, Britain’s millennials are stuck in what the late philosopher Lauren Berlant termed a relation of ‘cruel optimism’, a cul-de-sac in which one keeps moving ‘paradoxically, in the same space’.

Pester’s narrator is a woman in her thirties who has returned yet again to the small suburban town she grew up in with her mother, ‘Moffa’, the ‘gravity’ from which she is ‘never leaving, never going far from or for very long.’ Once in a sublet within spitting distance of Moffa’s house, she imagines the tenant that has replaced her in previous lodgings in a different town, in a room in the home of a single mother and her young daughter, on a cul-de-sac featuring a ‘boat that will never go out to sea’. In sentences which are restless, strange, often beautiful and frequently funny, Pester renders convincingly the experience of a life lived within this impasse, the ‘rhythm’, as Berlant writes, ‘that people can enter into while they’re dithering, tottering, bargaining, testing, or otherwise being worn out by the promises that they have attached to this world.’

The cul-de-sac is not simply a dead-end but a container, and there are bags everywhere in this novel: bags that look sad, ‘deflated like invalid lambs’, ‘five or six tightly tied bin bags’ full of clothes that function as a bed from which to watch episodes of Grand Designs, bags from the local ‘medium-sized Co-op’ holding ‘Shampoo. Razors. Houmous’. ‘I swung the little shopping bag by its handle, humming a casual tune. Life felt normal, it felt recurring and safe for a moment,’ the narrator tells us, before stopping, gulping, realising she has left the right bag on the train and asking: ‘What is a bag?’ According to Ursula Le Guin, a bag is the ‘natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel’, an alternative to the old arrow-shaped hero-narrative. ‘A book holds words,’ Le Guin writes, ‘Words hold things’, and Pester’s novel is a container for ephemera: the smell of men’s shower gel, a tub of drying cous-cous salad, noodles, cups of tea, the snatches of conversation that occur while waiting for the kettle to boil in a shared kitchen.

A carrier bag does not have an obvious beginning and end; plotlessness is the point. Here, the two protagonists (or one — the ‘you’ character is part memory, part fantasy) hover in doorways and on landings, eat toast, engage in brief and tawdry affairs, try to avoid pub quizzes, hesitate over applying to jobs in health food stores and play with the daughter. They study on a pseudo-therapeutic course called ‘Tri-Touch’ but this doesn’t lead anywhere in particular: ‘after all,’ Pester writes, ‘a course is simply a lament. We do it to keep everything suspended.’

As Berlant argued, the depictions of the good life found in realist genres now ‘mark archaic expectations about having and building a life’. The realist novel as characterised by Franco Moretti, populated by the ‘filler’ of bourgeois life, is hopeless in representing the textures of a life lived precariously, so Pester draws from surrealism, vaudeville, lyric poetry, Muriel Spark and Ann Quin — late modernism’s laureate of the dingy bedsit — to write an alternate realism, consisting of things that are by necessity temporary, fragmentary, disposable:

I’ve co-owned cooking utensils and DIY tools, bed linen, houseplants. I’ve desperately sought and subsequently desperately got rid of items of furniture. Who knows where it goes. I’ve cried over breakages of beautiful ceramics that I wouldn’t care a fig about now if they were magically returned to me whole. I’ve worriedly cut bushes ‘back’. I’ve tried to trick and tempt and triangulate work, love and their materials into an order. It never works.

Pester is very good on the indignities and absurdities of precarious housing, but she is also interested in the moments of homeliness that occur when a person is in search of a home, the surprises that might be pulled from the bottom of a bag. The landlady’s young daughter is spiky and raucous, charging into rooms with ‘a secret plan to smak butts’, forming fast attachments to the protagonists and the other lodgers and providing a catalyst for the kind of weird, temporary intimacies familiar to anyone that’s ever used Spareroom. A woman named Gil gossips and drinks wine and gives foot massages; an overseas student stays for a few days ‘while the error in his university accommodation is solved’ but sends pictures of ‘fantastically dressed celebrities at galas for years after’. The lodgers provide childcare as part of the informal economic arrangement with the stretched landlady, entailing a form of family that is more expansive and generous than the ‘scarcity based trauma machine’ characterised by Sophie Lewis.

This is what makes Pester’s book more nuanced and interesting than any label of ‘the Generation Rent Novel’ might suggest: the landlord-tenant dynamic is knotty here, not one of straightforward class antagonism, and Pester understands that the losers of the UK’s housing market aren’t only losing. Shared housing is a sitcom, or a soap opera, or, as Pester has it ‘a furious opera’: stressful and overwhelming, but often fun.

At other times, these moments of homeliness reach towards or parody normative family life, highlighting how hard it is to shake off the fantasies we have been given, to stop performing the motions that indicate the good life. The ‘you’ character begins an affair with another lodger, an older, peripatetic professor, and plays ‘a game’ in which she imagines the child is theirs, because she wants ‘some small gestures that repeat the scene on the TV screen and its feeling’. They squabble over what to feed her for breakfast and which reading book is hers this week. It goes too far when the character decides to do a ‘big shop’. ‘What is this?’ Pester writes, ‘I can’t really see or understand it, you can’t afford a ‘big shop’ can you? But you push the shopping trolley around the aisles pretending to be . . . stressed?’ The boxes of cereal and bottles of bleach seem to give her the feeling she is after, and then it is over, and the landlady is confused.

The novel features what Pester has called in an interview a ‘lazy lipogram’ — while ‘homely’ and ‘homeliness’ are used, the noun ‘home’ never features until the last page. All the parts stop moving, the triangulation ends. For each of the novel’s protagonists, Pester offers a different solution to the problem of housing and for the ‘you’ character there is a kind of victory for cruel optimism, a clinging to the promise of a normative life which might offer stability but shuts down the other possibilities.

There is no moral judgement here, though: a central theme is contingency, with Pester musing on the arbitrariness of life, the fluked decisions that determine this path rather than that one, and what emerges is a deep understanding that we are all just doing the best with what we’ve got. ‘Life is an easy, playful dialogue,’ Pester writes, ‘when it isn’t yours to do.’

Trahearne Falvey is a writer and teacher in South London. His writing has appeared in publications including 3AM Magazine and Lunate. He has won the Aurora Prize and the Short Fiction International Story Prize, and is currently an Associate Editor at Short Fiction.