No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, November 30, 2006

#100: Emotionally Weird -- Kate Atkinson

Emotionally Weird could be said to be 'about' the act of story-telling, in all sorts of different ways. On one level it's an ongoing argument between Effie (the narrator) and her allegedly-virgin mother Nora: an argument that's almost a game ("I bet you a pound we don't hear of Davina again" and 100 pages later, "you owe me a pound"). On another, it's the story that Effie tells herself about her origins -- about her mother, and her family, and her noble ancestors. (Why else would the two of them be sitting in a decaying mansion on a wet and windy Scottish isle?) On yet another level, it's the entwined stories of the members of a creative writing group at Dundee University -- not just the stories of the individuals (each of whom is neatly and economically sketched, three-dimensional and unlikeable as anything) but the wildly different novels that they're writing.

Those novels are a neat conceit. They're all genre fiction (if you count 'pretentious literary fiction' as a genre, which I do) and each -- with deliberately, and distinctively, awful prose -- is shown in a different font: gothic for the fantasy novel, serif-italic for the Romantic novel, and so on. And each character's novel says more about its writer and his or her aims than is at first apparent. (If there's one thing that didn't quite work for me about Emotionally Weird as a whole, it's the afterword, in which the commercial successes and Booker wins of some of the minor characters are revealed.)

Effie's story is an intriguing one, because it's perfectly reasonable (though not inevitable) for the reader to work out the twist before Effie herself does. She, by the way, is not the Emotionally Weird one: she thinks of herself as normal, and she probably is more normal than the other characters -- boyfriend Bob, for example, with his TV-SF references (it is, by the way, possible to date the action of the novel precisely, by reference to episodes of Doctor Who). But then again, she's writing and rewriting and commenting on her own story, even while Nora argues with her about the details, and reveals twists and turns of which Perfectly Post-modern Effie (help, I just wanted to diverge into word-play about 'ineffable') is wholly ignorant.

It's also a very, very funny book -- not just because of the setting (1970s student life in Dundee) but because of the characterisation, the cleverness, the quiet affectionate mockery of every single character including Effie herself. A joyful book, too, because of a complicit enjoyment in the prose, a sense of the author grinning and inviting you to share the joke, to write yourself in.