A Closed Book by Gilbert Adair, Faber £9.99
A Closed Book by Gilbert Adair, Faber £9.99
I can't tell you anything about Gilbert Adair's new novel. Which is a shame, because ordinarily that would be my job, and impecunious book reviewers can't afford to irk their editrices. But there it is. A Closed Book is a virtuosically elaborated jeu d'esprit, yet it depends so thoroughly on a handful of conjuring twists that to describe any more than the bare bones of plot would risk giving the whole game away.
Here is all you can know: a writer, Sir Paul, is blinded and disfigured after a car crash. He needs some eyes. He advertises for a sighted amanuensis to describe the world to him, and to whom he can dictate his new memoir. Up turns the successful candidate, John Ryder. As a test of observational skill, Sir Paul has John describe to him the furniture, the unplump Scottish housekeeper, and his own scarefied flesh. They perambulate in the local village, and set to work on the book. What then happens, I cannot say.
After only a few pages, something in the air seems mysterious. And then it dawns on you: the story is entirely constructed through dialogue. We are made to hear the events as if from within an inky void - exactly, that is, as if we too were blind. So the early passage where John describes the room where they are sitting - "a bit like the den of some medieval scholar or saint" - is a beautifully sly way for Adair to work in some visual scene-setting. At certain moments, with partial snatches of confused dialogue, Adair induces in the reader a psychological sibling to Sir Paul's own panicky disorientation. Actually, it is not entirely true that the whole novel is constructed in dialogue - but I can't tell you about that.
I was faintly disappointed that Faber had not, as is usual, printed the title of this novel at the top of every page; given that as long as you are reading it, the title is descriptively false. After a couple of misfires, Sir Paul settles on a title for his memoir, which is, of course, A Closed Book. The title also implies what the world is for blind Sir Paul: unreadable. A Closed Book, on the other hand, is very readable indeed: I consumed it late one evening, torn between slowing down to savour Adair's scintillating language and hurrying on to find out what happened next.
A Closed Book is really a darkly entertaining literary souffle, of the type that not everyone, I suppose, will warm to. It is studded with jokes about other writers, from Irvine Welsh to Stephen King and even Alain de Botton, and becomes a ludic meditation on writing itself. (This is only to be expected given Sir Paul's surname. No, we are never in fact told it, but we might work it out.) The irascible but initially charming snob Sir Paul is further given to speechifying on such diverse subjects as the modern cult of totalitarian biography, Rembrandt's self-portraits, gargoyles, jigsaws, and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (even this Adair manages, through some black writerly magic, to render interesting).
As an epigraph, Adair offers a dictum from Durrenmatt: "A story has been thought to its conclusion when it has taken its worst possible turn." This is amusingly flirtatious, keying the reader up from the start to imagining just how bad things can get. Much, much nastier than that, is the answer. But given the denouement (which of course I can't discuss), I did wonder if sufficient weight had been accorded to Durrenmatt's use of the word "possible" - which surely means not the worst turn imaginable, but (a rather less extreme proposition) only the worst turn that what precedes it can credibly support.
Adair puts a wry justification for his plot in the mouths of two of his characters - the popular theory that life, after all, is not like a novel. This is meant self-consciously to excuse the jarring late shift of tone. But perhaps it cannot, since it is the increasingly uncommon virtue of A Closed Book that it is so obsessively like a novel and nothing else. You might call it Hitchcockian, except that it simply would not work in any other medium (never mind the titular crux). And despite its airiness, A Closed Book positively invites a delightedly informed second reading. For instance, now I think that there is a fabulously evil culinary joke. But, naturally, I can't tell you what it is.