There is a little critic’s trick which I will share. Every book has other books inside it. Sometimes these are hidden, sometimes they are overt. For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the “Creature” reads Milton’s Paradise Lost. William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, or A Novel Without A Hero takes its title from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the end of the first chapter has Becky Sharp throwing away Johnson’s Dictionary. Ezra Pound began his chaotically astonishing Cantos with the line “Hang it all, there can be but one Sordello!”, referencing Robert Browning’s poem. They are nudges, winks, dismissals, signals – but they are important. In this novel, three novels are mentioned. The first is Judy Blume’s Forever..., the second, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and finally Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So these are our points of triangulation, except there is a lot more non-bookish culture on display.
The central character is Alex, and the narrative begins, precisely, on 27 June 1994, and will end on 3 April 2010. It is a coming of age story, especially since Alex is intrigued by twin brothers, Gavin and Banny, who live next door to her aunt’s bed and breakfast (yes, there is an obligatory nod at Jekyll and Hyde, but not the novel). Which of them will she fall in love with, and will that love last? One of the twins will go into the army and be deployed in Iraq, the other will become a musician who plays a minor stage in T in the Park.
There are dropped in extracts from Aunt Ruby’s visitors’ book, which do not add much to the story; except for stressing again and again how good her tablet is. Maybe it is just me, but I cannot abide that saccharine sludge. But we also have Alex’s musical tastes and mix-tapes, which far outweigh the few references to reading. At the outset she is listening to the recently deceased Kurt Cobain, who is “screaming the song Tourette’s now, his voice raw and strained”. The twins, on their initial meeting, tease her that she is listening to Take That. Then there is a tsunami of namechecks. I am rather at a loss to understand what these mean. Either you know, to take an example at random, “Strange Currencies – R.E.M, If I could talk I’d tell you – The Lemonheads, Sight of You – Pale Saints... Only in Dreams – Weezer”, or you don’t. I have no idea what to make of all these lists – there must be over one hundred – or what one is supposed to infer from them. Alright, Alex likes music. But transcribing the contents of your MP3 player is not narrative.
There is also a slathering of TV references. What do we really know about Alex from the information that she watched Friends or ER or Richard and Judy or Dawson’s Creek? Search me, squire. At least the first referenced song gives some point of direction, because Tourette’s might be applicable to the prose style. So on one page, chosen at random (66, if you ever care to check), we have “f***ing boring”, “no more f***ing guitar”, “Okay, f***ing hell”, “F*** sake”, “this f***ing game”, “No, it f***ing isn’t”, with a side of “sh*t your pants”. Maybe that is how Generation Whatever speaks. It is, however, built into characterisation. Alex dutifully informs the reader she “felt like a proper bitch” and then a few pages later “she felt like a bitch”.
Given the novel is segmented into dated sections, there are rather curious omissions when the characters are not swearing, drinking, having sex or eating tablet. Do we learn what Alex thinks of, for example, Tony Blair’s first general election victory or the referendum on Scottish independence? No, but we are told she feels empowered by Live Through This by Hole. What did she think about the attacks on the Twin Towers? No mention, but the next year she goes to Cabaret Voltaire. The events of 9/11 do get a mention in a “we both agree” discussion about how awful Blair is. Oh, and people start getting tattoos. There is a digression to staying with her father in the States, but it has little consequence except some exclamation mark ridden emails.
The problem here is that Child takes on very serious themes, such as PTSD, suicide risk and homophobia. But they are made irrelevant by the irrelevance of their surroundings, they are less serious because of a fundamental lack of seriousness in this work. I did wonder, in a moment of quiet contemplation and a tranquil frame of mind (that’s my music reference) whether I had misread the book entirely. Maybe it should be seen as a satire, that no characters could be so vapid and fatuous and feckless, without being their own parodies? But I fear this is written with a straight face. The clammy hand of Irvine Welsh lurks over it, and it seems as if Child does not realise that pop-culture references have terribly short shelf-lives. The book is described on the jacket as “a novel about growing up and growing apart”. It certainly is not the former.
Fade Into You, by Catriona Child, Luath, £10.99