‘Too self-conscious and too anxious’ – In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie

isosemJacob Little isn’t really Jacob Little: or, he is, but he’s no more Jacob than he is any of the seventeen alternate identities ‘Jacob’ has taken on over a ten-year period; or, actually, he’s not really Jacob, but Jacob’s guilt-ridden half-brother Adam disguised as Jacob; or maybe he’s a time-travelling consciousness bent on reshaping the past; or maybe he’s any or all or none of the above. Whatever: when a man provisionally identified as ‘Jacob Little’ jumps from a Bristol rooftop, the video of his death prompts three people who’ve known some version of this dude try to reconstruct the man they knew (and thus to work out how their interactions with him affected their subsequent lives and thus identities). One is ten year-old Lizzy, aka Max, who’s struggling with her gender identity and who comes across a weird man with no name and decides to investigate him; one is sixteen year-old Lucy, who breaks up with her boyfriend and decides to become the Cathy to Jacob’s Heathcliff; one is old Mr Benson, Jacob’s former landlord, who’d seen his one-time tenant as the son he never had, and who’d found Jacob’s mother’s body after her suicide. And the eponymous ‘Solace’ is Jacob/Adam’s ex-girlfriend, the last person to know him before he launched into his decade of alternating identities, the person Jacob’s hunting for while he’s seeing Lucy (who, in turn, is trying to approximate Solace), the person who, under her real name and identity, explains the whole sorry saga of Jacob’s unhappy adolescence to Mr Benson. As you might have gathered, then, the book’s kind of knotty, and it’s all about selfhood and identity: do we conceptualize ourselves through our wills or through our interactions with others? Jacob’s a cipher – within the text, the other characters fail to figure him out (sorry, something of a spoiler there), and at a more meta-level, he’s something of a thought experiment for the whole idea of selfhood.

Does it work? Reluctantly – because we enjoyed Mackie’s début back in 2010 – we’re going to say no, not really. Firstly, as a philosophical exploration, it feels kind of facile. Selfhood, the construction of the self, the role of the Other, existential role-playing, bad faith, the affect of trauma upon personal identity: this isn’t an unexplored field, either in philosophy or in fiction, and Mackie’s presentation of the issue – ‘we could remake our selves!’ – comes off as rather naive, rather than as any kind of new presentation of familiar dilemmas. This is particularly evident at the end, where Lucy is presented as a successful philosophy professor who’s built her reputation around her analysis of Jacob’s ideas via his journals: if you’re going to position a charcter within a very established field in academia, in a book that doesn’t position itself in any other way as detached from the real world, it does seem like you ought to position their ‘original work’ (on Jacob) in the context of actual philosophy (or else make it utterly wacky, as per Donnie Darko). We’re not unaware that we got a little huffy about Mackie’s first novel getting too overtly academic – but in this case, the book skirts a huge obvious frame of reference in a way that feels simplistic; it does seem to reduce a huge philosophical arena into an elaborate dressing-up game.

Secondly: philosophy aside, we weren’t keen on the book as a novel. One of Jacob’s identities is that of a grumpy and idealistic novelist (and, indeed, later, as ‘Jacob’, when he’s with Lucy, he’s writing a novel) and he claims that his interest is in expositus vulgaris, or ‘exposing the everyday’. He wants to write about life’s pointlessness, its insignificant encounters, its empty conversations and events, its relentlessness. And in this, for better or worse, Mackie largely succeeds: this book is digressive, it’s full of descriptive asides and drawn-out chats and encounters that don’t really go anywhere. Mackie, then, has captured the meandering vulgarity of everyday life just as Jacob wants. But the effect isn’t thought-provoking – the digressions aren’t interesting in and of themselves, à la Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, or helping to make a grand point about the nature of narrative expectation, à la DFW’s Infinite Jest; they’re simply banal. And it’s pretty hard to carry off banality. Nothing here is unexplored – a page on a pair of rude women that hassle Jacob at a café; numerous returns to Lucy’s boyfriend’s camping trip – and the effect isn’t that of a Whitman-esque multitude, but rather of a book that’s just not quite focused enough. Likewise, Jacob says that he wants to write a book that’s anticlimactic, one that’s ’chapterless, non-sequential, that subverts that damn institutionalised “narrative arc”’. Well, while it is anticlimactic, it’s not chapterless – even as the omniscient narrator says that the book ‘does not contain any chapters as such’, it’s numbered with a prominent ‘1’ – and it’s not non-sequential: it hops back and forth in time, but that’s hardly ground-breaking, and in fact it tracks pretty much forward through Lucy’s and Max’s respective meetings with Jacob and his subsequent departure, swinging finally back round to his death – the event that prompts the story, that drives it, that imbues it with whatever tensions it carries. So either Mackie’s failed under her own terms, and it’s not subversive enough, or she’s messing with the idea of narrative progression on two levels – using sequence to mock Jacob’s disdain for sequence. Even in the latter case, though, it doesn’t work, as nothing much happens anyway. So there’s enough of an ‘arc’ to keep us turning the pages, but not enough event or development to make that satisfying, and yet it’s not disjointed enough to seem interesting in that respect. Yikes.

Lastly – okay, we feel really bad now – the actual prose style is pretty irksome. One, it riffs on key phrases like Lorrie Moore on an off-day (‘Time goes by. Only Time will tell. In due time….’) in a way that’s only going to please the most die-hard Ali Smith fans. Two, the omniscient narrator hovers like a helicopter parent, refusing to let the reader actually figure anything out for him/herself. We’re reminded of Important Information at great frequency (Max is Lizzy, remember? Lizzy is Max, remember? Elizabeth? That’s Max!) and the thematic threads are knotted together with huge sparking bows:

‘In her mind Jacob Little has become her Heathcliff and she has become his Cathy. It’s a role-playing game that she wants to act out and that is why she has transformer herself into a wispy blonde not dissimilar to the one in the painting she now holds. She has round eyes like Solace…’

Get it? Get it? No? Well, let’s look at Mr Benson:

‘If only he had refused to show Jacob the clock collection […] It had been the beginning of Mr Benson’s obsession with the young man who hadn’t really been there at all, the young man who hadn’t really existed.’

Understand? If you want to hook the reader, you’ve got to trust the reader. If they’ve gotten to page 331 and haven’t figured out that Benson got obsessed with Jacob at that meeting, well, then you probably don’t really deserve the explanation at all. Thirdly, finally, that omniscient narrator is too self-conscious and playful by half (actually, die-hard Ali Smith fans will probably love it); from the incessant flagging-up of narrative subversion and time-hops and head-hops and digressions, to the repetition of ‘dear readers’ in a tic that’s not endearing, it’s impossible to settle into the text. Rather than this making us nod knowingly, like in Calvino, like in Barthelme, like in Coover, it makes us think, again, that this narrator (read: author) is too self-conscious and too anxious. If we were Nike, we’d be yelling for her to stop telling is what she’s going to do, and JUST DO IT.

Any Cop?: No. (Unless you really loved There But For The.) Get your existential angst straight from Sartre instead, or read Mackie’s other book and hope this was the problematic second novel and that number three will be a blinder.

Valerie O’Riordan


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