Forget the numerous political controversies and odd underperforming album – the release of Morrissey’s novel List of the Lost has given the man the most gleefully vitriolic critical kickings of his career. No opportunity to maul has been lost, from the ‘more in sorrow than anger’ self-professed fans, to the more numerous haters glad of the chance to stick in the boot. With this bizarre, overblown, epically self-indulgent work the man Moz has certainly left himself wide open for criticism. And yet. Consider this review an ‘and yet.’
‘List of the Lost’ explores the doomed and disturbing train of events endured by the four young men of a relay team in the Boston of the 1970s, Ezra, Harri, Justi and Nails. The four divide their time between luxuriating in their own doomed magnificence, fielding and expediting amorous advances from female admirers, and training for the big upcoming race. But then Ezra accidentally kills a vagrant, and things turn very rapidly for the worse.
But the plot is not really the issue here, it is just an excuse for Morrissey to wax lyrical on all the obsessions close to his dark heart. Morrissey the prose-writer is a very different animal to the sly, ambiguous, understated lyric-writer. One could reasonably have imaged Morrissey the novelist to follow the example of his heroes Alan Bennett; subtle and wry chronicler of social disillusion and embarrassment. Not so. The writing is passionate, florid, ornate, stylised to the nth degree, the story riffing on elements of lurid gothic melodrama. Adjectives forge forth, exhaustingly vying to cram portent, meaning and expression into every sentence. That applied also to his Autobiography, which many hated, and many adored. I was assuredly in the latter camp. Certainly if you couldn’t stand the Autobiography you’ll loathe this. And yet for many who had plenty of time for the biography the prose this time round is just too vivid a shade of purple.
That’s what’s got the critical brickbats sailing this time round. One can certainly find a few phrases cruising near Pseuds Corner, and plenty have, the most frequent being the Bad Sex Award nominated scenes, with the infamous mention of Ezra’s ‘bulbous salutation’. And yet this writing, overheated, bubbling over, often has an enticing vigour to it too, its intense frenzy doomy languor oddly compelling. It is scattershot certainly, but hits home with a fair old frequency. I for one enjoyed moments such as the shocking expressionist picture of the sinister tramp:- “The human sickbed steps closer, a stench of stale medication vaporizing from his gaseous and perished clothing…..a pitiful vision of life’s loneliness, his timid steps suggest a man pushed past his limit and now ready to feud with his own grave” – not to mention the breathtakingly doom-laden and misanthropic rant the same tramp breaks into. And if something somewhat over-opaque turns up one minute, well there’s often something entrancing in its wake the next. And amidst all the grand guignol there are some rather moving moments too – there is an affecting poignancy in the descriptions of one of the characters experiencing the sudden shocking death of his mother, and the the middle-aged loneliness of the team’s training coach Rims, to whom the sound of teenage giggling only brings to mind his own death. A continual theme is the omnipresence of death and the effect this has on stifling the only life we have, and in this at least is reflective of the deportment in his songs.
Many critics, amongst their ‘is this the worst novel ever written?’ invective, themselves more histrionic than their target, tend to remark on the prose’s ‘humourlessness’. This seems as basic an error as those who make the same charge at his lyrics. You may not care for the continual archness, such as description of college authorities as ‘catatonic magpies, theorists theorizing without ever getting their feet wet’ or Rims’s constant put-downs ‘I saw that last track attempt and I’d wonder exactly what you’d call it. Performance art….Community Theatre?” There are none of the laugh-out loud moments I took from the Autobiography (the bits about Sandie Shaw, and being asked to clean canal banks for instance). But it is not humourless.
Another charge levelled at the book is that it plays with a ‘–sub-Joycean stream of consciousness.’ Well, again this is hit and miss, but I found many of the much reviled alliterative asides have some charm, “the priest gibbered and jabbered his dutiful dribble”, the “yakkety-yack backchats and gabs” the “pumpkin of my pumping heart”. In fact while the model of writing is indeed the early 20th century modernists it seems closer to an attempted amalgam of the endlessly digressive inward thought processes of Virginia Woolf, and the muscular adjectival hyperbole of Wyndham Lewis. I believe a fair few of those sneering at this book would probably level similar insults at these rather ‘difficult’ forbears as they do at this descendant.
Do I mean Morrissey is as accomplished here as Joyce, Woolf or Wyndham Lewis? Certainly not, the quality is far too wayward for that. And yet that is still not the main reason List of the Lost is not, ultimately a success as a novel. That is for the same reason it is often so fitfully intrigues. The book is an endless, obsessive, utterly uncompromising meditation on the obsessions close to Morrissey’s heart; a somewhat amorphously radical opposition to authority (hero number two James Baldwin surfaces as a totem at one point) , the rather more specific ire against the meat industry, the deceptions and disappointments of the sexual world, and such bizarre meanderings as ruminating on the sinister political undercurrents in Bonanza. So was the Autobiography. But this is a novel. Oscar Wilde (hero number three) may have managed it, but few novelists succeed in engaging a reader when they make every single character so blatantly a cipher of the author’s worldview. The characters aphorise away (again, not without entertaining, particularly with the outlandishly agrandiose sardonic exchanges between Ezra and his girlfriend) but they act as automatons to the grand narrator, ultimately undermining the sympathy we have with the outcome. A supernatural element somewhere near the middle only serves to shake an already shaky plot apart still further. Despite the novel’s short length, I was beginning to lose interest before the end.
And yet, here we are again, and yet. There is more weird fascination and utterly individual insight on each page than you would often find in many whole books. As ‘worst novels ever’ go, that’s not a bad strike rate.
Any Cop?: To say this is nowhere near as bad as it’s been painted is to damn with too faint praise. Perhaps better to say that this is a book with a completely singular and individual voice, even when that voice rambles and misfires. While ultimately a failure as a novel, it is something of a heroic failure, and a frequently entertaining and weirdly fascinating insight into a unique creative mind, working here at a strange tangent.