Saturday 20 January 2018

Review: Midnight In A Perfect Life

Michael Collins (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99)

The press release accompanying Michael Collins's new novel makes much of the fact that the Limerick-born, Michigan-based author is an "extreme athlete" who went to America on a running scholarship and now competes "under the most brutal conditions" in such events as the Himalyan 100-Mile Stage Race and the Everest Challenge Marathon.

I'm not sure what this punishing lifestyle has to do with his writing career beyond the fact that the narrator of his latest book is a similarly driven individual, although obsessed by personal demons rather than gruelling athletic targets.

When we first encounter Karl, we learn that he's a 40-year-old "struggling novelist" living in Chicago who has two well-regarded books to his name but has stalled with a failed third novel that he wryly describes as The Opus.

His creative failure is evident in another area, too -- he and his wife Lori are unable to conceive the child she desperately craves.

Then there's his senile mother, whose nursing home bills have led to severe financial problems, while looming in the background is the memory of his ne'er-do-well father, a travelling salesman who, when Karl was 13, had apparently committed suicide after murdering one of his many mistresses.

Beset, then, by psychological and domestic problems and "edging inexorably towards a quiet professional failure Lori graciously did not talk about", Karl tries to find remedies for his situation -- seeking journalistic work with a lurid magazine, trying to renew contact with a famous crime novelist for whom he'd ghost-written material, and attending fertility and then surrogacy clinics with the ever-hopeful Lori.

His questing involves taking up residence in the blighted back streets of Chicago, alienation from Lori, a fascination with a local cross-dresser and an encounter with a beautiful young woman purporting to belong to a troupe of Russian performance artists, but somewhere along the way the book lost me and I became increasingly weary both of Karl's laboured ruminations on creativity and identity and of his callousness towards those who supposedly mean most to him.

Perhaps the author intended an ironic distance in his portrayal of Karl, but if so he hasn't managed it.

Indeed, he seems to be inordinately fond of his narrator -- unlike the reader, who feels trapped in the self-absorbed company of a tiresome creep, endlessly agonising over his artistic crisis while offering scornful asides about those around him -- especially women, this "new breed of self-directed females . . . eschewing heterosexual love for careers and independence".

In fact, such is his relentless navel-gazing that the other characters hardly register.

Lori remains a shadowy -- and shamefully demeaned -- presence throughout; the mother is allowed no identity beyond that of an absent money-draining irritant; and when Karl says of his wife's parents that he "knew too much about them to hold them in any great regard", the reader may wonder at not being afforded the same knowledge of these people.

Like Colum McCann, Collins is an Irish writer who has made America both his home and his subject, but whereas McCann's recent novel, Let the Great World Spin, makes something astonishingly vivid of his adopted country and seeks to understand it in all its complexity, in Collins's latest book it's merely an arena in which half-formed characters do little more than uneasily embody underdeveloped ideas.

Irish Independent

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