FICTION
A Diminished Season

David Szalay
Spring
(Graywolf Press, 2012)

This latest offering from Canadian-born, London-based David Szalay explores the up-and-down, win-and-lose trials of love and money. As with his previous novel The Innocent, Szalay remains committed to portraying his characters and their predicaments as realistically as possible. This world, their lives, may not always be identical to ours, but still we recognize telltale traits and facets. If his characters are prone to bad behavior and curious foibles it is only because they are human. That their idiosyncrasies seem familiar makes him all the more fascinating to read. When we see more of ourselves in his characters there is a shift and he becomes a disconcerting writer, and all the more intriguing.

Spring deals with a relationship as seen from the perspectives of its two leads. James has had a sharp fall from grace, being once “seriously fucking loaded,” a dot-com millionaire with an Aston Martin; now, post-crash, he lives alone in a small London apartment running a dodgy horse-racing tips racket. He meets Katherine who is treading water as manager of a plush hotel, an exclusive though dead-end job she had planned to leave years ago. Katherine’s indecisiveness hampers her professionally, deepening her career-rut, but it also tarnishes her relationships. When her estranged husband reappears on the scene begging they rebuild their marriage, she is torn between mending what she once had and embarking on a new adventure with James. She flits between the two, sampling the best of both worlds but wrecking herself and her lovers in the process. Szalay rises to the challenge of charting vacillating emotions and crushed hopes, the unalloyed ecstasies and attendant agonies that are part of a budding relationship.

He fleshes out his novel with a captivating supporting cast. Freddie is James’s louche friend and business partner who blows £10,000 on top hotels, Michelin-star meals, and €1,000-a-night escorts during 10 days in Paris. Simon is a philandering horse trainer who, between fixing races, holds forth drunkenly to anyone who will listen about British sovereignty and the danger it faces by E.U. diktats and the influx of foreigners. Even the bit-parters ring true, from James’s sister, a money-grubbing parasite, to Freddy’s landlord, a gullible fool who allows his tenant to con him, live rent-free, and sleep with his wife.

But it is James and Katherine who take center stage, and consequently it is they who carry the novel. To render them as realistic as possible, Szalay devotes fastidious attention to detail. No movement or gesture is neglected. “With a sudden twisting movement she turns and sits, takes a sip of water—with water in her mouth she offers him the glass, he shakes his head—and switches off the light.” James starts to yawn, and then “when he had finished yawning he smiled at her.” To authenticate each of these actions we get an artillery of stick-on adverbs: Katherine “found herself lying there lightlessly”; her eyes “narrow nicely”; a man sits at his computer “purposefully mousing.”

Whether these are always helpful is debatable. Szalay’s prose is uniformly clean and precise, sometimes clinically so, but his adverbs reveal a certain strain, as if Szalay is pushing too forcefully to both convince and impress. Often he uses an anomalously overwrought word when a simpler one would suffice. A train doesn’t depart from London, it “disembogues.” Racing pundits exhale mist “into the frore Midlands night.” Freddy wipes “freezing moisture from his pate.” And returning to those adverbs, James stops to allow his dog to “officially micturate”—only this time the adverb works but the verb is too fine.

Strangest of all is Szalay’s reliance on repetition to hammer home a point. Spring is littered with passages like these: “She had just been saying whatever popped into her head. Just talking. Talking. Just talking. It was nice to talk like that.” Later we are told that Freddy “did not seem surprised. He did not seem impressed. Surprised and impressed were things that Freddy never seemed.” The first runs like meandering interior dialogue; the second is presumably intended to be comical. Both, and other similar cases, smack of Szalay trying too hard to endear us to his characters, to highlight their realness and familiarity.

Fortunately his will-they-won’t-they narrative is too absorbing for us to be distracted for long by his stylistic (and stylized) tics. Spring doesn’t grant all concerned the fresh starts that its title implies, and Szalay is sound at delineating his characters falling out of love, resorting to banal platitudes, and then accepting “dead love.” Love, like the seasons, and like James’s former success, is transient, “faintly evanescent,” “on the point of evaporating.” Katherine, after failing to reignite her feelings for her husband, lies in the bath listening to “the sound of soap suds subsiding.” Szalay’s ultimate message might be bleak, but who cares when it is conveyed this beautifully and truthfully.

Contributor

Malcolm Forbes

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