Sunday 18 February 2018

A new master of the despairing, disquieting voice of masculinity in crisis

Fiction: Divorce is in the Air, Gonzalo Torné (translated by Megan McDowell), Harvill Secker, hdbk, 320 pages, €22.50

Gonzalo Torné: Quick-fire writing style
Gonzalo Torné: Quick-fire writing style
Divorce is in the Air by Gonzalo Torne

Tanya Sweeney

There comes a point in a dying marriage where the air starts to become fetid; the atmosphere fecund with microaggressions and acrimony. It often makes for a discomfiting reading experience, but in the right hands it can be wondrous; compelling, even.

Gonzalo Torné, a celebrated writer in his native Spain, takes the conceit of the failed marriage and gives it an intriguing spin in Divorce is in the Air. Joan-Marc - fortysomething and flailing in a midlife crisis - is delivering his account of where it all went wrong to his second wife.

The second wife, we find out, is the one that got away. There isn't much room for recriminations and reproach when it comes to her and his second marriage, for the account deals largely with the breakdown of his first marriage, to an American glamourpuss and ex-athlete called Helen.

In the opening chapter of the book, the pair are making their way to a spa along with Helen's parents and her son, a young boy that Joan-Marc evidently has little time for. At Helen's behest, the couple are making a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage; a marriage, it becomes immediately evident, is in decidedly ill health.

Later on, we find that while Joan-Marc's first and second marriages were very different, they were both felled in much the same way; with both women never realising his inner genius. The truth of the matter is the Joan-Marc has been called a homophobe, a hypochondriac and worse by those closest to him.

Yet Helen, we find, isn't entirely without sin either; a prodigious drinker, she has decided to stop working and talks down to her husband with fierce regularity. That she is a less than sympathetic character is moot; there's little elbow-room here in this account for anything other than Joan-Marc's complaints and musings.

Several writers have already managed to grasp the uncomfortable, disquieting voice of masculinity in crisis, among them Karl Ove Knausgård and Philip Roth. The newcomer Torné is easily placed among them: he is something of a master of the despairing, resigned tone. And Joan-Marc's voice is a thing to behold, shoving the book forward in a heady momentum, hoovering up and spitting out the most poignant and saddening of details as it goes.

There are also points in his earlier life - his first sexual encounters, his mother's mental illness his father's suicide - that he needs to finally reconcile himself with.

At one point in the book, Joan-Marc as a single man reconvenes with his old life, and his old school-friends, all of them middle-aged, ruined and complacent in their own ways. Taunted by Helen about his physique, he has found it in himself to start going to the swimming pool, pushing himself beyond his own physical comfort zone.

And it's outside the comfort zone that Torné is seemingly at his happiest. Joan-Marc is certainly in ruminative mood, but Torné's quick-fire writing style just about saves him from becoming a masturbatory bore.

Whether the reader finds Joan-Marc a blackly funny storyteller or a whiny narrator will be entirely up to them. The line between both is gossamer-fine throughout.

At its best, Divorce is in the Air is zesty and acerbic, and the heralding of a brilliant, virtuosic new writing talent. Torné has certainly set out his stall as a man to keep an eye on.

Yet on another level, Divorce is in the Air is a very hefty catalogue of misery. There's no denying that the book has weapons-grade despair stitched into its seams, something that may prove stifling to some. But much like a toxic, dying marriage itself, what's suffocating to some may well prove to be strangely enlivening to others.

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