If Final Demands could be suspended pinata-like above me, and I given the sharpest tools of literary criticism with which to tackle it, I still don’t think I would yield more than a few handfuls of treasure.
This book, the third in the Glittering Prizes trilogy (the second of which, Fame and Fortune, I wrote about earlier) is very rich and very deep and very hard. Much of the politics, topical references, Latin puns, and elaborate wordplay with which the book is chock full I found bewildering or, I confess, boring.
But there are many treasures I was able to wrest out of this book.
First off, the book is blithely, deceptively, easy to read. The sentences are relatively short, as are the paragraphs. The phrasing is natural, like this:
“You were here,” Adam said. “You did what you did and now it’s…done. I didn’t do anything and so it’s still ahead of me, I suppose.”
or this, when protagonist and famous writer Adam Morris is asked how he made a particular book work:
“I stumbled. You stumble and then you have to run to keep your balance. And that boosts you on your way.”
“You’re married, aren’t you?”
“But she’s not with you.”
“And it shows. I’m not myself without her; not that you can tell, I hope.”
There’s an uncomplicated cadence established. But if you just settle into—settle for—that rhythm, you miss a lot of what’s going on. And, plotwise, not that much IS going on. There are a few big events, but mostly, this book—like the other two—is a series of almost random meetings and long conversations. So what’s happening in the book is what’s happening in the sentences. And Raphael has packed those sentences as dense as any poetry, and you really have to slow yourself down to decode the words, track back to the references, and dig to the emotions and memories underlying the sentences.
The author lays this all out on page 26, when we attend a seminar Adam is presenting to a class of college writing students. A student asks, “So what can we say about people’s…characters, what they’re really like?” And Adam replies:
“Draw him or her right and that is their character. Say precisely what happens to people and what they say; not forgetting to imply what they don’t. ‘Why’ isn’t too interesting; stick to when, what, and how. Their motives come with the right words; the punctuation even. Whenever you’re tempted to a comma, pull out a full stop. And here’s as near an absolute rule as I can hope to offer you: ‘He said’ and ‘she said’ never want an adverb attached to them. Let the reader’s imagination supply the adverbs. That way, he or she becomes your accomplice, not your critic; and you pretty well have him, or her, where you want.”
So those are the ground rules.
Then there’s a neat trick Raphael applies, which I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else use. Where most writers would indicate the passage of time with at least a paragraph break or an extra line space or a dingbat—or by resorting to the past perfect or some other tense to indicate chronology—Raphael doesn’t even pause. Literally. Like here, where Adam has been conversing with old friend Denis Porson, who has made some rather startling observations about the changes in the gay world over the past decades:
But I do so miss the good old bad old days. My friends, the ones who’ve survived, they all have
“relationships,” dear, and “civil partners,” and I do know what all else, because they will keep telling me about them. I only ever wanted uncivil ones…The love that dared not speak its name has become the most garrulous sweetheart in town. You know what it’s killed, of course, don’t you, all this outing and abouting? The sweet sin of it all, dear: Sodom’s now turned into a garden suburb full of people in sleeveless vests doing press-ups and cleaning the motor. Talk about cities of the plain!
A half page later, Denis kisses Adam goodbye:
“On we go, dear. And never, never ask what happens to the hindmost.”
Adam turned right into Red Lion Square as the lights came on. A fox was crossing, unhurriedly, from the short pavement and went through the railings into the greenery. When he got home, he told Barbara about it.
See what he did? In three sentences, Adam left Denis and came home to Barbara, encountering a fox on the way. It’s that leap from the greenery to “When” that impresses me.
And I thought about why he would do that—glide and elide like that. It’s like you’re on the calm surface of a lake, and suddenly you have to paddle so hard because you’re going down rapids: how the hell did I get here? When did the characters change location? When did the characters change—all at once, you’re in a new scene and there were no light cues or costume changes to signal the shift.
So it keeps you alert.
But it does something else too, I think. And here’s the essence of what I got out of the book, and, in retrospect, the trilogy.
The treatment of time matches the age of the characters.
Here’s what I think is going on. The human brain is set for novelty; the senses are poised to note and process the unusual. That’s why the day is so long for a toddler: everything is new, everything must be taken in. As we age, we don’t remark on the routine. That’s why the days, the weeks, the years, fly by and we can’t think how they were filled; they’ve just somehow flown.
Final Demands takes place a full fifty years after The Glittering Prizes. Adam is seventy-one at its end, and there are large patches in the book—increasingly as it progresses—during which there are few indications of what year it is, how much time has passed, and so on. Time just passes, new babies are born, people scatter. Very in keeping with an older person’s perception of time, and very unlike the barrage of discrete, detailed moments that make up The Glittering Prizes.
And also very different from the glib, gabby egoism of Fame and Fortune, where Adam is front and center, and all is fodder for his art. In Fame and Fortune, Adam pays no attention to time, passing or otherwise. Which also makes sense, because he is in middle age, at the height of his creative powers, at his pinnacle, totally absorbed in his work, in his moment. And a right shit he is consequently.
In Final Demands, Adam is at his end. Raphael emphasizes, particularly in the closing chapters, plants and flowers. Barbara and Adam, past their peak, tend their garden. And Adam, instead of beginning a new novel, is working on an encyclopedia—coming full circle to his ABCs.
Adam’s callousness, so evident in Fame and Fortune, is reserved for a deserving crew rather than all of humanity, as it was there. And our old acquaintances from the previous volumes are all more or less present and accounted for; in general, they have followed arcs that could be tracked back reliably to their earliest incarnations. I won’t spoil the revisitings, beyond noting that one surprise is rather tender and unlooked-for. And that the relationship between Adam and his daughter is very nice. There are some appalling moments of what I found to be utterly inappropriate reactions to situations—how could Adam walk away from the specter/spectacle of Anna Cunningham, even temporarily, to pursue a banal interaction with his agent? And shouldn’t he rather have insisted on helping fat Bruno? These were the quibbles I had with Fame and Fortune; they are much reduced here.
No one could possibly be as clever, as quick, as sardonic as Adam and his cohort. And I am sure that there are many readers who derive much more pleasure and comprehension than do I from the bitchy, erudite exchanges among them. For me, I like Adam, with Barbara, in the twilight of his day. Because he remains Adam, as this passage after a health alarm has been sounded, reminds me:
He walked, like a rehearsing ghost, through a world that had no notion of his fear. The indifference of other people passed for a reprieve from a sentence that had yet to be handed down.
Adam’s vulnerability, present from the beginning of the trilogy, has endured and continues to endear. I leave him with great fondness and more than a little sadness.