Pick a metaphor, any metaphor. That’s right, madam, don’t let me or the audience see it. Okay, slip it back into the deck. Now shuffle them, and hand the deck back to me. Ta da! Is this your metaphor?
DILYS Rose’s new novel doesn’t hold its cards close to its chest. Its governing metaphor is encoded at the level of the title: Pelmanism. Not being a card player, I was unaware of the name of the game, but on reading Rose’s description of the game, I realised I have in fact played Pelmanism. The cards are spread out face down; during his or her turn, a player turns over two cards; if you find a matching pair (two sixes, two kings, so on), you remove them. It’s a feat of memory. Popular in the UK during the first half of the last century, Pelmanism was marketed not only as a way of improving the memory, but also of strengthening the intellect through exercise. No one working in mental health today would make such a claim, and by the 1960s even, according to Rose’s novel, it was chiefly played by socialising grannies, an entry-level card game, edgy as Snap.
Far removed from the glamour of poker or one of the other card games that have snagged the interest of authors, Pelmanism does at least provide a novelist with not solely a metaphor, but a way of structuring her story. Or rather stories. Pelmanism is the tale (or tales) of Gala Price, taking her from childhood to middle-age, although with more emphasis on her younger years, when she was subject to the whims and diktats of her father, a domestic tyrant who deludes himself he is an artist. The novel doesn’t develop chronologically, taking instead Philip Larkin’s description of the ‘classic formula’ – a beginning, a muddle, and an end – more literally than most. A framing device of the adult Gala returning home to visit her ageing parents after a period away encloses a jumble of non-chronological chapters which the reader is invited to make sense of. Gala’s memories come to the reader shuffled.
This structure plays to the strengths of a writer whose career is largely comprised of collections of short stories. Her first collection, Our Lady of the Pickpockets, was published in 1989, followed by Red Tides (1993), War Dolls (1998), and Lord of Illusions (2005). Pelmanism has a degree of kinship with other sort-of novels written by women whose reputation is based on their short stories, such as Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams.
Throughout Pelmanism, Gala is a neutral presence. Often she is not more than the disappointed or frustrated observer of the book’s most vivid character, her father, Miles. That he was born, as we learn, on the same date that Krakatoa went up strikes you as just given his volcanic tempter (with the surname hinting at his status-driven obsession with making money). His outbursts are triggered by the public’s – and his family’s – refusal to recognise his worth as an artist and businessman (his commercial instincts are so dull he ends up a dupe in a pyramid scheme selling a new cleaning product, Swipe!). He is forced to make a living as an art teacher, a post he is dismissive of, although he is thrown into another of his rages when passed over for promotion. The victims of his combustible moods are those closest to him, his piano-teacher wife, card-playing mother-in-law, and two children, Jas, his son and youngest, and Gala. The rest of the cast appear dim beside Miles’ tantrums and his ‘hare-brained schemes’ as his mother describes them.
If Miles’ moods are uncertain, so is the nature of memory. In an early chapter Gala remembers her father diving through hoops of fire into water. But did she really see it? She is uncertain the dive took place and it is out of character once we get to know Miles. In another scene, she recalls risking her safety in the sea: ‘Had somebody dared her, had she dared herself, or simply become impatient with the endless speculation?’
If memory is uncertain, so is mental equilibrium. Miles succumbs to a breakdown, while there is a suggestion the mental health of Gala and her mother is also weakened by a sequence of family dramas. Underscoring the point is the novel’s epigraph, a poem written by Rose herself – she is the author of three collections of poetry – called ‘Homage to R.D. Laing’:
whatever they do
they must not no matter what
let him know they think
something’s not right
Gala doesn’t let her father know ‘something’s not right’, which no doubt would have provoked another round of his conniptions, but drains something of the novel’s potential drama. Once she is an adult, she embarks on a series of travels, never slowing down, rarely returning; when she does, a journey undertaken in the novel’s opening and closing chapters, she fails once more to let her parents know ‘something’s not right.’
Laing diagnosed ‘madness’ as a social, rather than medical, phenomenon. His 1960 study The Divided Self argued that a breakdown was an intelligible response to the pressure placed on individuals by their family. The Prices are but one of many unhappy families that appear throughout Rose’s stories. Children not only bear the brunt of that unhappiness, Rose shows the way in which they are primed to carry then pass on that burden to the following generation. In her story ‘Child’s Play’, the young narrator’s speech is a misunderstood mash of adult cliché, evasion and snobbery: ‘Breeding makes you comfortable. Riff-raff rub shoulders.’ It’d be funny if the sentiment wasn’t so poisonous.
