Edward Docx: Self Help
With the Man Booker 2007 being over, and Self Help (Pravda, to US readers) long since fallen from the competition I approached Edward Docx’s second novel with indifference. The cover, being as basic as it is, didn’t scream out to be read and at over five hundred pages I wasn’t exactly looking forward to ploughing through it. I’m glad I did, if only for completism as regards my (unenforcable) pledge to read all thirteen longlisted titles. But I’m left to leave this novel the same way in which I came to it: indifferent.
Set in varying stages across London, Paris, and St Petersburg, it tells the story of the Glover family, scattered as far afield as the story itself. There’s the twins, Gabriel and Isabella, in London and New York, respectively. Over in Paris is their estranged father, Nicholas. And, in St Petersburg, the twins’ mother, Maria. Also skulking about in the storyline is a Russian named Arkady Artamenkov, for whom life has been spent growing up in orphanages.
With all these characters Self Help takes a serious number of pages just to introduce them and it does so using with the predicament that Maria has died. And so it goes that these scattered players come to look at their lives, make plans – sometimes, even, make changes – and come together to find that:
…when a parent passes away, the family demons do not retreat, but rise from their sarcophagi instead, and move out across the borders of the mind…
Gabriel has two women in his life, Isabella is prone to giving up on things – jobs, relationships – at a whim, and Nicholas, since separating with Maria ten years previous, has been enjoying a bi-curious and lavish lifestyle. And Arkady? Well, even the dead have secrets.
The storyline, for the most part, is enjoyable and believable; the dialogue between similarly. There are occasional flashbacks given chapters in their own right to fill in history – and there’s even more backstory when attempting to flesh out minor characters. Ultimately, given all the strands making up this story, Docx does a fine job of seeing them all to a logical and apt conclusion with some fine plotting.
But my biggest problem with Self Help was Docx’s writing. There’s no doubt skill there but he likes to indulge – strain, sometimes – in over elaborate metaphors and similes:
The naked body of this other human being entranced him, engrossed him, bewitched him like a river god rising in vapours of jasmine and myrrh with a different violin sonata for each of his senses.
And, when not indulging, Docx has the habit of thickly layering his metaphors, one atop the other, as if asking the reader to pick whatever suits them best. A better writer would pick the most illustrative example, discard the others, and move on. Here, the many instances of said deed pad out the novel way beyond necessity. Further padding comes by way of overlong meditations and an annoying stylistic tic that frequently sees the author either repeat or run through all permutations of a phrase. But there are many occasions when the writing works, to capture the sense of a place, such as a Russian bar where:
…there were no drinks on display save single example cans or bottles of the range available – one Russian beer, one Polish beer, vodka, vodka, vodka, cheap, cheaper, cheapest – each standing strangely spaced across the solitary shelf.
While none of the characters in Self Help are likeable, their story is interesting enough although there was one character, an Englishman living in St Petersburg, who felt extraneous – as if he were only there to help Arkady move the plot forward. There’s a suspicion that Gabriel may be a cipher for Docx himself, the twin of Isabella being there to balance whatever history he’s working out – no doubt a bad father. It makes the writing of Self Help seem cathartic compared to the Self Help! (note the exclamation mark) magazine that Gabriel works on.
Given its length and serial verbosity, it’s easy to see why Self Help didn’t make it to the eventual shortlist. While it’s a hard hitting story of identity, family, and relationships touching upon exile, drug addiction, and career disatisfaction, its cast of selfish bourgeoisie types makes it hard to give a damn about them. Unless that’s your thing then you’re better off helping yourself to something other than Self Help.
October 18, 2007