In the opening chapter of his new novel, Dan Rhodes describes a young student in Paris throwing a stone into the air which unfortunately lands on the face of a baby called Herbert (pronounced “Air-bear” in France). This leads to the convergence of many far-fetched stories.
This Is Life appears to mark a very deliberate change in the style and form of Rhodes’ fiction. For one thing, it is almost as long as the sum of all his previous novels: Timoleon Vieta Come Home, Gold, Little Hands Clapping and The Little White Car, which he wrote under the name Danuta de Rhodes. In one sense this change of tone and focus is similar to that between Michel Faber’s short, original and disturbing semi-science fiction novel Under the Skin and the well-crafted, obvious best seller The Crimson Petal and the White. Does this suggest that Rhodes is also about to move into the best-seller lists?
There is some evidence to suggest this may be in his mind. In one scene Sylvie, a girl with many jobs, sells an admirer a copy of her favorite novel Timoleon, Chien Fidele (a translation of Rhodes’s tragic version of Lassie Come Home). “I love the ending,” Sylvie says. “It’s not easy to read, but it says something that needs to be said. I don’t think I could ever really be friends with anyone who didn’t get this book.” And her admirer replies: “I love the ending too. I’m buying it to depress a friend of mine who’s been a bit too happy lately.” Both of them agree on the author’s brilliance and “how underappreciated he was.”
Over the past decade Rhodes’ fiction has grown darker and more nightmarish, but This Is Life is his farewell to tragedy. It is a happy book about love, from the author of the lacerating short story collection Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love (the epigraph came from Iago’s speech inviting us to “Drown cats and blind puppies”). Is he now telling us the truth about love? Or has he become sentimental? It is remarkable indeed for characters in a Dan Rhodes novel to get to the point where “everything was as wonderful as they had known it would be.” So love is triumphant; and justice, too, predominates. Even baby “Air-bear,” when fortuitously reunited with his mother, loses his italics and regains the romantic dignity of his real name, Olivier.
This Is Life
By Dan Rhodes
Inevitably there are some dark notes. The boy who holds his breath for longer than a cormorant can stay under water subsides into an unending coma, and the sympathetic translator, who loves someone who does not love him, goes for solace into a monastery (he does find some comfort, not in the religion of the place, but from the fruit and vegetables he tends).
So what has happened to Rhodes? It is as if Samuel Beckett had suddenly come up with a glorious, high-spirited comedy. The desperate, idiosyncratic characters of his earlier macabre novels are not abandoned, but they are clothed now in a more traditional habit of storytelling that reveals how their craziness arises from understandable and even sometimes admirable origins. The author is generous and forgiving to them. When the art student accidentally shoots the baby she is looking after, Rhodes allows the bullet merely to graze the baby’s arm. I tremble to think what might have happened to this baby in his previous fiction.
The comedy is invigorated by some sharp political and artistic irony involving French President Sarkozy, Carla Bruni and even (at a distance) Lady Gaga. But grief and darkness are always near. They are most ominously present in the title of the novel, which refers to a theater presentation of daily routine and bodily functions called Life; this remorselessly shows the characters how much, each day, we leave behind with our feces and urine and sweat. The “something that needs to be said” in Rhodes’ previous novels is that sentimentality is a false medicine bringing little contentment, encouraging disappointment and provoking our vengeance. This novel cleverly avoids such dangerous medicine. It is a reminder of how strange ordinary life is and it challenges us to “adjust to the darkness.”