Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship. Art is always a one-way sharing: I can be privy to Dante’s mind but he is impervious to mine. Readerly freedom operates within constraints, and abrupt changes of convention paralyse it. If it was crass on some readers’ part to have confused the narrator of Portnoy’s Complaint with its author, what is the correct readerly response to the lengthy passage in The Counterlife in which Nathan Zuckerman’s young editor gives a eulogy at his funeral analysing the dead man’s succès de scandale? (‘It’s still diabolically funny, but what was new to me was a sense of how sad the book is, and emotionally exhausting.’) Numbness perhaps. Later it turns out that Zuckerman himself wrote the eulogy for the editor to deliver. Meta-numbness.Snappily put, as ever with Mars-Jones. The puzzling thing for me, here, is the implicit though unarticulated contrary: as if he actually believes the business of the novel is to enhance our trust in rugs. Because, you know: if we can't trust our rugs, our own damn rugs, then how can civilized life continue?
Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed a chronic mistrust of rugs.
I like The Counterlife a good deal more than Mars-Jones, evidently, does, though I'd agree it is a novel with various, quiet serious problems. Then again, many of those problems would be addressed by tugging its own rugs with a little more force.