Diseased insects, murders, missing body parts, sadomasochism and the horrors of war – not the most appealing of subjects, perhaps, but they are all to be found in this month’s crop of first novels, each of which proves to be intriguing and well crafted. Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men indeed approaches greatness. Gessen is quite the young literary firebrand in the US, and one can see why: his prose is cleanly wrought and carefully composed, smooth, funny and poignant. Taking the tragic arc of the lives of three wannabe literati, Gessen neatly pokes fun at their pretensions, whilst their worlds shade into each other as they attend the same parties and date the same girls. There is Sam: ‘What Sam needed to do, he realised after much thought … was write the great Zionist novel … But first he had to check his email.’ Sam has never even been to Israel – and when he does eventually go there, having failed to deliver his manuscript, he finds his preconceptions overturned. There is Keith – who may or may not be the author himself – who bums his way through college, takes on menial jobs, and cautiously enters literary New York, meeting Morris, his hero (‘I did not begrudge Morris this beautiful woman, with her sharp tongue and simple grown-up jewellery. He had published so much more than I had.’). And there is Mark, a porn-obsessed doctoral student who is all but incapable of finishing his thesis on the Mensheviks. Each eventually finds, like modern knights errant galloping through Brooklyn and Boston, some kind of fulfilment.
Whilst all these men could seem self-regarding and unattractive, Gessen manages to make them hugely sympathetic, so that their vicissitudes take on a larger significance and we see in their triumphs and failures the struggles of everyone, literary or not. He is a master of irony, and of the telling character detail; the book has the Dave Eggers stamp indelibly marked on every page, but that is no bad thing, as it transcends those parameters and beats Joshua Ferris’s recent Then We Came to the End into a cocked hat.
Canadian Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures also concerns the interweaving lives of some young people; not inward-looking bookish types, but supposedly altruistic doctors. Lam has a dry, precise sense of humour, and does not flinch from the gory details as Ming (very hard-working), Fitzgerald (layabout) and their companions speed their way through medical school and into their lives as doctors, cutting up cadavers and each other as they go. They deal with paranoid psychotics and criminals who bite their hands, whilst coping with their own moral and psychological problems – in Fitz’s case, his (somewhat unaccountable) obsession with Ming, and in Ming’s case, abuse as a child by her cousin. There are some very funny scenes – not least one in which a corpse they are dissecting is given the name Murphy: “‘What do you mean you lost the right side of the head?’ Chen asked quietly. ‘No, I didn’t exactly lose it. It’s simply not where I left it,’” – and some very moving ones. Lam tells his tale in interconnecting sections, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, all of which have a uniformity of tone that neatly captures the homogeneous hospital experience – the smell of sickness and sterilisation, bright lights, weariness. The lack of any real differentiation between voices is a needling handicap in what is otherwise an assured, wise debut.
From cadavers to caterpillars: Poppy Adams’s The Behaviour of Moths is in the same mode as two recent ‘big house’ novels – Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and Lucie Whitehouse’s The House at Midnight. Damaged families, psychological drama and ghosts from the past abound. Adams’s setting is the gloomy confines of Bulburrow Court, home to generations of lepidopterists. Narrated by clumsy, slow, near-autistic Ginny, the action takes place over a weekend in which she is visited by her livelier sibling, Viv (who, despite being impaled upon a spike at a tender age, manages to survive). Tensions surface and are replayed as Ginny reminisces. Their father, Clive, believed moths to be robotic and unable to make decisions: his life’s work was to reduce a moth to a mathematical equation; whilst their mother descended from county paragon to alcoholic lush, dying in (possibly) suspicious circumstances. Adams is good at evoking Ginny’s equally robotic voice, although she does often slip into unnecessary detail (for instance some ten pages in which Ginny describes how she likes her tea made). She suffers, too, from the same problem as both Setterfield and Whitehouse – there is a flimsiness to the whole, as if the words, despite attentive descriptions, are only surface. In none of the three does the gothic house loom out from the pages, or the characters impress upon your mind. However, Adams succeeds in carefully building up an atmosphere of penumbral suspense, creeping towards a tense climax.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller also approaches greatness. Miller has already published a collection of short stories, and this wonderful, moving, violently vivid book fulfils their promise. Pippa Lee is a stay-at-home ‘mom’ who likes nothing better than making lunch for Herb, her publisher husband (thirty years her senior, and ready for death) or looking after her twins (both now grown up, her daughter a war photographer and her son a lawyer). When the Lees move into a retirement village, Pippa finds herself subject to hallucinations, sleep-walking and a mysterious sense of fear. She is not herself any more – or perhaps she is becoming herself. Kaleidoscopic memories burn out of the page, revealing Pippa’s youth as a brash teenager, drug-addict and sexual deviant, charting her progress from wild child to wise woman. Her mother was on speed, her father was a preacher; she drifts about New York’s underworld, lost and flighty, a gorgeous pilgrim with no end in mind, taking every pill she finds, sleeping with anyone she feels like – until she meets Herb, and a different disaster takes shape. There is on every page a glint of verbal beauty like a jewel, and Miller’s characters are so keenly observed as to be almost painful to read about. The novel’s wit and glamour make it one of the best debuts of the year so far.