Sunday, 19 August 2012

'Lay perpendicular grates'

I don't usually associate Lionel Shriver with novels that are optimistic, uplifting or joyful. While she is one of my favourite writers, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Double Fault, and especially So Much for That are all relentlessly grim, if compulsive, and her other novels aren't much better (having embarked on a project to read the whole of Shriver's backlist, I'm now only two down; A Perfectly Good Family and Ordinary Decent Criminals, also inexplicably published as The Bleeding Heart (inexplicable as the other title is so wonderful and the other sounds like some Leon Uris-esque dirge about Irish history). I'm off on my annual trip to Hay-on-Wye soon and will be looking for both there - if I find the latter I'll be extremely chuffed, as it's long out-of-print and copies are rare and expensive). Anyway, before embarking on that tangent, I was going to say that Checker and the Derailleurs, her second novel, is the one that breaks the mould. As well as being an interesting study of youth, ambition, and envy, it makes you want to run outside and (as one brilliant interviewee puts it in the oral history archive of teachers' memories that I'm currently working through) 'give life a biff'.

Nineteen-year-old Checker is the talented drummer of the rock band the Derailleurs (a derailleur is a device for changing gears on a bike) and puts a huge amount of energy into a project to love life. While Checker is good enough to have a professional career, he isn't interested in chasing ambition; instead he simply enjoys swimming in the dark, cycling through New York City traffic, and writing songs with lyrics such as 'Lay perpendicular grates! Ditch those rectangular plates!' which really need to be quoted in full for their pure quirky delight to come through. When the disaffected teenage manager of the band, Howard, complains to another member of the band, Caldwell, that Checker always gets the best part-time jobs, Caldwell laughs and says 'Howard... it's not the job, dummy.' Howard is bemused, but later, after thinking over his own hated job at Baskin-Robbins, he imagines 'Checker Secretti scooping ice cream... He would memorise all the flavours and recommend his favourites... By the end of a week he'd know all the regulars' names and the ages of their children... Check would abandon the Snoopy and Big Bird patterns to do his own designs, caricatures of children in pick and yellow icing... when business was slow Check would drum with tiny pink plastic tasting spoons in the glass counter, ticka-ticka. He'd learn to balance five scoops at a time and develop theories that matched flavours to types of people.' Howard quickly realises that it is not innate luck that makes Checker so happy, but his attitude to life.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this theme could swiftly degenerate into a sappy celebration of positive thinking, but Shriver shrewdly explores both the upside and the downside to being Checker. Most obviously, he attracts rivals, and the jealousy of fellow drummer Eaton Striker, who attempts to destroy Checker's relationship with his band, forms the main plot thread of this novel. Less obviously, his long periods of being 'jacked up', full of enthusiasm for life, are punctuated by times of deep depression, when he simply disappears for days on end. Least obviously, and most interestingly, Checker's refusal to 'sell out' in some ways makes him perfect material for exploitation, as is evident in Howard's fictional Baskin-Robbins scenario. When Checker writes a song called 'Hundred-Dollar Peanuts', where he asserts 'My peanuts worth a hundred dollars, who needs your cashews', Eaton complains 'You know, they want you to be satisfied with peanuts. You make an ideal proletarian.' Eaton presses Checker and the rest of the band to try to sign a record deal, but Checker resists. Later, he muses that 'A "better" life is always an increment away. If you have decided your happiness will not really begin until you take, not the step you are taking, but the one after that, then you are set indefinitely on a treadmill from which only death, not love or money or fame, can save you.'

However, the central dilemma that Shriver sets up for Checker is never truly confronted head on. Near the end of the novel, she notes, in relation to Eaton, that 'being young is like that, you can do anything because you've done nothing, and it's wonderful'. However, although Eaton is positioned as a failure to Checker's success, these words could hold true for Checker as well. Checker rejects external assessment, rightly realising that, good or bad, other people's comments restrict his creative freedom and hence his happiness; he tells Syria, an older glassmaker, that he never opened his school report cards, because 'You can't believe the As any more than the Ds... A lot of people get so hung up on what they can't have that they don't think for a second about whether they really want it.' At the end of the book, Syria reflects, 'Well, it's true, both acceptance and rejection are traps.' However, Checker's ideals ultimately set up an insolvable problem for him; should he pursue his talent and try and become a professional drummer, risking either acceptance or rejection, and the end of his effortless joy, or should he be happy with what he has? Logic would suggest the latter course, but then, like Eaton, Checker cannot remain young forever. Unfortunately, this truly intractable problem is solved by deus ex machina; Eaton sends off recordings of Checker to record companies without his knowledge, and so he is accepted without ever having to submit himself to other people's judgement. Later, we are given no indication of how he copes with success, and it seems not to have altered him at all. This slight cop-out, I think, is what marks this as one of Shriver's earlier works. Whether happiness comes at the cost of ambition, or ambition at the cost of happiness, is the question that lingers in the reader's mind.

Nevertheless, this is absolutely worth a read, if only for the adrenaline rush of engaging with Checker's world-view, the feeling, if only for a few hours, that even the walk back from work, a swim in the pool, a cup of tea in the morning, is great. In the author's note at the end, looking back at the novel twenty years after she wrote it, Shriver describes it as 'innocent, upbeat, bursting with happiness for being alive' - and she's right.