A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
We were becoming drunk, wonderfully, seriously drunk. No plan had been entered into, there was no particular cause for celebration nor was any reason thought necessary for our behaviour: only the excitement and unpredictability of the moment. It was early evening but the pub was already busy. The jukebox was playing, people were talking far too loudly and there was something in the atmosphere, something almost bordering on the manic, that seemed to exist independently of the collective mood of the customers. We were drinking with passion and commitment.
Kieran demanded another round. “He can pay,” he said, indicating me, “he’s rich.”
“That’s not fair,” said Diana, “he bought the last one.”
“But he likes it,” said Kieran, “it makes him feel important,” and he pushed his empty glass towards me.
It’s the 1960s in a northern town and our narrator, Jonathan – a skeletal, disenchanted young depressive whose parents had the bad manners to love each other more than they loved him – has opted out. Of life. But he’s not quite got the nerve to kill himself so he ekes out his days living in a small flat devoid of creature comforts, and he uses his inheritance to buy his way into a drinking circle comprised of people he doesn’t much like and who don’t much like him. This group consists of: Diana, a sappy optimist with a reputation for promiscuity; Diana’s adoring sidekick, Jackie, a Christian who’s latched onto the wrong crowd; Colin, a womanising builder; Vince, a drug dealer, and the truly vile Kieran, fight-starter, rapist and murderer.
Clayton gives us insight after insight into his narrator’s psyche, beginning with the opening line of the book’s first chapter: My first attempted act of creation was, not surprisingly, a failure. Jonathan is not a chirpy soul. He is the human equivalent of a Radiohead song: gloriously melancholy, a package of interesting words and sorrowful thoughts. I have never demanded that a book’s protagonist be particularly energetic, cheerful or amusing. Give me a window into a dark, tormented soul and I’ll happily read on, gripping my voyeur’s opera glasses to watch the fictional tragedy unfold. Tragedy is here in spades. The tragedy of Jonathan’s wasted life, the tragedy of the drinking circle whose members’ lives are thinner than a dead sycamore leaf, and the tragedy of Kieran who is so desperate to feel anything at all that he inflicts pain wherever he goes.
The art of being dead is riddled with tension, but I didn’t rush through it quickly. The reading experience was so intense that I deliberately rationed out my reading sessions, and dipped into the book over several weeks. The plot is initially subtle and will be rather too slow-moving for the readers who prefer more bang than pang, but the novel builds towards a finale of exquisite melodrama.
After I’d read this book, a friend asked me if it was any good. ‘It’s a bloody existential masterpiece,’ I heard myself saying, and it is. Existential novels are perhaps an acquired taste, but for me, it’s a case of what’s not to love? An outsider disconnected from a seemingly meaningless world, feeling essentially alone, working his way towards death. Great! Indeed The art of being dead reminded me very much of the existential European novels I read for my B.A. in English and I would not be at all surprised if this novel found its way onto a university syllabus.
On the negative side, The art of being dead has an extremely graphic rape scene that might alienate some readers. I was able to read through the first account, but found myself skipping through the text when Kieran returned to the subject later in the novel. The writing has such pinpoint accuracy that this second, very detailed revisiting of the rape was too much for me. Perhaps on this point, less would have been more.
That said, I remain impressed with the vivid characterisation and deft construction of The art of being dead. Stephen Clayton is an insightful storyteller with a gift for shining a penetrating spotlight on human darkness.