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.
Your last three novels — Shear, Europa and now Destiny — have been, on one level anyway, explorations of the minds of men in states of extreme tension, obsession, crisis — just short of a crackup, in other words. What is it about these states of mind that makes them particularly fertile territory for the novelist in your opinion?
See above. I suppose all my stories, first to last, are dramas of decision, impossible decision, where the criteria for choice are simply not available, where action will ultimately be an acting out. So you frequently see people doing, for good or evil, something quite different from what they had planned. It’s exciting. Much of my writing can be enjoyed as a comedy at the expense of the ethos of management and the presumption of those who claim to know what is good and what is bad. It’s supposed to be funny, hectic stuff.
A lot of people who would be willing to read earlier novels of yours, such as Tongues of Flame or Home Thoughts, might not relish the challenge of getting through the long, syntactically complicated sentences in Europa and Destiny. What have you gained by writing in this more overtly cerebral style?
And vice versa perhaps. But let’s not exaggerate the change. All these books are novels of voice, and the voice is getting older and more intense. Wittier too, I hope, certainly stronger. In Europa and Destiny you have a pair of minds so fearful of breakdown that they try to impose order in reasoned articulated sentences, only to find other, unwanted thoughts constantly cutting in, invading. Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s a far easier and faster read than, say, Faulkner or Pynchon, and, I hope, equally exhilarating. “Fizzing with a wild crackpot energy” was the comment I most enjoyed about Destiny. Otherwise, the truth is you write the books you’d like to read if only they were around. And I want a book to be absolutely drenched with mental activity. I want to be seduced into the most extreme awareness.
Europa was described by one feminist publisher in England as “an atrocious piece of penis waving” and got some flak generally for being “misogynistic.” I also understand that an early (unpublished) novel of yours, Leo’s Fire, narrated by a young black man, was picked up by an agent on the assumption that you yourself were black, and then hurriedly dropped when it was discovered that you weren’t. To what extent does “the personal is political” school of thought have an effect on creativity, and how much do you think authors worry about it privately?
The dear lady in question is notoriously invited to the Booker awards program because she can be relied upon to make wildly provocative remarks. Clearly she hadn’t read the book. Sales shot up. It’s hard, it seems to me, for a man or woman to come out of an intense relationship without having a moment here or there of rage toward the opposite sex. The shipwreck may have mostly to do with the helmsman (woman!), but you blame it on the rock. Are we not to be allowed to dramatize that?
In general, I don’t give a toss (as the English say) about this silly sort of criticism. As for “creativity” in general, it will look after itself, it doesn’t need me to worry for it.
What are you working on now?
I have this policy of trying to develop a form and style over two books, and then pushing on. So I’m now involved in a hellishly complicated third-person, action-packed plot which is, as it were, intensely contaminated by the style of Europa and Destiny — to generate a constant sense of lost control. Control, it seems to me, is the myth that underwrites most contemporary narrative, most of all the movie. The plot? The hero is a judge. But it’s not a court-case book. The setting, somewhere, sometime in England. The first sentence which set the whole thought process going: “There is no life without a double life, and yet one wearies.” That should be enough.
Tim Parks will read from Destiny at Dutton’s Brentwood on Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m., and at Borders Books, 1414 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, on Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. He’ll take part in the panel “Dysfunctional Families, Functional Fiction” at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Saturday, April 29, at 10:30 a.m. Readers curious to learn more about Parks’ work can visit his Web site at www.timparks.com.
Destiny | By TIM PARKS | ARCADE PUBLISHING | 249 pages | $25