Gwendoline Riley’s fourth novel, ‘Opposed Positions’, demonstrates not so much a development of her habitual themes, but a deepening of her engagement with them. The pattern was set early, precociously, in her first book, ‘Cold Water’, which was published when she was 23. In that novel, a seemingly affectless young woman moves through a Manchester of shabby bohemianism, peopled by musicians, artists, poets and heavy drinkers (quite often the same thing). She finds a kind of love; she loses it; she moves on. Book two, ‘Sick Notes’, repeats the drill, except this time her protagonist is a writer, and is more obviously an analogue of Riley herself. Her third book, ‘Joshua Spassky’, expanded the pattern slightly by moving the bulk of the narrative to the United States; the attainable if inaccessible men Riley’s main characters fall for are usually American. In this novel, Spassky is a playwright and Natalie a writer who only likes writing, ‘for about fifteen minutes on aggregate, every two years.’ They meet up in a hotel in Nashville, North Carolina, (where Zelda Fitzgerald was hospitalised), and talk about their relationship. The scenario recalls Philip Roth’s ‘Deception’, but I think the comparison to Roth goes deeper. ‘Opposed Positions’ has as an epigraph a quote from the great man – “Did fiction do this to me?” – and Riley now seems set on a similar exploration of the way writing fiction has both deepened her characters’ sense of isolation, and provided the only source of consolation or meaning in their lives.
‘I stink of loneliness,’ Esther says in ‘Sick Notes.’ In ‘Opposed Positions’, Aislinn Kelly is a writer who has been reduced to near-penury by her career, who only seems to be able to start a book by decamping on her own to the USA for the summer, and who feels almost completely detached from the web of her relationships in Britain. Subletting a tiny apartment in Indianapolis, picking at the scab of her sexual history with Jim, an American musician, Aislinn begins the now-familiar process of remembrance and affectless analysis that gradually accumulates into her next book, to the point where ‘Opposed Positions’ almost acts as an extended commentary on the composition of ‘Joshua Spassky.’ Aislinn reveals that the eponymous playwright of the previous novel was based on Jim, his occupation changed to provide him with an element of disguise. At the same time, she dwells on the understated brutality and disappointment of her family life. In her previous books, fathers tended to be threatening, then absent; mothers were stoical, but naive and unfeeling. Here, with great skill, Riley develops a picture of Aislinn’s father that makes him seem both harmlessly eccentric and violently aggressive. Attempting to break contact with him after her first book was published, Aislinn recounts a low-grade campaign of harassment that feels authentically claustrophobic without once descending into melodrama. It’s a sign of Riley’s confidence as a writer that she can let this aspect of the book sit comfortably in the background rather than feeling the need to bring it centre stage.
As far as plot or story goes, that’s essentially it. Like her other books, ‘Opposed Positions’ is a snapshot of a sensibility in a moment of perpetual and understated crisis. When engaging in book-chat with my friend and co-editor Martin, we often employ a generalised, short-hand description of the kind of vacuous, pseudo-hip contemporary novels we particularly despise; they usually contain a scene where someone leaves a bar at two in the morning, ‘noticing the street lights and feeling a bit sad’, where it’s clear from the context if nothing else that this is meant to pass for high profundity or some startling insight into the human condition. Gwendoline Riley’s novels are full of scenes like this, and yet I love her writing and think her poised, slender books are almost achingly perfect. Why? What is it that makes her different?
When she was first published, some wit unhelpfully described her as ‘Camus in hotpants’, a quote that does nobody any favours and tends to saddle the perception of her work with the idea that she is a homegrown existentialist, or that the numb hesitancy of her writing was somehow existential in nature. In an otherwise good review of her last book, Lee Rourke at 3AM Magazine developed this further by comparing her to Marguerite Duras, which is certainly an improvement even if it misses the mark slightly as well. In her bruised romanticism, her demi-monde of furnished flats, art house cinemas, low-rent bars and squandered love, Gwendoline Riley seems to me far more a kind of contemporary Jean Rhys. ‘Opposed Positions’ is her best book so far, and feels expansive and open, even if less optimistic, than her previous work. Her grasp of dialogue is exact, and in the rambling, allusive conversations between her characters Riley shows that she can write moments of real comedy as well. If I’m right in comparing her to Jean Rhys, then in her four sad, poignant novels, where brevity by no means signals a lack of depth, Riley has written her ‘Voyage in the Dark’, her ‘Good Morning Midnight’ or ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.’ It means that, thrillingly, she is yet to write her ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and find the large and expectant audience that she so well deserves.
Opposed Positions will be published by Jonathan Cape on 17 May 2012