Tricks Of Memory
Novels by Francesca Segal and Anna Stothard take on the plight of the modern Millenial
What if Holden Caulfield had been, not an adolescent in 1940s New York, but a modern Millennial? He’d have had an Instagram account — @CatcherInTheRye — streaming mood-lit pictures from Central Park, Greenwich Village and the Rockefeller ice rink. To be a teenager today is to have every spit and cough of angst photographed, hashtagged and live-tweeted.
The 16-year-old Gwen in Francesca Segal’s second novel The Awkward Age — her debut, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel Award — writes an online diary, illustrated with shoebox-theatre scenes of family, friends and boyfriend re-created in modelling clay. It is read, to her irritation, not just by other agonised art students, but by her “traitorous” mother.
She wanted the blog to capture the formative events in her life, good or bad, while as much as possible sparing the humdrum, or repetitious. This was not the way her friends depicted themselves on the Internet but she had no interest in varnishing her life as they did, glamorous moments threaded one after another like an endless string of glossy and identical fake pearls.
How unvarnished is she willing to be, though, when life gets very bad indeed? Segal has written an unnerving cautionary tale. The awkward age isn’t Gwen’s alone. Her widowed mother Julia has fallen in love after ten years’ loneliness and doubts her right to her late, little mess portion of happiness. Gwen’s grandmother Iris, seemingly so certain as she shops in Selfridges and takes taxis to the Wigmore Hall, reverts to the blind and stroppy fury of a sixth-former when she is betrayed. One dreams at 16 of growing out of doubt and ill-fitting skin, but what if it never ends?
Gwen, who feels herself to be “no sort of person at all, only a wisp”, imagines her dioramas will serve their purpose, that at some point self-possession will be hers:
This was her coming of age story, after all, and one day when the story was over and life had acquired stability — perhaps when she was twenty-five or twenty-six — its coherence and powerful narrative thrust would be united into a book, or possibly an animated television programme, her own history re-enacted by tiny clay figures in shoebox worlds. It would be an album of memories. It would be proof that she had been, and felt, and lived.
Gwen’s faith in her “Art” with a capital A is pricked by her unfeeling family: “a joyous adolescence playing with Play-Doh won’t pay the gas bills later on.” Her step-brother Nathan, raging when her state-school exam results beat his Westminster ones, tells her: “Amazing for a school like yours where everyone does Goat Milking and General Studies and fucking Art, amazing for you with your accidental, ‘Oh, I only care about rainbows and glitter and oops! I get As.’”
Segal’s characters are utterly convincing. Nathan is the worst sort of public schoolboy. His arrogance is total: “He was not such a statistic — he went to private school, for God’s sake.”
Segal’s is a clever, cruel, redemptive, psychotically acute novel that made this reader grateful to have been at school just too early for Facebook, selfies and an “online community” baying for news of your latest boyfriend.
There is a very different sort of memory-making in Anna Stothard’s fourth novel The Museum of Cathy. Gwen has her shoebox scenes, photographed and made public; Cathy, a natural scientist, has a private cabinet of curiosities, a wunderkammer of objects, each one a memory, a trauma, a wound. It is a beautifully written novel, sinister and strange. Much of it takes place in the cavernous central atrium of Berlin’s Museum of Natural History, but the mood is one of extreme claustrophobia, of the past pressing in.
Cathy might have put her former life away in little drawers — toys, shells, gift shop trifles, a gold Buddha, tarot cards, cocktail umbrellas, a used Paris Metro ticket — but when Daniel, the man she has tried to lock up, the tiny brass key kept inside the pages of her Encyclopaedia of Insects, finds her, she is forced to remember what each object represents. “Her private museum’s purpose was not to escape her past, but to control it.”
The cabinet throws us back in short chapters to Cathy’s childhood, playing with Daniel’s younger brother Jack on a beach in Essex, and a teenage Cathy becoming Daniel’s lover. You want to weep when Daniel picks up a pair of child’s glasses with “Whizz Kid” engraved on the slightly bent left arm. Daniel is a subtle villain, a goose-bumpy, prickles-on-the-back-of-your-neck one. There is something of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in the way he makes Cathy distrust her remembrance of events.
Stothard reminds us of the unsettling power of the smallest object — a lead soldier, a knocked tooth — to raise ghosts from the past. Can anyone say the same about the online detritus of our over-recorded lives?