By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
On closing one of English novelist (and occasional Weekly contributor) Tim Parks’ books, I suspect that more than one reader has found the words to that old Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” running insistently through his head. It’s not exactly Wallace Stevens, but the lyric does state the matter pithily: “If I go there will be trouble/An’ if I stay it will be double/So you gotta let me know/Should I stay or should I go?”
Marriage, when you’re deep into it, can seem like one of life’s sterner metaphors for, well, life. You only get one to live, and — in the traditional view anyway — you get one partner to share it with. And that’s it. The longer you stay in the relationship, the more pitilessly the message is hammered home. This is the person you chose. This is the life you chose. And, by the way, you’ve already lived half of it.
In varying ways and to varying degrees, the tension this produces, and the ways in which people seek to relieve it, is the territory of much of Tim Parks’ fiction, not to mention last year’s brilliant collection of essays, Adultery and Other Diversions. It was there as early as Loving Roger, his second novel, about a man with a commitment problem of such epic proportions that the narrator, a woman whose child he has secretly fathered, finally puts him out of his misery with the aid of a bread knife. It is also there in Goodness (1991), Shear (1993) and Europa (1997), and it is announced, more bluntly than ever before perhaps, in the very first sentence of his latest novel, Destiny, in which, having just been informed by telephone of his son’s suicide, the narrator, Chris Burton, an English journalist married to an Italian woman, promptly decides that the death of his son also spells the immediate death of his marriage.
But there’s something else worth mentioning about that first sentence: It’s a long one. Exactly 100 words long, in fact, and nothing like it was on display in Parks’ early work. Parks is an unusual novelist in that, at age 40 or so, he radically reworked his style. Though he has spent most of his adult life in Italy (where he teaches at the University of Verona and translates literary heavyweights like Alberto Moravia and Roberto Calasso), Parks’ early novels are mostly set in England and written in a more naturalistic English vein: good stories, sharply observed characters, comedy and heartbreak aplenty, but with a strange push-pull energy and explosiveness (and frequent actual explosions) that are all his own. But with Shear (a geology-obsessed thriller set on an unnamed Mediterranean island, a bit like Don DeLillo’s The Names, only better and less mannered), Parks began to turn himself into another kind of novelist altogether: a European rather than English novelist, and with the focus less on the story being told than on the way the hero’s mind experiences and processes it. That certainly was the case in 1997’s Booker Prize–shortlisted Europa, and it is even more so in Destiny, whose fractured stream of consciousness can be hard going at first but which soon becomes deeply compelling. The work of major writers can usually be divided into early, middle and late periods, with different styles and preoccupations for each one. At 45, Parks already has an early period under his belt and is deep into a middle one. His work compares very favorably with that of his better-known English contemporaries, and he is still experimenting and developing. Parks will be in town this weekend for some readings and to take part in a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. A few weeks ago he responded to some questions by e-mail.
In the States you’re an outsider because you’re English; in England you’re an outsider because you live abroad. How are your books received in Italy, where you actually live?
As a rule, the Italians only translate those who are successful insiders in their country of origin. So I arrived a bit late in the country where I live, which is fine by me, because I like to keep a low profile. It was only about four years ago that I had to start admitting to people that I was a writer. Five of the books are now out here and all well-received. Italian Neighbors was a best-seller, somewhat to my surprise; I believe it’s the only book of its kind in Italy to have been translated into Italian.
Many of your novels, including your new one, revolve around the question of whether two people should stay together or split up. This is also the theme of several of the essays in Adultery and Other Diversions. Why is this such a big theme for you?
Not just for me . . . The decision to stay with a partner or not is such a formative moment in the story you tell yourself about your life, certainly a far more dramatic decision than whether to marry. On the one side lies a continuity where you accept integration, frustration, enrichment — your personality determined by a family dynamic — on the other there is the delirium and virtuosity of basing everything absolutely on yourself. Add to that that every relationship is different, and you have plenty of material.