Thom Dibdin talks to Daniel Richler about his first novel. adolescence and good ol’ rock’n‘roll.
There‘s not much hope in Robbie Bookbinder. hero of Daniel Richler‘s lirst novel Kicking 'Ibmnrmw. Not that you can really call him a hero. more a proto- agonist in the best tradition of hairy young men. He‘s too busy mourning the loss of his girlfriend. whom he is forbidden to see after saving her from a fire at school. hating his famous mother and her TV show. and believing himself to be superior to all around him.
This is ‘fuck-you-world!’ eighteen-year—old‘s
country. A few pages into the book. and Rob is out of
his face on a mescaline button. a hallucinatory high from which he spends the rest of the book on a downhill slide. There are so many similarities between Rob and his creator — the famous parent (renowned novelist Mordecai). the late 70s Toronto milieu, the punk band — and the character rings so completely true. you just can‘t help wondering whether. well. . .
‘When people ask if it‘s autobiographical or not, I think shit. what should l admit to.‘ says Richler.
himself now 36. ‘Well. l never burned down a school.
although I certainly dreamed of it. I did have a girlfriend whose brother was president of a local bike gang. so there are odds and sods which are true. The dry answer is that the prerogatives of a plot always take over from reality: writing is so much lying that
Daniel Richler: ‘When people ask if it’s autobiographical or not, I think shit, what should I admit to.’
in the end you don't know whether to believe
The French-linglish language wars in Toronto and the onset of punk may provide the backdrop, but Richler scorns any idea that his novel chronicles a particular time and place. It doesn't matter what the politics are about. he says. ‘the point is that here is this dolt — well he's not always a doll. but in this case he‘s politically a doll — somehow getting politics fourth—hand. by way of snowballs packed with grit chucked at him. That‘s the reality of politics for most
people on the street. so I was trying to take the. mickey out of people who go in for serious historicisation and chronicling of pop.
‘1 wanted to write a book that used rock’n'roll
vigour. rock'n‘roll energy and rock‘n’roll attitude. I
! don't think people stop to think how violently
3 negative and haplessly sentimental rock‘n‘roll is. yet
: we adore it. We love it. we make heroes of moancrs
i like Morrissey and all of that. l was just trying to use the same underpinnings of rock'n'roll applied to a
i book. so yeah. it moans. and it’s got violence and all
of that: it‘s like a literary video.‘
A vastly superior literary video. if that‘s what it is.
with two twisting plot lines spinning compellineg towards their confluent point as Rob spirals into self-
destruction, with flashbacks to the events which resulted in the school’s conllagration. Despite Rob's vileness. Richler obviously wrote the character with great tenderness and humour. 'llis analysis of the world is purely on an aesthetic level.‘ he says. 'Through drug filters if you like. but he has a certain clarity of vision that teenagers have. Teenagers are intensely moral. and he is intensely moral. even if he is a bit misguided.’
Which provides the clue to what the novel is really about: resilience and the ability of teenagers to bounce back. ‘(irown-ups spend too much time fretting about how kids today are going to Hell in a handcart. In that context the book has to do with the drugs as well: when adults are concerned or condemnatory. they‘re really reflecting on their own inability to do drugs any more. If you have a job then you don't do drugs. because if you do. you won‘t get to work.’ says Richler. ‘We‘ve had two or three generations of rock'n'roll kids who‘ve grown tip and had their own families. and now they‘re all worrying about the next generation.‘ Robbie Bookbinder might not have any hope. but he is a far from hopeless character.
K ir‘king 7immrrmv is published by Picador (1! £5.99.
_ Naked apes
Turning into a monkey might seem an extreme reaction to romantic rejection, but it certainly makes an intriguing and illuminating plot device. Greg, the overweight amiable- Ioser protagonist of journalist Sean French’s first novel, The Imaginary Monkey, is not unaccustomed to brush-offs, but when girlfriend Susan drops him for the thinner, more successful Tony it proves to be the last straw. He makes a bonfire of all his belongings, gets blootered on vodka and passes out on a bench beside London Zoo with the thought, ‘I don’t want a long life, I just don’t want mine.’
To his fervent relief, he wakes up as a monkey. Making his way to Susan and Tony’s flat, he is taken In as a pet, thereby gaining abundant opportunity to satisfy his obsessive curiosity about their relationship. Primarily, though, he is thankful to have
‘escaped from the world of anxieties and necessary observances into a smaller existence of of smells, tastes, sounds, sights and sensory stimulations’, a fantasy anybody who has ever envied a cat’s lifestyle will instantly recognise.
Apart from its entertainment value, the monkey device provides an effective vehicle for the novel’s fascination with the hidden, internal areas of people’s lives. In particular, French unpicks the kinds of unspoken thoughts which accompany sex, both through human-Greg’s description of his and Susan’s affair, and monkey- Greg’s of Susan and Tony’s, to resoluter unglamorous effect. ‘IIeal sex,’ he writes, ‘isn’t like the movies, the beautifully-lit, golden-brown skin viewed from a discreet angle, the fragmented editing, the soft music. No. It’s low budget, badly llt, single take, hard-core pornography, and with smells and stickiness as well.’
‘That’s deliberater very reductive, but I think there is an element of truth in It,’ French says. ‘I wanted to write about sex and relationships in the way
that people think about them, rather than the way they talk about them. There are a lot of myths about the way people behave in certain situations, particularly around sex, the idea that you don’t need to think about it, it’s meant to be like II.II. Lawrence, internal currents of the soul taking over. I think these are areas where people are often thinking very hard.’ As long-time diarist for the New Statesman, French, like everyone else
at the magazine, is anxiously awaiting the outcome of John Major’s libel action, over an article about rumours of an affair between him and a Whitehall caterer. If he wins, it could spell the end for the venerable but impoverished left-wing journal. While cautious about commenting on the case, still sub judice, French is angered by the lack of support from elsewhere in the media. ‘The thing I really do find disgraceful is other newspapers saying, we don’t support the Statesman because we think it’s
the star of Deep Throat was arrested on obscenity charges, there was a whole campaign by people like Paul Ilewman, because it was an issue of the First Amendment, of artistic freedom. People don’t do that in England, there’s no real commitment to the idea that even if you don’t like
to say it. Free speech has to mean free speech for all, or it means nothing.’ (Sue Wilson)
The Imaginary Monkey is published by Granta at £12.99.
really gone downhill. In America, when
what people say you defend their right .
The List 26 March—8 April l‘)‘)3 55