If you’re from the UK, you’ll know exactly what I mean by a Marmite novel: you’ll either love it or hate it. Charles Lambert’s new novel is made up of 24 themed chapters, each of which has 10 paragraphs of 120 words and if you’re already stalking off towards the hate camp thinking ‘how tricksily pretentious’, bear with me – I hope to persuade you to love it. Written in the third person, it’s a book of memories – some playful, others melancholy; some gloriously beautiful, others starkly spare. The themes are many and varied, ranging from sex to fear, death to music, celebration to work, and ending with books. Each is introduced with a single word followed by a phrase picked from within the chapter which I found myself looking forward to, searching out like buried treasure and wondering why that particular one had been chosen. Woven through these 24 themes is a man’s life – sometimes recalled in impressionistic sketches, sometimes in vivid snapshots.
The beauty of this book lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Here are a handful of my favorites but there are many more to savour: as a child ‘Home is the busyness of the kitchen, where what’s left in the mixing bowl is his, and the oven can burn his hand.’; ‘With a rustle like fire, the crack comes running across the ice to greet them.’; in adolescence ‘Each body is strange to him, and frightening, his own most of all.’; in later life ‘A good age is when people you don’t know – movie stars, politicians – die’; ‘If music is the food of love, then canned music is the bolted snack’ on hearing Joni Mitchell’s Ethiopia playing in a supermarket. It’s billed as a work of fiction but it’s clearly autobiographical – in his acknowledgements Lambert thanks all the people who appear in it and there’s a particularly nice touch when the narrator arranges his books by the colour of their spines thinking that one day he would like to be published by Picador, which Lambert is. There’s even a reference to Marmite in the hunger section when, succumbing to an attack of the munchies, the narrator finds a jar five years over its sell-by date thrust to the back of a cupboard and tells his friend ‘You’ll love it or hate it’. His friend replies ‘I’ll love it’. So there it is – a Marmite novel, and I loved it.
This is the third novel written in short paragraphs I’ve read this year – the first was Dept. of Speculation, the second The Wives of Los Alamos. Two seems a coincidence, three makes me wonder if it’s a trend. First World War novels aside, have you noticed any trends in fiction this year?