NYRB Classics, £8.99 paperback
Artist Chuck Close is quoted on the cover reminding us: “It is sometimes hard to remember just how radical Talk was when it was published.” That first occurred in 1968, before the ubiquity of reality television, before social media became such a feature of our lives that having a meal without photographing (or at least announcing it) feels, for some, like not eating at all.
Talk is all dialogue, which while unorthodox, is not unique in literature, as any fan of Ivy Compton-Burnett can tell you. And Talk has no real plot. Over the course of a summer spent on a Long Island beach, three friends (some might say “frenemies”, using current slang) shoot the breeze, share romantic stories (in graphic detail), flirt, fight, and analyse their feelings and actions up, down and sideways in the touchy-feely way that people in Britain still speak of as being “so American.”
If self-analysis — you could equally say self-absorption — annoys you, then Talk’s not going to be your cup of tea. Though the late 1960s were a time of great unrest, the outside world is only viewed in sideways glances in this almost claustrophobic book. Race relations remain unenlightened, the Vietnam war is barely touched upon, ditto Civil Rights, rock and roll, or the riots occurring on college campuses and elsewhere.
That’s not to damn the novel, since what is here is interesting, insightful, and always amusing. Emily, Marsha and Vincent (pseudonyms for the author and her friends) talk and talk and talk some more about who they are, who they’d like to become, and how they feel constrained by society and “accepted” sexual mores. They’re not entirely loveable, but they are entirely realistic, and make for entertaining company.
This tight focus is also why the novel holds up. Sure, there are some dated exchanges — more than once they speak of ‘Negroes’ and display the ignorance of their time — but love, sex, affection, these things don’t change and their honesty is a pleasure to behold.
Many will relate to this confidence of Marsha’s: “My average relationship with a man, actual talking to each other, loving each other, relating to each other, sleeping with each other, is usually one to two weeks in duration. The amount of time I spend feeling rejected, crying over it, not seeing him but living it out, is three to four years.”
Rosenkrantz has edited the conversations to closely mimic reality, and that’s another treat of the novel. She’s left just enough of the day to day business to underscore its authenticity. So midway through a discussion of masturbation, Marsha, who’s making dinner, breaks off to ask if Emily wants her cabbage buttered. Two lines later they’re back discussing the nature of friendship.
Another redeeming feature is the characters’ wit. Emily teases Marsha abut sneaking some chewing gum in the shop:
“Marsha: That was for you, darling.
Emily: It was for me, all for me? How come there seemed to be a couple of pieces empty and gone when we got home?
Marsha: I chewed them for you too.”
In “Emily and Marsha Play a Game” the girls run the gamut of sexual permutations, asking, “Jack Ruby or Lee Oswald?”, touching on some Kennedys and art world insiders, before culminating in “Jules or Jim?” It’s a snapshot of the era’s cultural icons that’s been given a very funny twist.
Marsha recounts a scene of sexual role playing with deadpan humour that one wishes existed in the oeuvre of EL James. Trussed up, going along with it to keep her lover happy, Marsha can’t keep a straight face. “I laughed so hard the golf balls were bouncing out of my mouth,” she tells Vincent. Luckily it ended in “fantastic fucking. . . . .it was very very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.”
Because they’re all involved in the arts, there’s a good deal of analysis of the scene, much of it spot on. When Emily asks, “Is Andy Warhol elegant?” Vincent replies: “No, but he’s got style. He’s so fake that it becomes real.” It’s a summation Andy himself would have made — and did, in his diaries — and all the more startling when you consider this novel’s original publication date.
Talk’s real strength is its potent commentary not only about the bond between gay men and straight women, but about the gold we mine from our friendships, making them so important. Marsha sums it it when she says that when she began spending time with Vincent, “I would feel that I was going to visit myself, to find my identity. When I was there I was myself and when I left I wasn’t. I was constantly looking to Vinnie to establish who I was. There’s also a very strong Pygmalion thing: Vinnie created me, in a sense.”
One unreliable narrator is a puzzle. Two unreliable narrators make for the kind of suspense that keeps you turning the pages, trying to see around every twist and corner. In that regard, Disclaimer is darn good entertainment.
Catherine is a middle aged woman, wife to Robert, mother to a grown son. She and her husband have down-sized. Everything’s ticking along nicely and if life ain’t perfect, it’s not bad. Until the day she receives a book in the post. Inside, the usual disclaimer — “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” — had been scored through. With good reason. The events in the book actually happened to Catherine, though she’s kept them secret for nearly twenty years.
Very quickly we learn that the book was written by a woman, now dead, and retooled by her husband Stephen, who exists on the edge of madness and grows increasingly unhinged during the course of the story. He blames Catherine for the death of his son, which devastated his late wife. Adopting the eye-for-an-eye attitude beloved by revengers since time began, he sets out to strip Catherine of everything he has lost: child, wife, sanity. You don’t pity him because he’s elderly. If anything that makes him even creepier, since he has nothing to lose.
Knight is skilled at flip-flopping our sympathies, though there does come a point where Stephen’s crazy feels overdone. Then, having portrayed him as properly berserk, it feels like a misstep when she sends Catherine to confront him and he caves immediately.
Until that point, Disclaimer works a treat. From then on it’s still 80% satisfying, and even in the final paragraphs Knight gives us one more wee twist that, for this reader at any rate, provid a smile of sweet satisfaction. If you like tension and guessing games, you’ll enjoy Disclaimer.