First Love, Gwendoline Riley, Granta, February 2017, £12.99, 176 pp. (hardcover)
‘How many boyfriends are treated like the father figure?’ This question, posed by the American author Chris Kraus on a recent segment on BBC Woman’s Hour discussing the work of Cathy Acker, was rhetorical: the answer is a great many. The cult success of Kraus’s re-issued I Love Dick (1997), an autobiographical novel or ‘autofiction’ about obsessive love, precipitated a spate of recent novels that have mined the well of real-life personal intimacy, occupying a hazy hinterland between experience and imagination. It is a genre that divides opinion, not least because it pushes at received ideas of good taste and discretion. Rachel Cusk’s 2012 novel Aftermath, a fictionalised dissection of the breakdown of the author’s marriage, drew opprobrium from critics who deemed it narcissistic. A patent double-standard is at play here: a literary establishment that rightly acknowledges the brilliance of a work like Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) – a novel that brims with bittersweet tenderness and pathos, but is essentially an autofiction avant la lettre – squirms with discomfort when a female author produces work in a similar vein. Received wisdom about the sanctity of privacy, and about what kind of subject matter is becoming of a serious author, is mediated by gender privilege.
One of the more legitimate criticisms of contemporary autofiction concerns the question of literary style. Pummelling the reader with diaristic first-person candour à la Karl Ove Knausgaard is, of course, a kind of style in its own right, and one that is particularly resonant to a generation increasingly mired in the gushing, warts-and-all transparency of social media. But the amount of readerly pleasure to be derived from it is finite, and one invariably finds oneself craving a more subtly textured prose. First Love, which is Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel, clocks in at a mere hundred-and-sixty-seven pages, and is no less powerful for its brevity. Its narrator, a young writer called Neve, is in a deeply unhappy relationship with a much older man. A sizeable portion of the context is withheld, but we can extrapolate backwards and infer, from the viciousness of some of the things Edwyn says to Neve, that their affection has atrophied horribly. The thing about destructive relationships is you don’t realise you’re in one until you’re in way too deep. At times, Riley’s narrator barely recognises herself:
This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me.
She consoles herself by infantilising him, imagining him as a ‘Little boy in a tablecloth cape, in a sandcastle fort, seeing how hugely his terrible shadow falls And if only I could talk him down…’ Later, in an italicised internal monologue, Neve tries to gee herself up: ‘It’s lonely-making to sit and listen …. when he won’t let you in. Keep your footing. Leave the room if he calls you a name.’ Edwyn, about whom we learn relatively little other than that he is struggling with a chronic health problem, veers erratically between smotheringly cuddly and downright bullying. When she’s put out, he’s put out: ‘This is frustrating, about Edwyn. That when I’m upset he panics.’ On one occasion, he all but kicks her out, before calling her back by peremptorily observing that ‘There’s nothing to eat.’ Neve duly offers to pop out to the shops for him, and they stay together. How to characterise his behaviour? Needy, weak and psychologically abusive are just some adjectives that spring to mind.
So far so depressingly commonplace. There is a whole unwritten undergraduate psychology thesis in the stunted men who shack up with younger women (and the women who go for them). In all but the rarest cases the relationship takes on an unhealthy, parent-child dynamic; both parties are deeply dissatisfied, but neither has the courage or the strength to end it, until eventually something gives. Everyone is manipulable until they’re not. This compelling portrait of an abusive relationship is rendered with allusive deftness–a succession of snapshots, inviting the reader to join the dots – but it’s the characters at the periphery of the relationship that give First Love its particular depth and complexity. We learn that Neve’s mother had been subjected to repeated physical abuse at the hands of her father. (In a telling detail, Edwyn responds with blithe scepticism when Neve enumerates the assaults: ‘Oh, she kept a list did she?’) The narrator describes a sense of suffocation as her estranged father tries to revive his relationship with his daughter by buying her concert tickets and persistently trying to arrange to meet up: ‘There was nowhere he wasn’t, suddenly, and his efforts only drew strength from each refusal.’
Neve’s relationship with her mother is even more intriguing. Her feelings towards her are summed up in one devastatingly withering parenthetical remark: ‘I’m not often in the frame for her attention (I imagine my brother bears the brunt)’. The dialogue between mother and daughter is notable for the former’s gratingly modulated intonations, which are portrayed, in the latter’s telling, with derisive italics: ‘I mean, I’ve already been married, so I have to be like super-careful who I pick next?’ The women differ considerably in their respective attitudes towards men, and Neve disdains her mother’s old-school, c’est la vie attitude towards domineering male behaviour. Revisiting her mother’s demeanour during one failed marriage, she scornfully recalls her ‘doll’s-tea-party voice: self-enclosed, self-chivvying’.
Neve’s narration hints tantalisingly at unreliability. There are references to a drink problem, although the nature of it is unclear; our sense is that Edwyn may be exaggerating its extent, readily falling back on it in their ding-dongs, but Neve parenthetically acknowledges there are uncertain gaps in her own account: ‘(Another lacuna. I should keep track of them, shouldn’t I? It isn’t good enough, to keep blanking on these points. Not to have shaken myself free of it, this fog.)’ One of the most striking passages in this novel involves Riley’s narrator remembering an ex who had tried to reconnect with her, long after splitting up. Recalling his attempt at disarming her by acknowledging wrongdoing on his own part, Neve scoffs at the speciousness of the gesture:
Too much passion, had he said? Us treating ‘each other’ badly? My memory was of me in great distress, behaving horribly: drunk and vicious, unrelenting, and of him scurrying away…. To what end, I wondered, did he think I’d want to buy in to his fiction?
There is, on first reading, something quite brutal about this: the offer of an olive branch made in good faith contemptuously rebuffed. But is it? Some things are just so broken that no platitudinous endearments, no clever re-imagining, will fix them. And what appears a gracious gesture can mask any one of a range of unwholesome egotistical motives, or at the very least betray a delusional ignorance of one of life’s simplest, cruellest truths: people, when they stop caring about you, won’t suddenly start up again. The raw ugliness of that sentiment – a legitimate sentiment, but an ugly one nonetheless – is of a piece with the novel’s arresting, jarring viscerality. Neve’s lasting memory of the chap in question is a picture of irredeemable gormlessness: ‘Each expression of helpless submission or bored compliance. This was him. How he passed.’
Quite apart from its emotional perceptiveness and cool intensity, the prose in First Love is masterfully elegant. The story is told in small, immaculately formed fragments; Riley’s language is deceptive in its spare minimalism, gliding easily between dialogue and description, between the outside world and the inner life. To say a lot with little: that, surely, is the greatest literary gift. There are brief nods here and there to descriptive realism, such as this brief vista of Manchester’s Oldham Street: ‘Fuliginous nooks yielded uncertain streams of piss, on that first block of money shops, bookies, bus-stop drunks.’ At one point in the timeline, Neve finds herself confined in a humid flat: ‘Just me and the flies: quick-quick-slow, in the well of the room.’ For all the sharpness of its ideas it is the quality of the writing –taut, perfectly paced – that elevates First Love above the competition, and marks it as a triumph. Sprawling autofictions can have their place; there is still, on this evidence, plenty to be said for artifice.
Houman Barekat is a book critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Literary Review, the Irish Times and elsewhere. He is co- editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, published by O/R Books.