Pilcrow, By Adam Mars-Jones

Wonderful phrase-making can't animate this tale of a precocious disabled boy
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The Independent Culture

Adam Mars-Jones's fiction comes in fits and starts, little comet-like recurrences of literary talent. There was Lantern Lecture in 1981; Monopolies of Loss and The Waters of Thirst in 1992 and 1993; then nothing until Pilcrow, the present book. In the longish gaps between, Mars-Jones is a literary critic, one of the sharpest in the business, with an eye for good and bad English that's informed by his own unarguable facility with words; as a writer he's one of those lucky few for whom the English language can reliably be counted on to roll over wriggling and waving its paws. So it's difficult, as well as risky, to report that I had more trouble finishing his new 500-page brick of a novel than almost anything else I've read this year.

Pilcrow (the title is the word for a paragraph mark, ¶, and is an early indication of the narrator's fascination with language) is a coming-of-age story in the most protracted sense of the term. Its narrator progresses from birth to 16 during the course of the narrative, at which point the book simply stops. There's been the odd pre-publication rumour that this is the first of a series, but no official line on the matter: the upshot is that one reads this densely elaborated fictional autobiography with a sense of mounting bafflement, waiting for something to happen to justify its existence.

John Cromer is born to middle-class parents in Buckinghamshire in the 1950s, and looks all set for a normal childhood until he contracts Still's Disease, a rare form of juvenile arthritis. His condition is initially mistaken for rheumatic fever, meaning that the treatment he is offered – enforced immobility and no over-excitement – aggravates it to the point of crippling him. Imprisoned in his bedroom, Cromer meticulously observes his parents and his own interior landscape, reacting at times with fury at his predicament, at times with ascents to the heights of Buddhist self-dissolution and serenity.

At some point, though, even bodhisattvas have to go to school. Cromer is packed off to a hospital for disabled children, then subsequently to a boys' school, still doggedly relating the details of everything that happens to him there. He encounters sadistic matrons and institutional bullies, kindly teachers and interested doctors. He goes into heavy detail on his parents' characters and marriage, with incidental (and horrifyingly exact) analysis of the particularities of the English class system. His schoolboy pranks and early homosexual dalliances are complicated to a near-farcical extent by the conditions that his handicap imposes. It is all very much like reading a memoir; but it is fiction.

If it were a memoir, one could imagine Pilcrow amassing a certain following, its author becoming a cult figure even – a sort of My Left Foot, perhaps, with bonus homosex and the odd dab of Zen. As a novel, however, despite a fairly constant felicity in the language, it feels by turns pointless and self-serving. John's sprightly register tends towards the wearisome at length, and the reader may be less willing to overlook his linguistic show-offery than the various fictional parents and carers who pass through the pages. This is a person, after all, who spells coördination and coöperation with a precious little trema, and whose interest in the private family words of his childhood – "siss" and "tuppenny", for example, for the calls of nature that punctuate his bedrest – may swiftly outpace the reader's.

It's not exactly a torment of a book, though. There's more or less consistent nodding and smiling on a textual level, since even though Mars-Jones appears to be damping his more outrageous talents as a phrasemaker in the service of John's narrative, he still puts together a good sentence. And certain short-story-sized vignettes – John and his critically class-conscious mother visiting a former neighbour who has "gone native" in a seaside resort, or John doing all the female voices (temptress, mother) for the collaborative Wild West fantasies of the boys in his dorm – have a crispness that sets them apart from the iterative crawl of the rest of the narrative.

Perhaps future instalments of the Cromer series, if it is a series, will place Pilcrow in context; reveal it, possibly, to be the first instalment in a sort of Limp to the Music of Time, from which this chunk of text has been arbitrarily severed for publication. Till then, the predominant sense, as one makes one's way through these 500 pages at the average landspeed of the narrator himself, is of waiting in vain.