To be honest, I can’t even remember why I picked this novel up in the first place. I suspect it was because it had been shortlisted for the Booker in 2001, and as you may or may not know, my theory is that the shortlist for the Booker always provides more interesting than the eventual winner. 2001 was the year True History of the Kelly Gang won, and number9dream, as well as Atonement, were also shortlisted. Clearly a good year, then.
Alice Valentine is dying a slow death. Her son Alec has been looking after her, but he has finally called for reinforcements in the shape of his brother, Larry, who is currently living in the States, his acting career failed and ended. As the three come together again, questions of life and death become more and more important. At the same time, László Lázár, a Hungarian playwright (whose play is being translated by Alec), is remembering his own life in Hungary, and is slowly caught up in a new revolution.
With four main characters, you can run the risk of having some fade into the background – the worry of overcrowding suddenly turns into a realisation that you haven’t given enough page-time to one of your own characters. I think Miller has, alas, fallen into this trap a little. Two of his characters – Larry and László – are enough to carry an entire novel on their own, and so fill their respective pages with a warmth and interest that remains sustained throughout the entire novel. Alice is, let’s be fair, on her death bed, so we don’t expect anything too taxing from her, though the passages we see from her point of view when she is still strong enough are beautifully done – making her downfall that little bit more tragic than it already is. This leaves us with Alec, who does seem to fade into the background a little as a result of these other three, strong characters – an ironic occurrence, considering he is certainly the weakest member of the Valentine family, being totally unable to deal with his mother’s slow demise. Arguably, though, he has seen the whole thing, so this is perhaps understandable.
Indeed, László’s parts are so strong, there are times I wished Miller had taken his story out of the novel and given it its own room to breathe. But, then I read the ending, and I finally realised why he had given us these two stories side by side, moving in sync. This book is disturbingly obsessed with death, with degradation, with people who are in quite dark places. It’s not a happy read. But instead of wallowing in its own “grittiness”, Miller’s prose style allows the themes and ideas to come out without feeling like you are reading an “important” weighty tome, and I think that this balance ensures this novel doesn’t become unreadably bleak. The juxtaposition of these two things – plot and style – are just a part of a larger comparison Miller is trying to make here, too. Watch out, I’m about to spoil the ending – I can’t talk about this book without a mention of it, I’m afraid.
It’s not until the final pages that the concurrent storyline structure Miller chooses to use finally makes sense. Here, Alec, arguably the weakest character, finally finds strength – while never explicitly stated, it is implied he murders his mother, but very much out of compassion, after a nasty accident she has. It is not something he has exactly premeditated, and can almost be seen as euthanasia – at the very least, it is a highly compassionate act. Similarly, though, László is finally able to let go of his guilt from the past, and save a friend about to commit suicide. The acts are, arguably, polar opposites – one murder, one salvation – and yet, there is a beautiful symmetry about having these side by side. Both are acts of extreme compassion, and require great strength on behalf of the people enacting them, yet they have vastly different outcomes. I’m not sure I’m making much sense here, but I really liked it.
If you want to truly understand what I’m trying to say, go out and read Oxygen. It took me a while to get into it, but once it got going, I really had trouble stopping. Miller’s work is something that I will definitely be taking a closer look at in the future.