Paint it black
Energetic prose fails to offset the shortcomings in sour novel of ’60s generation growing up
Linda Grant writes a readable story about dramatic times in her new novel, “We Had It So Good.’’ She takes her cue from a speech given by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.
“Most of our people have never had it so good,’’ declared MacMillan about Britain’s post-war economic progress in 1957. In recent years one finds nostalgic venues about the “lucky 1960s,’’ ranging from the 2004 Tate Modern exhibit “You’ve Never Had It So Good’’ to history books like “Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles’’ by Dominic Sandbrook in 2005, to “Never So Good,’’ a 2008 National Theatre play by Howard Brenton.
Grant’s fifth book of fiction addresses prejudices and jealousies about a group of people who came of age in the 1960s. In the process she creates a melodramatic cast: Stephen, a bumbling, excessively hygienic American student at Oxford; Stephen’s clichéd Jewish furrier father; Stephen’s neighbor and lifelong nemesis, a poor little rich girl bent on self-destruction; Stephen’s girlfriend then wife, the earnest, good-hearted psychotherapist in the dysfunctional family; their stunted, long-celibate daughter; and the wealthy family friend who retires to the Caribbean to sail himself into a heart attack.
Grant skims the surface of a half century from Stephen’s shipboard encounter with fellow Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton to his daughter’s numb progress photographing wartime Croatia to the severe wounding of someone’s lover in the 2005 London tube bombings.
Stephen gets kicked out of Oxford for manufacturing acid. He lands in comfortable shoes, marries the lovely, practical Andrea, enjoys an almost award-winning career at the BBC, and rears two bright, troubled kids. Suddenly he finds himself lost in his chronological 60s reminiscing about those other ’60s.
Perhaps Grant harbors some kind of grudge for the “Sixties Generation.’’ Born in 1951, she perhaps just missed being part of the tribe. Does this account for her sour, predictable portrait of aspiration, nightmare, adventure, setback, small satisfaction, and death? Is this why she portrays the period as a style rather than a time of serious political (anti-imperialist, antiracist, feminist) movements? “But what he really could not get over was the sudden realization that for all the arrogance of his own generation, born to be young and stay young forever, their parents were simply far more interesting people than their children would ever be.’’
While her prose is resolute and energetic, she betrays little patience for character depth, narrative consistency, or historical context. Grant could use some tutoring about US draft regulations, San Francisco weather patterns, psychotherapy in mid-’70s London, and American language.
Grant’s idiosyncratic attitude to research was revealed during a June 2000 flap about whether parts of her Orange Prize-winning “When I Lived in Modern Times’’ was plagiarized from historian A.J. Sherman’s “Mandate Days.’’ Wounded, she declared that Granta had cut her acknowledgments page, which noted her use of the material. She told The Guardian: “I used the sentences — never whole chunks — only as quotes from material he himself was quoting, to give colour and character to the dialogue.’’
Pardon? She used sentences of testimony by actual people, recorded by another writer, in the mouths of her imaginary characters? What about inventing personae?
“We Had It So Good’’ contains vivid scenes about psychedelic romping at college and the burning of confidential papers after a death. She offers apt commentary on the human denial about aging, the evanescence of happiness, the unparalleled value of loyal friendship, and the mysterious nature of marriage. Here Andrea reflects about her long, lucky partnership with Stephen, “He was to her now the hairs that started to sprout from his nose, and the particular comforting shape of his empty shoes by the bed at night, his flossing, his toenail cutting, his hypochondria, his dietary fads, the facing freckles on his back, the loose sac of skin behind his penis, the memories they shared of all the holidays they had taken together, and the way she could read his mind.’’
Such qualities are why it’s worth writing even a disappointed review of “We Had It So Good.’’ At the end of a Guardian article by Grant on the value of nonautobiographical fiction, she says, “Never mind if it’s about me; is it about you?’’ The answer is no. This book is not about me or anyone I knew at my California university in the 1960s or when I lived in London in the 1970s. Well, it may be about that lascivious Southerner who shares petit fours with Stephen as they cross the Atlantic. But all I know about Bill Clinton is what I read in the papers. And one suspects that’s all Grant really knows about her other composite characters. Let’s hope for better next time.
Valerie Miner, author of 13 books, teaches at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerieminer.com.