Tuesday, July 3, 2012

ONE DAY/David Nicholls

I'm always way behind the curve on fads and trends (usually, in fact, I manage to miss out on them altogether, or deliberately spurn them out of distaste for the sheep mentality). This book became a huge sleeper hit about three years ago, and has already been made into a film. I'd heard quite a bit about it, but never thought I'd bother to read it. However, being on holiday, I have lots of time for reading, and so...

The book's conceit is to chart a relationship between a man and a woman over nearly twenty years by presenting a snapshot of their lives on a single day in each year - the same day, July 15th, year after year. It's an intriguing idea, the kind of thing that helps to sell a book to publishers, and also perhaps to many readers. But it is a gimmick, and gimmicks - unless deployed very skillfully - soon become tiresome. David Nicholls does carry this off pretty well, I think; but over the course of a long-ish novel, the constant repetition of the one-day-per-year device starts to grate. Perhaps the overall span of the book is more the problem than the one-day premise itself: while some of the individual day-chapters are quite short, several of them are fairly substantial, and so the book as a whole ends up being nearly twice as long as you'd expect. I would have been quite happy for him to skip a few years here and there.

Another problem, I found, with sustaining interest in such a lengthy tale, is that neither of the protagonists is really all that sympathetic. Dexter is the more obvious monster, a narcissist and an alcoholic. But Emma - the  smart, principled half of the pair - becomes increasingly alienating as the story wears on: as she assesses herself late in the book, she is "self-pitying, self-righteous, self-important, all the selfs except self-confident..." - and hence rather tiresome company after the first two hundred pages or so.

The book is often very funny, although elements satirizing British class consciousness, London nightlife during the 1990s, and popular television will be largely missed by, and perhaps even alienate non-British readers. Also, I feel it is a structural or stylistic weakness of the book that it is just a bit too funny, or more particularly that its two lead characters are so relentlessly funny. Emma converses almost entirely in barbed one-liners, and Dexter more or less matches her in wry wit, which seems at odds with his supposedly nice-but-dim character. Their voices aren't really distinguished from one another, and they don't come across in their speech as believable characters. And there is an awful lot of dialogue in this book - perhaps a result of Nicholls having cut his teeth as a TV screenwriter. It's diverting and amusing, but it fails the realism test - and there's a bit too much of it. (One of Emma's boyfriends is an aspiring stand-up comedian, who is mocked for trying too hard to be funny all the time, and failing. His humour is lame, and too effortful, but it is the overdoing of it that is the main object of scorn - and this is a vice that Nicholls himself might have done more to guard against, I feel. Moreover, on a related quibble in regard to realism, I do not believe that a struggling, unfunny comedian could ever survive being in a relationship with someone who is effortlessly witty all the time.)

I didn't find the central premise of the story plausible either. Emma and Dexter get off with each other at a student party and wind up in bed together, but - somehow - don't actually have sex. However, they become best friends - though there's clearly an intense sexual chemistry between them (well, Emma is outright infatuated with him; Dexter feels a deep affection for her, but, as he is handsome and wealthy, he gets more sex than he knows what to do with, and so is perpetually distracted from pursuing his apparent "soulmate"). I do not believe such an intense and exclusive friendship is possible between a man and a woman, even without the complication of frustrated mutual attraction. And the will-they?-won't-they? tension between Em and Dex - clearly the main hook for the reader - soon becomes less titillating, more irritating. Fifteen years of coitus interruptus is no fun for anyone.

I had some problems with the one-day structure as well. It's just not plausible that so many significant events in the lives of this pair would happen on this one day. Furthermore, given that the significance of anniversaries is elsewhere prominently noted in the book, it's not plausible that neither of them would ever remark on this being the anniversary of their first getting together. The choice of date is jarringly weird as well: I found myself repeatedly stumbling over some dissonant fact - They're putting on a school play in the middle of July? They're having university graduation ceremonies in the middle of July? Wimbledon is still going on in the middle of July? These are all events that we would normally expect to take place 2-4 weeks earlier. Perhaps Nicholls was trying to subtly signal to us that his story is set in a parallel universe where things are not entirely as we know them? Or perhaps he is just unconcerned about factual accuracy: a lot of the social and political references he throws in are very token attempts to underline the passage of time, and some of these don't seem quite right to me either.

Nicholls writes very well, but could have done with a better editor. There were a few linguistic tics that really started to rankle with me, things that could easily have been removed. I like the word 'woozy', but it is a rare-ish and unduly eyecatching word, not one to be overused; I certainly don't want to be encountering its adverb form 'woozily' every single bloody time anyone's had a drink. Nor, come to that, do I want to be given the excuse every time someone gets 'woozy' that it's only because they've been drinking "on an empty stomach". (There is rather a lot of drinking in this story. Dexter clearly has a major problem with drink, but strangely - and rather unsatisfyingly - this is never directly addressed.) Another example: there are many ways in which you can describe someone repositioning themselves in bed, but Nicholls latched on to 'shuffling' as a placeholder - and so, in the opening scene where young Dexter and Emma are sharing a bed for the first time, one or other of them 'shuffles' a good half a dozen or so times within the space of two or three pages. I find this kind of sloppiness intensely annoying.

The key to the book's extraordinary success has usually been identified as its having equal appeal to both male and female readers - the romantic element supposedly appealing more to women, but the unconventional nature of the romance and the associated social commentary making it more acceptable to men. Nicholls is astute in his observations of human foibles, particularly in regard to the failure of romantic relationships. This book is an easy - though slightly overlong - read, extremely funny, and in places quite moving. However, I'm afraid I didn't find the characterization - or much of the background detail - convincing, and I have mixed feelings about the success of the structural gimmick on which the book is based. I am a hopeless romantic slushbucket, a man with a strong 'feminine side' and many close female friends - the ideal reader, you would think, for a book like this. Unfortunately, this tale of thwarted romance failed to charm me: the characters are unlikeable, their relationship unbelievable, their predicament uninvolving.


Olga J. said...

Sounds like a laborious read. I think I'll just watch the movie :)

Froog said...

Just saw the film on HBO. Interesting how completely this story fails on the screen, despite the radiant presence of Anne Hathaway in one of the lead roles.

The charms of the book lie in its incidental detail (most of which had to be trimmed for a 100-minute movie), and perhaps in its slow build-up of tension (if you care about these characters, you will be increasingly concerned over whether they will finally get together during the several hours it will probably take to read the book; that sensation doesn't have time to develop over the course of a much shorter film).

But I think the main problem is that the medium of film ruthlessly exposes the fundamental shortcoming of the story concept: the idea of a man and woman falling in love in their early twenties but then not getting around to doing anything about it until their late thirties just isn't at all engaging. Or believable.