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BBC TwoNewsnight Review
Last Updated: Monday, 4 April 2005, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
It's All Right Now
Charles Chadwick

Charles Chadwick first novel, which took him thirty years to write, charts the apparently inconsequential life of a British everyman.

(Please note this transcript of the panel's review is taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

MARK LAWSON:

All but the most bitter figures in the literary world would feel some warmth about him finally getting this book published, did you feel it having read it?

JOHN MULLAN:

A bit, yes. I do think it's quite unlike most novels you read. It clearly hasn't been ruthlessly manufactured to fit some niche in the market. The story of it being written over 30 years is, as it were, there in the book. It covers 30 years and it meanders and it rambles. It does that within sentences as well as over its overall sprawl. There's a kind of peculiar narrative abstinence about it. It refuses to have a story, a direction, to fit a shape. In some ways that's quite likeable and sometimes hypnotically pleasurable. But it's also exasperating. Its formlessness in the end, I think, is frustrating for the reader.

LAWSON:

The shape he's trying to get is the shape of a man's life. We're supposed to feel as if we've lived through 30 years with this character, did you?

JULIE MYERSON

No, that isn't what I got from it, if that is what he intended, he failed for me. But what he did do which I thought was extraordinary, was not give us the shape of a man's life or give us that sense of sequence, although you do feel exhausted by the end but that's for other reasons. But what he writes about brilliantly, and I'm not sure I remember anyone doing this before, is how it feels for an ordinary man, who isn't supposed to be a writer, to start writing things down and how that changes his feelings about himself, about what's happened, what has happened in the past, what might happen in the future and how he starts re-evaluating life because of those words. Charles Chadwick brilliantly writes a man who's not a novelist and I believe that. Every so often he expresses himself fantastically. The rest of the time he expresses himself well enough that he's made me really think about the process of writing down. But it's boring to read. It's way too long. I agree with John.

JOHN HARRIS:

Obviously, look at it, it's taken me a week to get through that and my critical faculties have been tied in knots. Due to the sheer size of it there's a sort of geography to it. There's boring stretches, to put it crassly. Then you'll hit a fertile part that will really get your attention and you'll start mildly obsessing and being compelled by the most banal things which is some measure of his talent as a writer. When he moves to the Suffolk coast, which is when the bleakness of the book kicks in, he joins an arts and crafts group. That's when it became in its own muted way a page turner. I was thinking I wonder what's going to happen to that stool he made and so on and so forth. The other redeeming feature it has, I think it makes a generational point. Those people born just before the Second World War, this is a huge generalisation, his first wife opens up. She benefits from that greater awareness of emotions and so on that kicked in the 60s. He's aware of that agenda but he can't quite do it himself. This fosters this idea of deficit and disappointment, particularly with his children. He wants to be this very emotionally engaged person but he can't quite do it. The problem with it is just the simple lack of a story, which particularly becomes a problem at the end, such that there's absolutely no momentum.

LAWSON:

I thought it's difficult because it's a fantastically challenging and difficult read. You'd hesitate before recommending it to a lot of people.

HARRIS:

Is it difficult? Why do you say difficult?

LAWSON:

Well, because of the sheer length of it, it's a huge investment to read it. I think it's a unique work. The books it most resembles are Joseph Heller's Something Happened - in fact Charles Chadwick said he was inspired by that book - and I suppose Mr Philips by John Lanchester, which were similar attempts to give the life of an ordinary man. But they were written by best selling writers imagining. What you have here is a man who was not successful as a writer, imagining over 30 years and describing that life. I've never read anything like that. I felt we were getting a real life.

MULLAN:

I agree, that is unique and it makes it, that's enough to make it valuable. But Charles Chadwick, I think, through his narrator has certain beliefs about novels, however ingenuous he might be seeming to be as a narrator. One of them is that novels usually pretend to know what people are like, you can't know what people are like and this is a false creed. This is something the narrator says. The problem is, this is fine when you're dealing with your neighbours whom you see occasionally. But this character treats everybody in that way. And there's a kind of failure of curiosity about other people's motives which other novelists of ordinary life would never be guilty of. Because he thinks you can't go beyond the surface.

LAWSON:

I know but I really liked the fact that he's totally distanced from everyone and everything. All he really wants to do is watch his television programmes.

HARRIS:

That's part of that sense of emotional constipation that forms this predicament.

MYERSON:

But also emotional abstinence. He's not a very sympathetic character. He abstains, he can't form relationships. He answers his children who want love from him with puns, with jokes, he can never give anyone a straight answer.

MULLAN:

My wife - you don't know what she's called!

MYERSON:

Exactly. The bleakest line of all is "I'd miss my family a lot if I walked out on them; less so if they walked out on me". And that's what it's about. It is about, actually at the end of the day, leave me in peace because I can't form relationships.

LAWSON:

I think there are people like that inside and he's managed to describe it, but there we are. It's All Right Now is published as a paperback original now.


Newsnight Review, BBC Two's weekly cultural round-up, is broadcast after Newsnight every Friday at 11pm.


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