Sue Wilson talks to American novelist Paule Marshall about writing and responsibility.
Less well known on these shores than Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. in her native US novelist Paule Marshall is regarded as belonging to the same literary elite. of those African- American women writers producing some of the most incisive and profound ﬁctional explorations of contemporary America. Her latest novel. Daughters. oscillates between the two poles of New York. where its heroine. l'rsa Mackenzie. a young professional Black woman. lives and works. and Triunion. an imaginary Caribbean island where her charismatic father is a prominent politician. Through L'rsa's efforts to ﬁnd her own place and purpose in the world. a struggle which entails freeing herself from her father‘s excessive influence. the novel pursues its far- reaching themes: the divisions between men and women: the insidious processes ofcollusion and venality: the meaning of responsibility — to oneself. to the wider community — in a corrupt
and fragmented society.
pulling the reader along with its strength of characterisatitm. directness of tone and sheer energetic drive.
'1 always start with the characters.’ Marshall says. 'I‘m always concerned with what makes fiction tick. and there are two verities that make for effective ﬁction: people and plot. Whatever else I‘m trying to do with the novel has to come through those two basics. and even though my work is highly political. all the political aspects are always filtered through the characters' lives. To my mind it makes for a more complex reading and a more honest rendering.’
At the centre of the novel is the passionately anti-individualistic frequently between different voices. places and times as incidents and memories jostle and intrude upon each other. the narrative rolls and flows.
Marshall‘s triumph is to weave these questions into the fabric of her story so that they live and breathe. Though intricate in structure.jump-cutting
Paule Marshall contention that if people are fully to realise their humanity. they have to ﬁnd some way of being ‘of use‘. summed up when Ursa‘s friend Viney repeats a saying of her grandfather's: ‘the woods are on fire. and everybody who can tote a bucket of water better come running'.
‘One of Ursa's struggles is not only to do with her father. or life in New York. trying to establish a career and relationships and so on for herself.‘
.Marshall says. ‘At a very fundamental
level it’s her quest to find meaningful work. work that will make her. as a human. of use to more than just herself — that is critical to my way of looking at the world. i look to a future when Black men and women come together again so that their strength can be used in freeing their community. That hope. that vision. is what sustains me. and I don't see it as romantic or unrealistic. but as something we have to strive for.’
Dung/11ers is published by Serpent 3‘ Tail (1! £9.99
:- Self- portrait?
Hot many young novelists can claim to have created a character who became a household name, affected the way people spoke, was used as a political analogy in the House of Commons and was eventually given his establishment imprimatur In the Oxford English Dictionary. Hot that Charles Higson Is too keen to remind us that he (with Paul Whitehouse) was the creator of Loadsamoney, Harry Enfleld’s sadly misunderstood satirical plasterer.
Along with Stavros, assorted other Enfield characters and various surreal Inventions for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Loadsamoney belongs to HIgson’s ‘other’ career, as a moderately successful TV comedy writer. A distinctly darker side of the former pop singer’s (with the lmaglnatlver-tltled ngsons) work emerges In his novels, psychological thrillers tirme rooted In 903 Britain.
Higson’s first novel, The King Of The Ants, was published last year and warmly received. His second, Happy How, explores the same territory: the damaged male psyche. Its central character Tom Kendall is a rigorously controlled nerd who keeps his flat meticulously tidy and plays the home
Charles Higson organ for recreation. When his brother-In-Iaw Is killed In a grisly accident he flips completely.
‘The fascination was taking a seemingly straight character,’ explains Higson, ‘and pushing him over the edge to see what happens. But that only emerged when I began writing the story. At the outset i didn’t have any strong plans at all. I had a few strong characters and thought I’d chuck them together to see what would happen. I’d seen this thing on TV about young housebreakers who liked to break Into people’s houses while they were still in them, so that character was going to be the main one, but then I got interested In Tom and he took over.’
Headers expecting Higson’s books to
be packed with loopy one-liners in the manner of his comedy material would be disappointed. Both novels are closer in tone to the gritty American crime novels he loves himself. There is humour, but it’s used sparingly. ‘I include aspects of humour to prevent It being too melodramatic,’ he says. ‘My approach is to treat the heavier areas as comedy and treat the lighter areas In an opposite way.’
The novels’ slightly meandering style is a result of ngson’s refusal to allow minor characters to be stereotypes or hasty sketches. He rarely resists the temptation to flesh out his supporting cast’s lives. ‘You do find yourself going up funny little slde-alleys,’ he admits, ‘but for the book to work I realised that you would have to feel for those minor characters as people, or the fear and tension wouldn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to get that emotional Involvement.’
More worryingly, considering the various acts of violence and sexual deviation they get up to, Higson asserts that his characters are ‘in one way or another all based on myself. i certainly don’t take a whole character from someone I know. You lust take features of yourself and exaggerate them. Everybody is capable of that sort of violence deep-down. If you’re a man, you know what men are really like.’ (Tom Lappln)
Happy How is published by Hamish Hamilton at £9.99; King Of The Ants ls available In Penguin paperback at £4.99
I Dangerous To Know Margaret Yorke (Hutchinson. £13.99) One of British crime ﬁction's best-loved veterans. Yorke succeeds at the basic trick of injecting sufﬁcient human warmth into her characterisation for you actually to care about what happens to the central character. a concept which appears to have escaped the notice of Ruth Rendell and PD. James. And while she‘s less obsessed than they are by the psychopathology or the ordinary. this tense. sometimes horrifying but all too convincing marital-abuse drama indicates that she has a clearer idea of how it operates when it does occur. After decades of physical and mental tyranny from her repressed. vindictive martinet of a husband. Walter. Hermione makes her ﬁrst. timid bid for independence when she takes two cleaning jobs. arranging her days so that she can work in secret. Her growing conﬁdence. however. leads inevitably to escalating conflict with Walter. who in the meantime seems to be up to something very nasty on the evenings he is ‘working late‘. l won’t give away the ending; sufﬁce to say that Yorke‘s understanding of domestic violence‘s devastating psychological effects adds weight and pathos to the novel. as does its underlying indictment of our ‘don't get involved” attitude to it and other contemporary ills. (Sue Wilson)
I Memories of the Ford Administration John Updike (Hamish Hamilton. £l5.99) in the middle of a 70s revival. the fact of the Salem sage's latest opus being partly set during that infamous decade lends it considerable added curiosity value. Through the pleasures. pains and peccadillos of his misogynistic lead character. history professor Alfred Clayton. L'pdike maps the social and emotional terrain of the time when 60s free-love dreams had degenerated into a morass of casual. often callous. couplings; when sexual harassment hadn‘t been invented and sleeping with your students was regarded as a perk of (male) academic life; when only celibacy was a dirtier word than fidelity. Separated from his wife and children. negotiating marriage with his mistress. Alfred is supposedly writing a conference paper about the Ford years. instead it becomes a wry. aggrieved meditation on his life during that era. interwoven with extracts from his long-unﬁnished biography of Buchanan. America's only bachelor President. who had the misfortune to reach office as the country slid inexorany towards civil war. ; Essentially it‘s a deft. sensitive study of personal and national disillusionment — what else were the 70s. post-()(ls. post- Nixon. about. or the (‘ivil War? — and
of the fascinating fallibility of memory. and history. A big. slow. satisfying i read. (Sue Wilson) I
The List 9—22 April was 65