Sunday, 12 April 2009

Julie Myerson's Lost Child

I must confess that I have not read any of Julie Myerson’s books—fiction or non-fiction. Indeed, I do not own a single book of hers (and I have a few in my collection). That said I have been tempted on a few occasions to buy her books; for example, a few weeks ago I came across one of her early novels, Sleepwalking, which was available for a pound in a second-hand book-sell. While browsing through high street bookshops I have thought of buying some or more of her books, but, immediately after thinking about it, the question pops in my mind: do I really want to spend eight pounds on them; and the answer is in the negative. The storylines of some of her books seem interesting. She has written a work of non-fiction, titled Home: the Story of everyone who Ever Lived In Our House, which was described as a triumph by Philip Hensher. (I live in a similar kind of house, though not as old, and have often wondered about the people who lived in it and the lives they led.) I was however a bit put off to learn that it was not exactly a history of her house; in part it was historical fiction: she gave fictionalized accounts of how she imagined the families, who occupied the house at different times, led their lives. At nine pounds a copy, the book was not exactly cheap.

In case you have never heard of Julie Myerson, please be advised that she is a British novelist, who was once shortlisted for the Booker prize (Something Might Happen). She has published five novels in the last fifteen years, which, while they have attracted lukewarm praise from some critics, have not quite propelled her to the A list. Last month, Myerson revealed, publically (but with great reluctance and trepidation, she insisted), that The Lost Child, her most recent novel, contained a detailed account of her real life son Jake’s addiction to cannabis, and how she was forced to throw him out of their million-pound family home and change locks. It has to be said that for someone who was reluctant to talk about the skeleton in the family cupboard, Myerson did not do too badly: she managed to get on the pages of the literary sections of most of the broadsheets. There she was, in The Times, staring at you from a photograph, looking forlorn and tragic, pale golden locks flowing down to her shoulders, her expression suggesting a deeply private, incommunicable anguish of someone who has had a car door slammed on her thumb. Even the tabloids, not exactly known for their contribution to literature, were expatiating on the subject and inviting comments from their readers (on whose reading lists, inasmuch as they make any, it can be safely assumed, Myerson hitherto had not featured) for their views and comments on whether Myerson did the right thing in chucking out her 17 year old son.

‘This has been a terrible week, today has been a terrible day and yesterday was one of the worst days,’ she said tremulously, on the verge of tears (the very sympathetic interviewer of one of the broadsheets would have you believe). ‘I have done very controversial thing,’ she continued. ‘If you betray your child and throw him out you will get the flak. But I don’t care what people say about me in the press. It is nothing compared with watching your boy walk away . . . It’s really hard to talk about it.’ She then went on to speak volubly and laid it all bare so to speak: the relationship problems between her and her husband (Jonathan Myerson, who is also an artist and once made a documentary that was nominated for an Oscar) who apparently got depressed, the graphic details of how they discovered their son’s cannabis use, the domestic violence and the son perforating her ear drums, the son trying to sell cannabis to her other two children, her own pot-smoking in her younger days—but only on a few occasions (so that’s all right, then)—, the details of her parents’ broken marriage and her father’s rejection not just of her but of her son before he (the father) committed suicide and so on and so forth. If the woman yammers this much when talking is difficult, you wonder what she would be capable of when it is easy. In the end, Myerson professed to have been taken aback by the level of attention she was getting, and said she disliked the denunciations to which she was subjected in some of the tabloids. Did she expect this response from the media? Of course not. ‘I thought the book would speak for itself,’ Myerson said. ‘Reviews would come out, good or bad, some challenging interviews. . . . But I never thought the press would do this to my kids. If I had known, I wouldn’t have published. It’s not fair on my family.’ If you are thinking that this begs the question of why she made the revelations in the first place, Myerson is ready with an answer. ‘There were so many more people suffering things similar to us, we felt we had to raise awareness. People need to go public. I understand why people wouldn’t do this to their child. But I decided I would.’ So, we are to believe that it was the spirit of public service, public education, raising public awareness, call it what you will, that influenced Myerson’s decision to go public about her son’s cannabis use. Myerson says she had to write this book; she did not have a choice; she had to get this out of her system. But it was not just that; she also wanted to raise public awareness. Her son allegedly smokes skunk, which, Myerson and her I-am-hundred-percent-with-Julie-on-this-husband, in an hour long television programme—yes, they allowed themselves, very reluctantly, one would guess, to be filmed, all in the spirit of public service, I shall thank you to remember—informed, their faces longer than the Nile, is much stronger than cannabis. (Who would have thunk the humble dobbie would wreak such havoc on a family?) To make the whole thing spicier, the cannabis-smoking son has been on an interview-spree, refuting almost everything his mother has claimed. He has described her as ‘insane’, ‘obscene’ and an ‘author’! And Bloomsbury , Myerson’s publishers, who had originally planned to bring the novel out in May (which would have received a spattering of tepid reviews without anyone really taking notice, which, regrettably, is the lot of most B-list novelists) decided to rush its publication ahead of the schedule. If you thought that they were driven by the desire to cash in on the publicity generated by Myerson’s revelations and while her (pretty) face was still on the pages of most newspapers, you would be wrong. Nothing could have been farthest from the publisher’s mind. They too wanted to do what they could to raise awareness of the cannabis—sorry, skunk—addiction. In a statement Bloomsbury announced: Given this week's extensive speculation about Julie Myerson's The Lost Child, we felt that it was right to bring forward publication to allow everyone the opportunity to buy her brilliant book and consider the complicated questions it raises.’

The story of the problems of Myerson’s middle class family is not unheard of in this day and age. Whether Myerson and her artist husband did exactly the right thing or whether they could have done something different (from giving the dope-smoking, kleptomaniac teenager the heave-ho and getting on the blower to Random House) will be a matter of opinion. Nothing wrong in Myerson incorporating this traumatic episode from her life into her fiction. (She is an author, remember?). Doesn’t it seem a tad curious, though, that she decides that the most opportune time to raise awareness about the scourge of cannabis smoking by young adults, and its pernicious effect on their parents of artistic temperament, who—what nuisance!—are forced to spend their time (which, otherwise, could be profitably spent going to theatre) looking for therapists, full three years after she gave him the boot, prior to the publication of her latest novel, which, incidentally, contains an elaborate account of the whole thing in one installment? Do I hear someone muttering that this is a nasty little scam worked out by the family and their publicist? That is harsh and cynical—almost as harsh as Jeremy Paxman, who tried to send Myerson on a guilt trip on Newsnight (with his impressive, if predictable, routine of crossing and uncrossing his legs, raising eyebrows till they disappeared into is hair, becoming red faced as though he was either choking on a fish bone or about to have an apoplectic fit, attempting to look incredulous, disgusted, contemptuous at the same time, and—this is the trademark of all Paxo’s interviews—rudely and repeatedly interrupting and not letting the other person finish, all of which has the effect of making you feel sorry for the interviewee). Surely, she wouldn’t do it to her first-born just to sell more copies of her novel (although, the publicity she has attracted, some of which admittedly (and unsurprisingly) negative, will do no harm to the novel’s sell).

Will this, Myerson’s sixth novel, finally catapult her to the A list of novelists? I doubt it.