Joseph Connolly’s twelfth novel, Boys and Girls, is described as a “superb satire of modern mortality” on its front page, the quote supplied by one Kate Saunders. It is the third Joseph Connolly novel I have read, the previous two being Summer Things (superb) and England’s Lane (just about okay).
Boys and Girls has all the makings of a satire, as Kate Saunders helpfully informs; however, when you finally reach the end of this 440-page novel—exhausted, weary and not entirely sure that the days you spent reading this novel couldn’t have been better spent by reading, say, Helen Fielding (and you could have read two novels of Fielding in the time it took you to plough through the treacly prose of Boys and Girls)—you could be excused for wondering whether the novel was more of a melodrama than satire.
The novel is set in modern day alright. It tells the story of a middle class couple—an intelligent woman named Susan, who is heavy on sarcasm and low on humour, and, who for reasons that were not clear to me, describes herself as a sensualist, her rather inept husband, Alan,—who, after having proven his uselessness in a variety of media-related jobs, is now a sit-at-home-husband—, and their adolescent daughter, Amanda. Following Alan’s un-employability, Susan has become the reluctant bread-winner. She works for a small but profit-making publishing company (there’s a surprise) and earns reasonably good salary, enough at any rate to keep up with middle class pretensions, including (but not limited to) a house in Chelsea, London, which, the reader is informed, is a gift from Susan’s father, who has earned a packet in some business I have forgotten which—but it is not important—and who in his old age has gone doolally and making life hell for the staff in some care-home, by repeatedly climbing on top of the care-home’s roof. But Susan is unhappy. She is unhappy with her situation. She has figured out the cause of her unhappiness. It’s Alan. She is unhappy with Alan because—fair enough—Alan is pretty useless. He does not earn a single penny and therefore Susan the sensualist has to work (like the rest of us) to maintain the lifestyle (or the pretence of it). She does not want to carry on like that. She wants another husband. She has even decided who that is going to be: her boss at the publishing house. But Susan does not want to trade in the old husband for the new. She wants both the husbands: ‘as well as’ and not ‘instead of’ as she repeats ad nauseum to her first husband. The name of the second husband is Black. That’s his nickname, apparently, the real name being Martin Leather (Leather? Black? Can you see the connection?). She is confident that she has had old Black—yes! Old. Black is older than the hills—wrapped round her little finger the day she interviewed for the job, showing attitude and using language, which would get most people sacked. Susan guesses correctly that Alan is a doormat and will not put up any resistance. That’s what Happens. Susan and Black get married (it is not strictly a bigamy because the drink sodden Irish priest—is there another type?—who marries the two has been defrocked for reasons I shall leave you to guess. Black sells off his publishing house for a profit I don’t think is possible—the man publishes literary fiction, and who wants to read that?—and buys a house in Richmond that is large enough to house a village-full of displaced Syrians. Does the teenage daughter fit into any of this? Does she have any views on the unusual marital arrangements of her parents? She does and she does. Amanda, unsurprisingly, is not happy about her mother’s new beau. However, since there’s sod-all she can do about it, the girl takes the only course available to her, and goes off rails. As her mother dives into the riches of Black, Amanda dives into a spotty teenager who works in a garage but aspires to be a poet. (Have you ever met an assistant of a garage mechanic who dreams of being a poet?) If you have lasted this review thus far but is beginning to find it tiresome, believe me, it’s nothing as compared to the tedium that is Boys and Girls. There are a few more (fairly predictable) twists in the story-line before the novel finally limps to its coda.
Boys and Girls attempts to be a comedy of manners that centres round a modern dysfunctional family and relationships. Connolly focuses on the pretences of people, their infinite ability for self-delusions, and games they play and the intellectual contortions they attempt to not acknowledge or deny the truth that is staring at them. At times it works. Thus Susan, who is not exactly proving to be a paragon of morality to her daughter, is outraged when she comes to know that Amanda has slept with a boy who is no more than 16 or 17; and splutters on about how the adolescent boy has broken law by sleeping with a minor. Alan, the metaphorically impotent husband, knowing that there is little he can do to stop his wife from doing what she wants, does not even try to summon outrage and, instead, assumes the pliant, reasonable attitude that would have had Nick Clegg nodding with approval. The ease with which the two men become friends and get on with each other—Alan even agrees to be the best man for Black—is—to employ the word Amanda is over-fond of using—creepy. None of the protagonists in the novel is particularly likeable—I suspect it is deliberate. All the characters—caricaturesque they might be—dwell for ever in the twilight zone of moral ambiguity. Connolly drives the point home with brutal descriptions of what can be best described as barely legal sex.
The trouble with Boys and Girls is that it is, at 400-plus pages, just too bloody long. Connolly has a kernel of an idea, an interesting idea, no doubt, but it can be stretched only so long. The novel severely tests the reader’s patience. In interviews given around the time the novel was published, Connolly admitted that the novel was a modern comedy and humour was absolutely essential, dark times or not, and the English instinctively understood humour, but he had always disliked the tag of being a comic writer. He also revealed that he was not the type of writer who planned his novel at the outset, and confessed to having no idea what unknown B-road his novels would take after the first 20,000 words. That probably explains the slightly rambling, haphazard course Boys and Girls takes.
Majority of the novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, with interior monologues of the protagonists. This gives the novel a digressive—at times tortuous—feel. Also, it does not matter whether it’s Alan’s or Susan’s or Black’s or Amanda’s interior monologue (OK, hers is a bit different, because every sentence of her monologue is liberally strewn with the word ‘like’, to the extent that it begins to jar; Connolly, in his research, must have discovered that teenagers, teenage girls to be specific, like to use this word a lot)—it is Joseph Connolly speaking. All of the characters sound exactly the same. You either like this style or you don’t (I don’t mind it—long sentences with longer parentheses and sudden shifting of view in the middle of a sentence that started five pages back— but it also means that I need to take a gap of several months in-between reading Connolly’s novels.) The linguistic pyrotechniques (Connolly was once famously described as Wodehouse on acid) in Boys and Girls for the most part are not invigorating; they simply tire you out. The sudden shifts to third person narrative are disorienting.
Black, the aging publishing giant in Boys and Girls, at one stage tells Alan what he, Black, thinks of the Amis father and son. Amis senior is a ‘fine writer’; the son is ‘shit’, is Black’s verdict. I wonder what Martin Amis would have made of Boys and Girls. I don’t think he would describe the novel as shit (that would be ungracious), but it is certainly not one of Connolly’s best. It misses the mark, somehow.