This week I struggled to find a theme to write about, as absolutely nothing remotely noteworthy happened. I went to work, I saw friends, I cooked, I shopped (as little as possible, I hate shopping in all forms), I read, I watched DVDs (I’m catching up on Breaking Bad)…you get the utterly banal picture. So I was completely at a loss until an epiphany – that’s probably overstating it, a realisation – earlier today: in my problem lay my solution. There’s probably a tenet of some philosophy that tells you that very thing, but I took my time getting there. The theme of this week’s post is novels that take a look at the resolutely everyday, the ordinary events in ordinary lives.
Firstly, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1993, 4th Estate). This novel tells the story of Daisy Goodwill, from birth to death, her life lead along entirely ordinary lines. The Stone Diaries was showered with awards, and certainly Shields is an author gifted in finding the poetic in the everyday. Take for example this description of eating to assuage a stomach ache (Daisy’s mother failing to recognise birth contractions):
“Frequently she sprinkles sugar on top of the buttered bread. The surface winks with brilliance, its crystals working between her teeth, giving her strength. She imagines the soft dough entering the bin of her stomach, lining that bitter bloated vessel with a cottony warmth that absorbs and neutralises the poisons of her own body.”
This first chapter is narrated in the first person, with Daisy telling the part of her life from before she could speak. The rest of the novel though, is a mixed narration, including third person, letters, newspaper cuttings. This has the effect of demonstrating the difficulty of biography – how it is a patchwork of sources and viewpoints, and that there can never be a definitive telling of a life. This distance is reflected in the character of Daisy herself, a woman who never quite becomes the protagonist of her own life. She never quite engages with the events or people that surround her. The closest she comes to being fully present is in her garden:
“It is, you might almost say, her dearest child, the most beautiful of her offspring…she understands, perhaps, a quarter of its green secrets, no more. It in turn perceives nothing of her, not her history, her name, her longings, nothing – which is why she is able to love it as purely as she does, why she has opened her arms to it, taking it as it comes, every leaf, every stem, every root and sign.”
So Daisy is not necessarily the most likeable character, but this is turn adds to the verisimilitude of the story – she is just as flawed and problematic as everyone else, ordinary and yet entirely unique.
Secondly, Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (2000, Faber & Faber), and from a book that encompasses an entire lifespan to one than concerns just a single day. However, this is not an ordinary day in the life the eponymous protagonist (hero is a bit much, Mr Phillips is far from a heroic character). Mr Phillips has lost his job, but he gets up and leaves for work as he has done for decades. His wife and family, and his neighbours, do not know he has been made redundant. He spends the day aimlessly wandering around London. Through the events he experiences and his thoughts and fantasies, Lanchester creates a fully drawn and minutely observed character. Mr Phillips may not be employed as an accountant any longer, but it is an intrinsic part of his nature. He cannot enjoy a walk in Battersea Park without drawing up what he sees in double entry style. For example, the lovely peace pagoda in the park is reduced to “Asset: Golden Buddha, Liability: Upkeep of Buddha, gilt paint, etc.” It reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But this cost/benefit analysis does make for some funny passages such as his colleagues discussing the chances of being dead before the next Lottery draw, and therefore when you should buy your ticket to maximise your chances of winning the Lottery and minimising your chances of being dead. “It had lingered in the mind. Mr Phillips wonders what his relative chances of being dead before this week’s Lottery draw are at this precise moment. In all probability they have never been better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.”
Poor Mr Phillips, so bound by the quantifiable realities of life. Watching someone bungee jump he reflects how adrenalin sports hold no appeal: “You would have to see gravity as a joke or as a benign force or at the very least something you could trifle with …whereas all that Mr Phillips has to do is look downwards, at his sagged and weighted flesh, to feel differently.” Mr Phillips also thinks about sex a lot, but calculates that “even allowing for films, Mr Phillips is still left with an average daily probability of 96.7 per cent against having sex.” It is this dour acceptance of all odds, weighing up of everything, that makes Mr Phillips so ordinary. He will never truly experience the extraordinary because he’d never embrace the unknown. Or will he? On this day unlike any other, Mr Phillips is forced out of the ordinary.
I was tempted to present the books this week on my toilet, as I thought what is more ordinary than that? You’ll be relieved to know I decided not to do this, and opted for my ordinary, everyday dining table instead: