Politics by Adam Thirlwell

20/08/03, The Times

There is nothing quite like Adam Thirlwell’s first novel, Politics, in contemporary English writing. For a start, there is hardly any story, and that itself is remarkable in our current plot-centric conservative fiction climate. The slim plotline is fractured, fissured and exploded to the extent that it seems like a girl-boy-girl idea from an Eric Rohmer film remade by Jean-Luc Godard. There is the graphic sex, which manages to be both rib-splittingly funny and spot on. And then there are meditations spanning a dazzling spectrum of cultural references, from Antonio Gramsci to Bollywood films, from Casablanca to Bulgakov’s relations with Stalin, inviting comparisons with the master of such eclectic conflation of fiction with non-fiction, Milan Kundera. It is Kundera who stands behind Thirlwell’s explosive combination of the sublime and the ridiculous and in the savvy maturity he brings to the dissection of sexual etiquette and practices, their inherent awkwardness, their little kindnesses and dissimulations. What is one to make of the book that propelled its twenty five-year old author to the Granta list of twenty best British writers? Well, to begin with, that this is one of the funniest, most stylish and utterly original debuts to hit the stand in recent years.

Nana, a kind girl with not much interest in or experience of sex, and Moshe, a half-Jewish actor, fall in love. The sex between them never really makes the earth move for either, but they love each other. Anjali is attracted to Nana but knows she is both straight and in a relationship. The two girls have sex at one point and, at Nana’s invitation, Anjali joins the Moshe-Nana couple forming a threesome. The sexual balance between the couple, precarious and shifting at the best of times, seesaws into an even more unstable equilibrium, while the people involved play complex, awkward and painful games with themselves and each other so they can strike a balance between their own and others’ happiness and pleasure. One thing that characterises all of them is their innate kindness. There is also Papa, Nana’s father, the other important figure, ‘the benevolent angel of the story’.

But the central character in the book is the unnamed first person narrator who lays bare the entire craft of storytelling in a breathtakingly poised performance of reflexivity and self-consciousness. The story is constantly fragmented and halted in its tracks by the narrator intruding, directing, misdirecting, prescribing, opining: it’s a guided tour and practical surgery class rolled into one. ‘The next event in the story is a blowjob’. ‘This is another moment in my novel where you must not let your private theories affect how you read’. Sentences such as these form the main connective tissue of the narrative. It is a style that is going to get up a lot of readers’ noses (especially the dizzyingly heterogeneous cultural references) but I fell for it. The emphasis is not on the story but on the ways of telling, on the how rather than on the what. What Thirlwell has actually written is a metanovel: he has deconstructed time-honoured topoi and mechanics, laid them out on an exhibit table as if to say, ‘These are the raw materials of the business of fiction, let’s see what we can do with them’, and constructed sly, genial and hilarious riffs on how we read, how we write, what we think and assume when we read fiction.

And what a unique narratorial voice and style – deadpan, straight-faced, syllogistic and, ultimately, disarming. What starts off as a voice both faux-naïf and knowing, ends up as the repository of a maturity bordering almost on wisdom. Thirlwell’s apparently ‘innocent imbecile’ narrator is neither innocent, nor an imbecile, but the figure is saved from predictability by his idiosyncratic charm and generosity and a deeply original and effective use of repetition as a rhetorical trope.

Politics asks big questions: how noble is altruism? Can selfishness be moral? How complicit are the motives behind our actions?  To the nebulous mix of motives that inspire human action, Thirlwell brings the clarity of an essayist such as Montaigne and the deadpan humour of Buster Keaton. He does the Granta list proud.