With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert: A Marmite novel

With a Zero at its Heart 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?

7 thoughts on “With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert: A Marmite novel”

  1. The short paras/vignettes thing is definitely a trend. Reasons she goes to the woods is 120 or so paras, each a page long. Last year HHhH was in short choppy sections … but this is the most stylised it seems with the 10 x 120word format. Having said that Geoff Ryman’s 1998 book 253 has 253 characters on an underground train each with a story 253 words long and they all interlock!

    1. Susan Osborne

      So it is a trend! Thanks for reminding me about 253 which I enjoyed very much. I have to admit that I thought this one might be a little tricksy but it flows so well that it seems effortless, although I’m sure it was far from that.

  2. How interesting! I like the sound of the premise and the vignettes approach. I’ve also noticed a trend towards vignettes/short chapters – Hanna Krall’s ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’, published in the UK last year, is another (although the original was written a few years ago).

    1. Susan Osborne

      Not just a trend in Anglo literature, then. Presumably it was the same in the original? I think a writer has to be very skilful to pull this structure off and maintain a narrative flow. All too easy for it to degenerate into a fragmented mess.

  3. Pingback: With a Zero at its Heart: update | CHARLES LAMBERT

  4. Pingback: The Children's Home by Charles Lambert: Adult fairy tale, horror story or dystopian fiction? | A life in books

  5. Pingback: Books of the Year 2015: Part 4 | A Life In Books

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.