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Tell by Jonathan Buckley review – our need for narratives

Tell by Jonathan Buckley review – our need for narratives

British novelist Jonathan Buckley writes perceptively about how loneliness attends both idealism and scepticism. His work is full of solitaries: a murdered vagrant and the investigating policeman in So He Takes the Dog; the curator of a failing museum in thrall to the memory of his free-spirited ex-lover in The Great Concert of the Night. He is preoccupied by how the yearning for communion leaves us vulnerable to the charisma of mystics and mediums. A less subtle writer would come down on the side of empiricism; Buckley, though, shows how a tough-minded refusal of transcendence can lead to a wintriness of the heart.

Tell, his 12th novel, is presented as a transcription of five sessions of an interview, further divided into fragments and interruptions (“indistinct”, “inaudible” or “pause”). Abandoning one of the novel’s pretences, that it builds worlds with impersonal authority, Tell adopts another: that it is a written image of speech. The interviewee is an unnamed gardener on a huge Highland estate whose boss, Curtis, a self-made squillionaire and another of Buckley’s solipsists, has gone missing, presumed dead. The interviewer is making a film of Curtis’s life but does not speak, as if confined to the imperative of the title word.

Tell is all telling and no showing. Veering from one anecdote to another, the gardener styles herself as a straight talker, dismissing an expensive artwork as a “lump of nonsense” or identifying somebody’s malfunctioning “gaydar”. She is a specialist in character assassinations and funny putdowns: Curtis’s daughter is a “pampered druggie with a nasty personality”; a woman’s hair is likened to “a hand grenade going off in a bale of hay”.

An affective kinship with her employer emerges out of the gardener’s gossipy volubility. She briefly alludes to her own unhappy childhood, cooped up in a tiny house with parents who had “reached the end of the road with each other”. Curtis was fostered from an early age, but eventually tracks down his biological mother; in circling back to his origins, he undoes the fiction of the self-made man. We are told how, from his state-of-the-art, Finnish-designed luxury “shed”, he turns his telescope to the starry skies above him. Has a life-altering accident revealed that his riches have violated the moral law within him, particularly after the death of his level-headed wife?

Buckley is interested in Galen Strawson’s distinction between narrativists and episodists. Narrativists argue that we cannot but help “story” our lives, to make sense of living in time, whereas episodists insist on the discontinuity between our multiple selves. Curtis may be as rich as Croesus but he is a utopian episodist. He detests the cliche of a “journey” that his biographer wishes to impose; the external facts of a life are for him a stack of labelled but empty boxes. The gardener implies, though, that indifference to the past is an impossible ideal. Curtis tells her about a cherished childhood memory of lying by a Snowdonian stream: this was a spot of “clockless time” when everything simply was, with or without him. The present has become intolerable to Curtis because, looking out at the heather in the glen, he possesses what he sees.

The gardener suggests that Curtis’s biographer misleadingly makes the particulars fit the life. But in passing on stories that have been passed on to her, she concedes that we are all – whether tellers of tall tales, telltales, biographers or novelists – inclined to “make a story of it”. Her fabulism, we come to realise, is warding off untold melancholy. Buckley has once again staged an absorbing debate: a philosophical refusal of narrative linearity that is replete with stories; a constellation of episodes that does not tell the whole tale.

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Source: theguardian.com