Zeno Was Here by Jan Mark - review by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Conjuring Tricks

Zeno Was Here

By

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McEvoy, the protagonist of Jan Mark’s new novel, is a bundle of delightful prejudices. A bright pupil – McEvoy is a schoolmaster – poses a killer question in the Eng Lit class: ‘Sir, how do we know that this is a poem?’ McEvoy finds this difficult. He thinks of the lines that appear in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘They seem to be poems because clearly they are not advertisements. ‘The class’s lateral thinker comes up with the answer; it must be a poem because ‘Sir, it says Ted Hughes at the bottom.’

Later, in his office, a more fundamental question arises: how do we know this is a book? He receives a parcel; inside it, a paperback called Acid Test. ‘It has pages, British Library Cataloguing Data. . . a dedication; it has an ISBN.’ It has all the hallmarks of a book. But it seems to make no sense. This is a familiar feeling; but McEvoy has special reasons for discomfiture. He has been so rash as to appear in a television programme, and since the broadcast, people have surfaced to say ‘I knew you when …’  Enclosed with the book is a letter from a woman who says she knew him in 1964; also enclosed, a lewd verse he wrote for her.

McEvoy remembers nothing of this. His amnesia is not credible. It is a novelist’s device, so that background can be filled in. And it is fair to point this out, because much of what follows is a discussion of the nature of fiction – difficult, you may think, to cast into sparkling dialogue.

McEvoy has a novelist friend, called Geneva. She seizes on Acid Test, which is the autobiography of a former psychiatric patient; McEvoy, under a pseudonym, plays a starring role. He is portrayed as a smug and unprincipled young man, and blamed for a suicide. Is the picture accurate? Has he changed? The book delivers a great blow to his self-esteem. Geneva, of course, thinks she might write a book about a man who has had a book written about him. She is a walking lecture: winder up and hear her speak – on the Novel and Life, on coincidence (‘I never touch it’) on the relationship between plot and character. Is this interesting? Perhaps. But if a novel is a performance, we come to see the lady sawn in half, and not to read the magician’s workshop manual.

At this point it seems that Jan Mark has written an entertaining and intelligent book about not very much. But then McEvoy becomes involved with Ruth Prochak, poet and biochemist, who is deeply interested in railway timetables. A love story creeps out, under cover of the cerebral chatter. McEvoy’s problem now is his wife Sarah, who is jealous of ‘any women, all women, even the mad and possibly the dead.’ There is quite a long bit nine pages – where McEvoy and Prochak go to bed, and do not talk about the nature of fiction at all.

It is possible to be severe on McEvoy, and discount his agonies. He quibbles about suggestio falsi and suppresio veri: but he is only a middle aged man cheating on his wife. He feels this himself perhaps; he has not the strength of ego to oppose his own version of his life to the nutter’s version. His past has put its claws into his present. Jan Mark is a moving and observant writer, and she has fitted her narrative with tripwires, pay-offs, delayed shocks. An unexpected and violent conclusion vindicates not only this complicated novel but its theories; McEvoy learns the true meaning of coincidence – its plainest meaning, its most painful.

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