The first comparison that comes to mind for Laird’s novel is Peep Show without the comedy. There are riffs on metropolitan art and observational digs at its protagonist’s fossilised routine, but all in all the comedy is absent, leaving only the darkness. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Combined with Laird’s lush descriptive powers and sense of place, the absence of lighter moments clears the way for a journey into the cave of an empty mind.
The plot, as Harry Ritchie says, is straight out of slushpile lad-lit; a genre that you’d think would be more successful, given the vast reservoir of male inadequacy from which it can draw. The narrative is almost exclusively localised around David Pinner, a balding, overweight teacher entering middle age. David isn’t the sympathetic loser the description implies but something close to sociopathic: ‘searching not for things to love but a place to put his rage.’ His greatest fulfillment comes from his anonymous blog, on which he lays into contemporary film and art. He feels lucky to live in a time that suits a personality predicated towards hatred. ‘It was only since he’d begun teaching himself and had made his own students laugh that he’d realised misanthropy could be taken for wit, and found some semblance of pleasure in anger and cynicism.’
David’s ossified libido is awakened by his encounter with Ruth Marks, an American artist he remembers from university. He inadvertently introduces Ruth to his flatmate Glover, a naive and goodlooking barman with whom Ruth begins a passionate relationship. An attractive female blogger called Singleton comes into David’s life just as he is making headway in his sabotage of Glover’s wedding. At this point you’re braced for a conflict between settling scores and moving on. But Singleton is never a real love interest, just another victim of David’s passionless and casual stalking. He’s too far gone to be open to anything else.
David’s desire for revenge is driven by his conviction that Glover and Ruth are the beautiful people, the shining ones: ‘They are anointed with luck. They don’t make it. There is no effort.’ It’s a total misreading of their characters, and a testament to his fundamental lack of empathy. Glover and Ruth are both damaged and confused people, lost souls who find each other by chance – only for the matchmaker to choke off their future before it begins.
The reason David fixates on Ruth is that she gives him some time and comfort when, as a student, he breaks down after one of her lectures. The memory provoked when she reappears in his life, of a point before it was too late, provides his motivation for revenge. The book made me think of the following passage from Simone Weil:
When the ‘I’ is wounded from outside it starts by revolting in the most extreme and bitter manner like an animal at bay. But as soon as the ‘I’ is half dead, it wants to be finished off and allows itself to sink into unconsciousness. If it is then awakened by a touch of love, there is sharp pain which results in anger and sometimes hatred for whoever has provoked this pain. Hence the apparently inexplicable vindictiveness of the fallen towards their benefactors.
This paragraph formed the basis for Jonathan Coe’s excellent novel A Touch of Love, and I was also reminded of it when I read Jenn Ashworth‘s A Kind of Intimacy.
Towards the end of Glover’s Mistake, David finds a poster-parable in Glover’s room, that one about walking on the beach with God, and the man asking why the tracks sometimes dwindle to one set of footsteps: those, God replies, were the times when I carried you. In his mind, David corrupts the parable so that the single pair of footsteps belong to Glover alone. But it could apply to David himself, who has not just resigned himself to solitude but actively chosen it: ‘For this next passage in his life there would only be a single set of footprints in the sand, awaiting the sea’s deletion’.
For David Pinner, this will be nothing new.