“…one of the things that baffled me for a long time when I began to read literature as a teenager was why the world of work never figured in any of the books I read.”
So states James Clammer in the little Interview booklet that accompanied the proof of Insignificance, a novel he has also said is a kind of working class response to modernist, day-in-the-life novels like Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway (not that Clammer considers himself a working class writer – “I grew up in a fairly middle-class household,” he tells us).
What we have here is a short novel for the most part about a man called Joseph (frequently referred to as “the man Joseph”) who is a plumber, a plumber who recently suffered a kind of migraine-induced breakdown, on his first day back on the job, doing a favour for a friend of his wife Alison, a woman who he harbours a bit of a crush on (but who, Clammer is quick to assure us via a brief hop and a jump into the lady in question’s head, doesn’t reciprocate those feelings).
To begin with, we loiter in Joseph’s shadow as he attempts to replace a boiler. Ah, the day fair springs with optimism to begin with. But then, before you know it, he cuts his hand, he gets bothered by a neighbour and, ah yes, his son turns up at the door. His son, fresh out of jail. After a seven year term for poisoning his mother. Who he didn’t believe was his mother because he has a syndrome known as Capgrass (a real life syndrome, don’t you know). Although the son now disputes that the syndrome is even a thing.
“…the son believed his mother to be an imposter, from that followed the idea that his real mother was elsewhere, where this elsewhere might be had never been specified but if he acted against the replacement the true mother might somehow be restored.”
It’s fair to say that there is internal strife a plenty in the man Joseph – he loves his wife Alison even though she has become distant, having embraced the church and a rather fervent love for our Lord Jesus in the wake of the accident; but he also loves his son, because his son is his son, after all, no matter what he did. We are treated to a few backward glances as far as the actual shit that went down (discovering a voodoo doll in the garden, having a row with the boy after he discovers what he’s been up to), and there is a mystery, too, at the heart of the novel – why did the boy end up the way he did (the resolution of which Clammer keeps to himself until very, very close to the end of proceedings).
But there’s more than this, too. We spend a bit of time with Joseph’s wife Alison too, and in doing so, Insignificance shifts into a similar space occupied by Bernard MacLaverty’s (sublime) novel, Midwinter Break – in that, what we are reading about here is the gradual separation of a married couple, the coming apart, the ever so, ever so subtle unpicking of a relationship that has weathered, it has to be said, some serious storms. And as with Midwinter Break, it is religion, and the solace it offers, that tempts one member of the marriage into a different kind of life.
All of which sounds very serious, and it is at times. But it is also, thanks to Clammer’s distinct narratorial voice, and the way in which his sentences roll on, separated by comms, often for a good few lines at a time, very funny too. We like Joseph (particularly drunken Joseph who we see in the second half of the book) and we like Clammer too, by implication. We love the way Insignificance gets into the detail of work:
“With determination he seized the scarlet wheelhandle of the imperial valve, invulnerable it looked up there, heraldic, judicatory, but the WD40 must have penetrated, he twisted the handle, he strained at it, nothing, he put his arm and shoulder muscles into it, still nothing, no movement.”
We love, amidst the sentences that run on, the way he irreducibly gets right to the point when he needs to. Such as “Eerie uncancellable moment.” You’ll know when you get to it. We love Clammer’s authorial asides, in part because they give us that feeling (the feeling you sometimes get with a book you particularly enjoy) that if you were to sit down with the author and have a pint, you’d get on. This is one sentence that achieved that particular effect (italics my own):
“Undoubtedly we’re made of very fine stuff in these islands to suffer such angst in connection with this one particular matter [ed. talking about the weather] when others, our adventures abroad for example, have left so little in the way of embarrassment.”
But more than any of this, we love the journey Clammer takes us on, we love the world in which we inhabit for the duration of the book, we love where Clammer urges us to look, and we love the way in which Clammer bestows his vision upon us.
“What he was going to do next he hardly knew but so much was happening inside that reacting to exteriorities seemed unnecessary for the time being, a mass of thoughts, emotions and memories were on the move like parts of a cityscape churned by earthquakes, the heat roiling down on him cooked together all these constituent parts until presently out of the hot storm came simplification…”
We came away from Insignificance feeling the same kind of exalted, raw pleasure we used to get from the Rebel Inc series all those so many years ago, from reading Fante and Hamsun, in particular. Insignificance has the feel of a classic Rebel Inc paperback. If someone were to say this was published 50 years ago and is considered by a handful of people to be a lost classic, you’d nod and fervently agree. The fact it isn’t age-old, the fact it isn’t a lost classic but rather something new (something new that will hopefully lead to another book and another) is minor cause for celebration.
Any Cop?: Galley Beggar have only gone and done it again. Another smash.