Many years ago, shallow and callow, I shocked a fellow bookworm with the over-frank admission that I wasn’t much interested in the central character of a novel who was over the age of thirty.
The swathes of literature I discounted at one fell swoop! The Corrections, cut down at the knees! Avast, The Name of the Rose! Begone … no wait. There aren’t many. In fact I struggle to think of almost any at all, at least if you extend thirty by a decade or so. It appears that it’s not just the “media”, that big-lensed, airbrushing scapegoat, that is obsessed with youth. There are a few exceptions in my recent reads – Gilead, The Sense of an Ending – and many novels have baggy, saggy characters that you’ve watched age through the course of the book (Crossing to Safety, old Dorian Gray, One Hundred Years of Solitude). But most? Obsessed with youth.
Doubt me? OK. Anything by Jane Austen. Robinson Crusoe. Tristram Shandy. Anything by the Bronte sisters. Vanity Fair. The Scarlet Letter. Moby Dick. Madame Bovary. 1984. On the Road. Atonement. I could continue, be assured, for a while.
But lest you think I’m disapproving, think again. It’s simply much more difficult to write an exciting book about an older person, and almost impossible, it would appear, to write one that isn’t principally concerned with their younger life rather than their current state. This is a challenge which David “One Day” Nicholls set himself with Us – his Booker-longlisted novel about a rather sad fifty-four year old biochemist whose marriage and family are falling apart. And even he only sort of sets it, with half of the novel concerning Douglas’s earlier life.
Douglas, his artistic wife and his ghastly son set off round a tour of Europe, which is interspersed with Douglas’s life story up to that point. The problem is that, even when young, Douglas is a bit of a sad fish. And it doesn’t get any cheerier when he’s staring down the barrel of disintegration at 54. However, if anyone can glean humour from situations, it’s Nicholls, and the first half of the book has some hilariously dry observations from Douglas’s highly ordered, rational worldview. Here are some favourites:
“I had been considering what it would feel like to kiss her, weighing this against what it would feel like to miss the last tube.”
[Of his son:] “He refuses to wear a coat, an absurd affectation, as if coats were somehow ‘square’ on un-cool, as if there were somethng ‘hip’ about hypothermia. What is he rebelling against? Warmth? Comfort?”
“It was hardly a ‘cry for help’; I would have been embarrassed to make that much noise. ‘A cough for help’, perhaps that was what is was.”
The voice is unique and deeply funny; as a boring old stick myself, it had me barking in amused recognition more than once. But more broadly it’s quite painful reading. Douglas really does suck the joy out of life, and his relationship with his son is so poor that it makes you despair of parenthood (though, 2 weeks off the due date for my first child right now, perhaps I’m oversensitive.)
Nicholls leaves “redemption” (of a kind) late – the last 10% of the novel – which I felt was a bad call, as it means the vast majority of the novel is on a major downer which the last gasp can’t quite kickstart. On finishing, you remember the end section more, but the reading experience itself is somewhat relentless. Somehow One Day had a pervading magic and positivity despite a savage end, while Us has a pervading downheartedness despite an end with aspects of renewal.
If you’re looking for a novel to kick start a craze for post-mid-life-crisis protagonists, burning up the pages beyond the age of 50, look again.