John Cotter, Under the Small Lights

This is only the second time I’ve written on Novel Readings about a book by someone I know. The first time was my post about my Dalhousie colleague Ian Colford’s hauntingly elusive collection Evidence. Actually, I don’t exactly know John Cotter–not in person, at least. But in about six weeks I hope to be drinking with him in New York, along with my other new colleagues at Open Letters (where I have just recently joined the editorial team). We have met virtually, you might say, and know each other almost exclusively through our writing, of one kind or another. Reading John’s book is another step towards getting to know him, then, not least because, as he explains here, he has given some of his own afternoons as an aspiring writer to his protagonist Jack.

In both of these cases, I hesitated about posting a review, not because I hesitated about the quality of the books, but because interpretation suddenly seems a more precarious undertaking when you’re that much more aware of the real-life author as someone with plans, intentions, and opinions about his carefully crafted work–ideas with which your own idiosyncratic reading may well be at variance. Of course, this is always the critic’s situation, and usually I just press on. Obviously, that’s what I’ve decided to do here too, not only because of the basic principle that writers want to be read and must expect that nobody else’s reading will be quite their own, but because in this case (as with Evidence) the book is just too interesting for me to leave alone. After I finished it, I kept thinking about what I would say about it if I blogged about it, and after a couple of days it seemed silly not to have a go. John can always set me straight over our drinks in August–or here in the comments section, if he feels the urge.

So. One of the cover blurbs describes the novella Under the Small Lights as a bildungsroman, that is, a coming of age story or a novel of education or development (‘Bildung‘ is one of those German words we can’t quite translate into English). This seems basically apt, though it’s not entirely clear to me how far Jack has developed at the end of the book: he’s looking towards his developed self, perhaps, having cleared away some of the youthful confusions and delusions that have been muddling his progress. It’s also a kunstlerroman, the story of an artist’s development, though here too Jack is looking ahead, aspiring, rather than having achieved–unless, as it’s a first-person narrative, we take Under the Small Lights itself as the end result of that process. There’s no overt metafictional gesture towards that, but with first-person narration there’s always that question of whether we are to take the speaker as the ‘author’ or simply as a device. If the former, we might expect some evidence along the way that the narrator’s perspective has changed, has distanced itself from the in-the-moment experience he narrates (as, for instance, in Great Expectations or Jane Eyre the retrospective narrator displays insight not available to young Pip or young Jane). Again, there are no overt gestures in this direction, but the fairly elaborate construction of the book, which cuts between times and episodes, certainly creates a perspective that, cumulatively, does exceed what Jack seems capable of during the events he describes.

As a character, Jack is indistinct: his creator calls him a “collage personality,” and the novel’s epigraph calls our attention directly to the permeability of identity: “I often think that we’re all mere composites of our favorite people’s habits,” it begins. Though I found Jack’s slightly vaporous quality a problem for a while, it eventually seemed like the point of the book, that is, he needs to define his own character, to declare himself, rather than trying to find it outside himself or borrow it from other people. He has to stop asking:

Next I knew, I was at the Mass Ave. foot of alley #902, still holding my empty gin glass. Barefoot, knowing they were watching from four stories up, I took off running toward the big oak growing by the dumpster. As I threw the glass, aiming for the oak but hitting the dumpster with a tin shatter, I shouted Who am I.

Jack may not know who he is, but he knows who he wants: Corinna. She was his friend Bill’s girlfriend; when the novella opens, she has recently married his friend Paul. For a moment, in between these relationships, it looked as if she might be Jack’s, and his desire for her (or is it his desire to be Bill? or to beat out Paul?) drives him, and the story, forward. Corinna, as I read her, belongs with Hardy’s Sue Bridehead and Waugh’s Julia: they are all fey, elusive, alluring, teasing, putatively intellectual, and (to my annoyance) apparently endlessly attractive to deep-thinking men. That said, one sign of Jack’s development is that (unlike Jude or poor Ryder) he has seen through Corinna by the end, and through the fog of self-indulgent moping that masquerades as enduring love. Though I didn’t think much of poor Jack, it seemed pretty clear that Corinna was a false idol. A Victorian novelist would have given Jack a better option, one he would have proved his maturation by choosing in the end (as Waverley chooses Rose instead of Flora, or David Copperfield learns to love Agnes after Dora). Actually, there’s one Victorian novelist who leaves us with a threesome, rather than a choice (Walter, Marian, and Laura in The Woman in White) which is the kind of conclusion Jack thinks he wants for a long time, everyone living and loving together, but he can’t have it, perhaps because there is too much competition, as well as fantasy, in all of the relationships involved. No good alternative does emerge for Jack, then–certainly not the equally indistinct Star (who in her turn has been a kind of imitation Corinna). It’s just time, finally, to move on, to get on with it. The evocative final pages seemed to me to capture the slightly disorienting sense we probably all have when we realize that people and events that seemed momentous and all-encompassing recede, drift away. You don’t really understand that, when you’re young.

And the characters in this novel really did strike me as very young, not just literally, though they are that, but in their preoccupation with each other, their self-indulgent behavior, their insouciance, their artsy pretention. They weren’t people I recognized; I certainly didn’t recognize my own youth in them, and not, I think, just because it was a different decade, or a different country, though I suppose Vancouver in the late 80s was a pretty different place than Boston or New York in the late 90s. I actually found the picture of their lives quite alienating, as a literal story: I don’t find drunken idiocy or stoned pseudo-profundity entertaining in real life either. So I preferred the characters at their more abstract level, though the bildungsroman form, of course, does imply that they not only will but should change. I also found myself thinking, as I read, about something Claire Tomalin said about George Eliot: “She writes about sex perfectly,” Tomalin says; “She never mentions it at all. I mean, who needs the penis and the pubic hair? Sex isn’t that–sex is the feeling.”

But those are, as I’ve said, my own idiosyncratic responses. Under the Small Lights is an artfully written novel: the style is at once elliptical and allusive, and its parts are elegantly choreographed. It’s also sometimes quite funny: the climactic chapter “The Open Field,” for instance, develops with the painfully comic inevitability of the best episodes of Seinfeld. It has other aspects I haven’t touched on at all, including the play Jack and Bill are trying to write, including on their ill-fated expedition to Walden Pond, or the whole larger interest in acting and theater, and in poetry, all of which adds both intertextual and metatextual layering to the narrative. For a book that’s less than 200 fairly sparse pages, Under the Small Lights has a lot going on. Like Evidence, it’s a book I almost certainly would never have read if I didn’t know the author, and in both case I was glad to have gone that much further outside myself–to have been prompted by friendship to look at the world differently, or at a different world, thanks to their courage in putting their vision into words.

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