The Heart of the Trouble

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From The Paris Review:

In 2007 Gwendoline Riley, then age twenty-eight and already the author of three acclaimed novels, described her writing life as lacking “any tremendous triumph or romance—I feel like I’m just always trying to be accurate, to get everything in the correct proportion.”

As literary aspirations go, it sounds modest. And by superficial measures, Riley’s novels are unambitious: light on conventional plotting, narrow in scope, and told from the perspectives of women close to herself in age and background. Riley has tried using the third person, she said in 2012, but it “always sounds so false.” As for adopting a male point of view: “Ugh, men’s brains! That vipers’ nest? No.” Her protagonists are writers, too, encouraging the frequent assumption that she draws directly from life. But to regard Riley’s fiction as titivated memoir is to misperceive what beguiles her readers: not barely mediated personal experience but its sedulous transmutation by a strange, rare talent. As Vivian Gornick wrote after reading the letters of Jean Rhys, a novelist with whom Riley shares some kinship: “The letters are the life, and the novels—there’s no mistaking it—are the magic performed on the life.”

Nor does Riley write autofiction, if authors in that contentious category aim to replicate the texture of life by dispensing with, in Rachel Cusk’s now famous words, the “fake and embarrassing” architecture of novels. When Riley makes you squirm with recognition, it’s not because of any explicit overlap between author and protagonist or winking acknowledgment of the writing process. Her uncannily observed female character studies, with their bracing emotional clarity, ruthlessly crafted scenes, and consummate use of the telling detail, belong instead to a certain feminist-existentialist tradition of realism. Literary forerunners to Riley’s work include Rhys’s interwar novels of female alienation, as well as Margaret Drabble’s groundbreaking early novels, in which intellectual young women grapple with the hazards and potentials of their desires, thus dramatizing, as the writer Jennifer Schaffer aptly put it, “a fighting urge to disturb the mold of one’s life, as it sets.” Yet what sets Riley apart from even these noble antecedents is her unshrinking determination to contemplate the unseemly, the discordant, and the unsolvable, without ever straying into despair or the maudlin.

Riley, who was born in London and grew up in Merseyside, published her Betty Trask Award–winning debut, Cold Water, in 2002, when she was twenty-two. Given her age, not to mention the gorgeous nouvelle vague–ish author photo adorning advance copies, some preconceived skepticism about the novel’s merit might have been forgivable. Forgivable, but unwarranted, because Cold Water is an understated classic. Our heroine in holey All Stars and a dress over jeans is twenty-year-old Carmel McKisco, a barmaid of a “downbeat disposition” who works in a low-lit Manchester dive, dreams of moving to Cornwall, and nurses an obsession with a failed musician whose band she loved when she was fourteen. Charting Carmel’s poetic musings and alcohol-fueled gadding about, this wistful little ballad of a novel captures with great verve and originality the bittersweet exhilaration of youth, with its various diverting limerences that, in the big picture, shouldn’t matter. “But, you see,” Carmel explains,

the point is, I’m not in the big picture. I’m in Manchester, and I can’t afford to leave just yet … For now I walk around through the scraping wind, through puddles full of brick dust, often with my feet so cold and sodden; the flesh of my toes like soaked cotton wadding spun round the bones.

In Cold Water, rain-bleared Manchester is seen through an artist’s eye. The lights in Piccadilly Gardens cast “an eerie medical glow against the smudge-grey sky.” Some “ragged carnations the color of evaporated milk and tongue” remind Carmel “of the old recipe cards in the back of a kitchen draw at my mum’s.” This light-handed imbrication of visual and emotional detail to conjure atmosphere, a hallmark of Riley’s early novels, makes for the kind of immersive, effortless read that’s often underrated as easy to write. Here’s the short story writer Esther, in 2004’s Sick Notes, describing her roommate’s bedroom:

There’s a duvet cover, framed postcards on the wall, ornaments even: dried up sea urchins, a crouching child figurine, a tiny pair of painted wooden clogs, a ship in a bottle and a Russian doll flanked by the two rubber ducks I got her for her last birthday. Also a plain brass photo frame holding a picture of a small girl standing by a piano. The kid’s on tiptoe, reaching up to jab at the keys. The curtains behind her and the jumper underneath her dungarees are in sour seventies colors. Her facial expression is kind of sour too.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG is not familiar with Ms. Riley’s writing, but the OP doesn’t maker her sound like a person for whom he can generate much sympathy.

He admits the photo in the OP may have affected his judgement, but he is reminded of a short, but difficult, dating relationship he had with a woman in college (years before he met Mrs. PG). This individual was from a wealthy family and had lots of money to spend, but nothing would make her happy for more than ten minutes or so.

Perhaps she suffered from hidden traumas of which PG was unaware, but he headed for greener, sunnier pastures after 3-4 dates. Their last date was a formal dinner at her parents’ home to which PG and two of his male college buddies were invited.

The woman PG was dating became upset when neither PG nor anyone else responded to the invitations in writing and informed the guests that they would be expected to wear suits and ties during a college era when getting dressed up often meant putting on a clean shirt.

The dinner was predictably excruciating with abbreviated polite conversations all around for 90 minutes or so.

As PG thinks back to that occasion, he thinks one of his friends made him send a written thank-you note to their hostess. PG had to ask for a stamp in order to do so.

Fortunately, PG has done a lot of growing up since that time and hopes the woman involved went on to have a wonderful life.