Modernism with a Smirk
Walter, Natasha, The Independent (London, England)
What a falling-off is here. In 1992, the poet-turned-novelist Adam Thorpe published a book that dazzled. Ulverton did things with language that seemed almost beyond the power of one person's mind. In telling a series of tales about one British village, he switched from 17th-century pastoral to 19th-century realism, from 18th-century epistolary romance to 20th-century irony. It was a wholly unexpected surge of brilliance, but like the novelist lain Sinclair or the non-fiction writer Patrick Wright, Thorpe seemed to be mining a deep tradition: he was reaching into the dark roots of England, in a way that strenuously resisted the dinkiness of much historical fiction. He revivified the line that Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas worked in - in which the people and the land entwine, and terrible tragedies have comic renewals. And he did it with such an eerie ability to disappear into his characters, it was as though we heard the dead speak.
Unfortunately, Ulverton ended with a clanger of a chapter, in which a few smartarse Eighties chaps come in to make a film of the village. Stuffed with sarcasm and knowing winks to the reader, the chapter fell flat on its face.
Still, Thorpe's second novel, plays constantly on this knowing, sarcastic style. In it, Thorpe turns his back on the humanism of Ulverton, and gets stuck in a dead-end of old-fashioned modernism. The novel describes a film made by the narrator, with a plot taken from his family's history. The screening is taking place at the end of the millennium, and the book comments on the history of the century by using the artifice of film combined with the "real" story of the family. Ring any bells? Yes, but Craig Raine did it rather better. His verse-novel History: the Home Movie is a glittering, rigorous in comparison with Still.
This book is destined for sudden death in the hands of most readers. The narrator, a self-consciously oafish failed film director, has only one expression, a smirk, and only one voice, an arch patter. The story of the film he is making has little substance; a boy (the narrator's great uncle) is sent home from school and his brother makes a pass at a maid (the narrator's grandmother). That's it? Just about, and it's almost buried under Thorpe's new style, a heavy weight of self-referential asides, nudging commentary and endless directions to cameramen, audience or students. …