Tuesday book: A place of secrets and wives

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The Independent Culture


IT'S NOT all jam being a man these days. Pilloried in the media for our risible shortcomings, we can't even respond by being strong and silent. Strong and silent gets you no points any more. Sensitive and articulate is the thing - not our forte. But there is a consolation: for the first time, it is interesting to be a man (to men, at any rate). Being a man is now a profitable literary theme. Just ask Nick Hornby.

Anthony Giardina's The Country of Marriage is a collection of stories offering the American take on this theme. The cover bears the shoutline (or mumbleline, perhaps) "the emotional silences of the married man". My reaction was to groan inwardly, and I imagine the reaction of most British readers would be the same. But we would be wrong. This is not some fictional equivalent of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These stories offer no lists of things to do to improve your marriage overnight. They simply describe what being inside a marriage is like, with elegant and often painful accuracy.

There is considerable variation. Some stories are told in the first person, some in the third. One is narrated by a woman. "The Second Act" imagines how Scott and Zelda's Fitzgerald's marriage would have gone on if he had not died in 1940. "The Films of Richard Egan" charts Egan's disappointing career and sees in it a symbol of lost dreams - the inevitable fading of that sense of "specialness" we have as children.

Despite the variations, the nine stories share a strong family resemblance. All are written in the same icy, skilful prose. The same themes emerge: the secrets that even (especially) the most intimate marriages are full of the acute (but futile) understanding of misunderstanding. Giardina's men are self-aware but paralysed. They smoke cigarettes and look at the stars after their wives have gone to bed. They know precisely what's going wrong but can't lift a finger to change it.

His prose is full of insights that will make men nod in rueful recognition. In place of the usual "My wife doesn't understand me", he has "She was quite certain she could see right through me... [but] what she was seeing was only the mirror of herself: what such behaviour, if she were doing it, would certainly mean."

Sometimes, there is understanding, but it leads only to the tiniest change. The longest and most representative story is "The Secret Life". A man goes on an unsatisfactory camping weekend with his wife and daughter. His secret is that he is having an affair; but this is not the real secret. The real secret is that he has never really met his wife at the deepest level - "The large and fulsome emotional life she lived had not been his" - and it is this secret that she penetrates during the weekend.

She understands at last that she is alone; she resolves that she will stop asking for what she will never get. It is this "awful adjustment" that, paradoxically, will allow them to stay together. Both understand this without a word being spoken.

In the end, these stories offer a small, cold hope. Marriage is a perilous place but its perils can be known and accepted, unlike those of the world outside it. Marriage is a refuge, a "bubble". To stay in it, scrupulous understanding and a continuing stoicism are needed.

Compare this with recent British fiction on the subject of masculinity. We are not comfortable with such heroic seriousness. We prefer a more jokey, blokey, okey-dokey approach. Take Robert Llewellyn's The Man on Platform 5 (Hodder, pounds 14.99): a role-reversed version of Pygmalion in which two half-sisters, Gresham and Eupheme, make a wager when they spot a trainspotter at Milton Keynes station. Eupheme has seven weeks to transform this car-coated, video-recorder-carrying nerd into an attractive man that Gresham will fancy. It's a novel about surfaces - do they reflect, or affect what's underneath?

I'm normally suspicious of novels by celebrity comedians (Llewellyn was Kryten in Red Dwarf) but this one has plenty of good points. The dialogue is first-rate - particularly that of Ian Ringfold, the trainspotter. Yes, indeedly-doodly. Blimey O'Reilly. Ringfold comes to life so sympathetically that I not only believe in his existence, I'd like to meet him. And the plot, after taking us on a breathless ride, gives us a nice soft landing.

This is an optimistic novel that proclaims there's hope for men yet. It's an enjoyable entertainment, but Llewellyn does not go as deep as Giardina, and doesn't really try to. There is some seriousness here, but it has to be heavily sweetened with comedy to be acceptable to the British palate. Giardina's uncomfortable truths don't slip down quite so easily, but they offer more food for thought, especially if you're a man - or a woman.