Doubleday £14.99

The Man Who Forgot His Wife, By John O'Farrell

The jokes keep coming in this novel about an amnesiac family man, but the punchlines involve some serious philosophical thought

John O'Farrell's fourth novel is a tale of laughter and forgetting. Its hero, a teacher, husband and father called Jack Vaughan, is on the Tube when he realises that he doesn't know where he is. More worryingly, Vaughan doesn't know who, what, when or, more to the point, why he is either. Checking himself into hospital, he learns that he has suffered a "psychogenic fugue" – not a piece of avant-garde music but the sort of amnesia that is a staple of high-concept narratives from Memento to S J Watson's Before I Go to Sleep.

What Vaughan has not mislaid is his desire to crack a joke. Hoping to jog his errant memory, he reads a book of baby names, only to find the plot unsatisfying: "Aaron ... has a walk-on part right at the beginning but then we never hear from him again." This follows a more obvious gag about Vaughan's possible criminal past: could his felonies include "paedophile", "vivisectionist" and "banker"? Boom-boom.

Vaughan is informed that most psychogenic fugues are the result of severe psychic trauma. As he begins his recovery, however, we see that absent-mindedness is not a new condition but something like Vaughan's permanent state of mind. Distracted by routine and disillusioned by the modern world, he has become unmoored from his founding passions: why he became a history teacher, for example.

More grievously, Vaughan has lost the loving feeling that glued him to his wife, Maddy. Indeed, the largest missing piece of his existential jigsaw is the fact that Maddy has filed for divorce and is dating a smarm-bomb called Ralph. Could that explain the pesky fugue? The neat twist is that when Vaughan meets Maddy to finalise the divorce, he falls head-over-heels in love at "first" sight, so a voyage of self-discovery doubles as romantic quest to win her back.

O'Farrell has played this tune before. The Man Who Forgot His Wife remixes his very funny debut The Best a Man Can Get. Both feature complacent, mildly flawed middle-aged heroes who take their lives and loves for granted. Both men have charming, lively families – even their children, Alfie/Jamie and Millie/Dillie, sound similar. And both conduct their soul-searching while underwater in the bath.

This last is a telling image. Beneath Vaughan's bubbly, if occasionally tiring stand-up routines lurk deeper meditations on the perils and compensations of ageing. O'Farrell's amnesia plot device catches that eerie sensation of looking in the mirror and failing to recognise the grizzled old goat staring back.

Vaughan's predicament raises fundamental questions, even if in a light-hearted form. Are we simply the sum of our memories? If our slate was wiped clean, could we, like Vaughan, be transformed from self-centred curmudgeons into thoughtful liberals with awkward sexual techniques? But O'Farrell himself would doubtless mock this sort of thing out of existence. His one-liners aim to entertain, puncturing moments that come close to philosophy or sentimentality.

Indeed, what elevates O'Farrell's fourth novel above his first is that its comic routines are imbued with emotion. The Best a Man Can Get felt like a witty series of sketches stitched into a narrative. The Man Who Forgot His Wife is a coherent story told through character, humour and pathos. The furious argument between Vaughan and Maddy that is preserved on a family home movie is believably excruciating. A running joke involving a postcard of a cartoon leprechaun is touching and skilfully deployed. The scenes involving Vaughan's seriously ill father are poignant and funny: I don't want to spoil the punchline on page 106, but the phrase "Who fuck hell are you, fuck-bastard?" deserves its own game show.

Not everything works. Witness the images of tents collapsing allegorically. (Like a relationship they need two poles to stay up.) The brief attempt to explore history isn't any more convincing than it was in Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending. And Vaughan's recovery of his pedagogical passion via a student called Tanika feels sketched more than developed.

But the pluses outpace the minuses by miles. Vaughan's daughter, Dillie, is a glorious creation, whose scatter-shot delivery is beautifully rendered: "-and-what-should-I-get-Grandma-for-her-birthday-oh-it's-How-I-Met-Your-Mother-tonight-can-we-watch-that?"

The show, however, is stolen by Maddy, whose youthful vivacity is captured in flashback: the passage in which she commandeers the public address on an intercity train is a highlight of the book. More rounded than O'Farrell's previous female leads, Maddy elevates this tale of laughter and forgetting into one of understanding and forgiveness.

The moral? Pay close attention – to who you are, who you were and who you are with. Retain your sense of humour. And never leave home without identification.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own