We were a small but nonetheless very engaged group on Tuesday last and had a really good discussion both on the chosen book, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and then on the current state of the novel in general, inspired by Louise telling us that in a recent lecture at Goldsmith’s College, Will Self had announced the death of the Modern Novel.
Firstly, the book itself. A brief synopsis – the protagonist, Sofia is an anthropologist and offspring of ill-matched and now divorced parents. Over the years her mother has developed a problem with her legs leaving her unable to walk. Mother and daughter go to a specialist clinic in Spain to try to discover whether mother’s inability to use her legs has a physical cause.
In the course of their visit they run into an exotic assortment of characters – the suave, impossibly expensive doctor (is he a quack ?), an over-helpful bisexual embroiderer and her executive trainer boyfriend. None of these characters are fully developed and in the course of this short novel (217 pages) exasperation sets in (in the reader that is). There is a sense that the author is working through a tick box of requirements – mother/daughter relationships, daughter/father relationships, feminism, hypochondria, gender fluidity. There’s a fair amount of obligatory psychobabble too – “You are using your mother as a shield to protect yourself from making a life.” So overall there was a sense that Deborah Levy was trying too hard to produce a book with global appeal, quirky enough to get on a major literary prize longlist, and it didn’t quite come off.
Which led us on to consider whether contemporary novels try to cram too much in, leaving the reader with indigestible content ? Is there a hidden list of issues which authors feel they need to introduce in order for their work to be relevant. And is the all-pervading tone of “elusive ambiguity” – never knowing quite where you are with any character – the dominant theme of current writing ? Answers in the Comments Please !