In Cold Water, her debut novel, Gwendoline Riley portrayed the isolated life of a young bartender in Manchester. Opposed Positions broadens her territory (geographically, with the narrator travelling to Indianopolis, if nothing else.) The narrator, Aislinn Kelly, is a writer as dedicated to loneliness, self-pity and resentment over a miserable childhood as Philip Larkin. She also shares Larkin’s attitude to parents, “They fuck you up… They may not mean to, but they do”.
As the daughter of a bullying, mentally ill father she broods endlessly on her childhood, “my sickly thrall to that queer compact: my origin.” Aislinn spends her time questioning her childhood, with an archaeological need to examine her family relationships, constantly quarrying for the motives behind her parents’ behaviour. Ultimately the reader comes to share Aislinn’s mother’s opinion: “No-one’s childhood is ideal but most people grow up, make a life of their own as best they can.” Along the way, we briefly meet a few of Aislinn’s friends (including a lengthy analysis of her relationship with an American musician who refuses to commit to a relationship with her). The sheer dedication to unhappiness of everyone in the novel is best described by Bronagh, a bookseller, whose relationship with Aislinn is based exclusively on “the assumed common ground… baffled emotional hardship.”
Yet Opposed Positions is always compelling. There is a tone throughout that could be compared to Adrian Mole, if not for an enviable novelist’s craft. The style has a detached flatness, an unemotional examination of emotion, an unflinching honesty that is directed at the pretensions other people use as self-defence. Riley’s commitment to solipsism carries the reader along. Her characters are trapped within their lives but deftly captured in an exact prose that Aislinn would describe as “a general mess of precision of feeling.”
The individuality of Gwendoline Riley’s writing justifies her determination to (effectively) write the same book repeatedly; she is the novelist’s equivalent of Waiting for Godot. In Opposed Positions nothing happens, again. Like Samuel Beckett, Riley prefers understated humour, especially in her defiantly unexplained literary references: at her mother’s retirement party Aislinn describes a group of middle-aged men as a “brood of shabby Vanyas wandering around the place.”
Cold Water was a startling debut novel, a fully formed and unique sensibility, and it is just as intractable in Opposed Positions. Much of the pleasure to be found in Gwendoline Riley’s writing is that sensibility, like Samuel Beckett (especially in his first published novel Murphy) they both delight in a self-analysis that finds itself as comic as the more universal ironies that trap their narrators.
Any Cop?: A notable addition to the proud tradition of Mancunian miserablism, introspection on a Russian scale, that is never less than enthralling in its icy self-knowledge with a style that Riley has made her own.