Two female contemporaries of Rose’s generation have tackled similar material, although they chose memoir over fiction. Janice Galloway (b.1955) in This is Not About Me and All Made Up and Candia McWilliam (b.1955) in What to Look for in Winter make Laing’s case for him. In these memoirs, or ‘memoirs’ – like Rose (b.1954), Galloway’s ambivalent titles foreground the unreliability of memory – the family is pictured as a neurosis-generator. Read together, the books depict the Scottish family of the 1950s and 1960s as uniquely suited to – pace Larkin once more – fucking you up, with the proviso you can’t be certain they may not mean to. Little wonder the psychologist who popularised the idea of the family as an engine of dysfunction, Laing, was himself Scottish.
Laing was an experimental psychologist. Rose, it could be said, experiments with form in Pelmanism, although its adventurousness is thrown into relief should one consider a novel with a similar conceit. B.S. Johnson’s 1969 novel The Unfortunates, famously his ‘book in a box’, is composed of 27 unbound sections that can be read in any order. In comparison, Pelmanism doesn’t feel shuffled enough. The order of the sections isn’t as random as a deck of cards or a disordered mind. The closer to the end the reader gets, the fewer random incidents intrude on the story of Gala’s passage through her adolescence. It may be the author intended this, her mind coming together as the plot does, but it felt like a missed opportunity. I wanted to be challenged, to cut the deck myself to see what effect it had on the plot.
Rose has some form with flirting with experiment and then pulling back. Freer perhaps in her poetry – her collection Lure contains some unapologetic sound poems – her sole previous novel Pest Maiden (1999) nods towards but doesn’t embrace a metatextual dimension. Her protagonist Russell Fairly is distressed to find himself fictionalised in a popular if terrible bonkbuster, Eating Passionfruit in Bed. His partner dumped him for an American novelist who shaped her criticisms of Russell, of his sexual prowess particularly, into a bestselling piece of character assassination. In Rose’s novels and short stories, she is often concerned with the victims of art. In ‘War Dolls’, a Mexican footsoldier in a Zapatista-style movement confronts a documentary-maker: ‘And your documental, how it help? Not your problem, eh?’ Another story ‘Human Interest’, about journalists covering an African famine makes the same point heavy-handedly: ‘You sit here stuffing your chicken into your faces while back there they’re filling their mouths with mud. Are you going to put that in your columns? Are you going to tell your readers that?’
Before the plot of Pest Maiden can become too Auster-esque, Rose pulls back, eschewing literary games, seeing instead in Russell’s powerlessness a metaphor for the way in which the majority of the world doesn’t get a chance to write their own narratives. This strand is developed through Russell’s budding relationship with a Filipino colleague who, we learn slowly, had to flee her homeland in the 1980s when her pro-democracy activism endangered her life.
As many of Rose’s stories are set outside Scotland as in it. The title story of her first collection Our Lady of the Pickpockets was about a homeless Mexican child picked up by an American couple. The question the story asks is – who is exploiting who? It’s one that recurs through Rose’s work, not least because while she has an affinity with the underdog, she is not sentimental. She knows those denied what they want will take it if the opportunity arises, forcibly if need be. In ‘A Little Bit of Trust’ in Red Tides for example a Moroccan carpet salesman who harasses a lone female tourist feels justified because of the slights he has suffered at the hands of rude, rich Westerners: ‘Later they would walk all over it [a rug] in their dirty outdoor shoes until it was dull and threadbare, by which time they’d be thinking about another holiday in the sun, about living it up in a place where for them everything was cheap, dirt cheap, thinking about buying another carpet. Tourists – he wanted to piss on them all.’
That story doesn’t end happily; few of Rose’s do. ‘Happiness is no more than a relief from pain,’ one character observes in ‘A Living Legend’. The ‘living legend’ of the title is a Marlene Dietrich-like trooper pounding the boards well past her prime. Miles Price, we learn, is a Dietrich fan. He uses the German chanteuse as a club with which to beat down his wife (‘The woman must be sixty-five if she’s a day and still looks like the belle of the ball. Whereas you are a frump’). Unsurprising, then, that the novel isn’t named after another card game, Happy Families.
Luath, £12.99, ISBN 978-1910021231, 224PP