I’ve recently finished Joseph O’Neill’s debut This is the Life which, like his break-through novel Netherland, manages to capture and hold you from start to finish although the topic seems at first glance to be equally dreary. (Netherland is a novel about cricket)
The hero of This is the Life, solicitor James Jones who is just as special as his name, works happily through his daily routine when somebody from his past surfaces seemingly just to destroy this serenity. Once, Jones seemed to have had the chance of obtaining tenancy at a well-known court but ultimately failed to do so. Now, Jones’s old mentor, secret hero and star-barrister Michael Donovan walks into James’s office just to ask for help with the divorce suit his wife Arabella has filed against him. From then on James tries to make meaning of his failures in the past and all the seemingly mysterious events that surround the law suit Donovan vs. Donovan. Knowing only bits and pieces, James tries to construct a coherent narrative which always strives to do justice to his hero of old. Everything Donovan does seems to hold a mystery for James and in the end he is so caught up in his own fantastical musings that he almost gets fired.
Eventually, he has to face the fact that everything he puzzled together comes to naught and that the events just are what they always seemed to be on the surface. There is no mystery to the lawsuit of the Donovans and no mystery to how he didn’t get tenancy at Essex court. Disillusioned about Donovan and himself, James finally returns to his daily routine.
O’Neill’s novel is written in a thoroughly realistic mode, it presents a world we can recognize and which is consistent in its inner logic. The author, being a barrister himself, writes about what he knows, the workings of a London court, legal proceedings and the study of the law. All in all, we can easily recognize O’Neill’s London as what it was like at the end of the 1980s. And yet, in spite of the “reality effect” of O’Neill’s writing, the simple story of the life of James Jones gets a postmodern twist by Jones’s quest for hidden meanings in every little detail and his almost obsessive preoccupation with Michael Donovan. More and more the reader gets drawn to the idea that there must be more to Donovan’s behavior, that something other than the mere surface facts must be available. We are primed, just like Jones, to expect the unexpected, a cabal, a conspiracy of some sort. But, a blow to postmodernism, there is no such thing. In the end nothing unexpected surfaces, there is not only no conspiracy but there is also no confusion about the actual events. It becomes evident that all mystery simply originated in Jones’s objective presentation of events, in his need to make some meaning of his past and present to come to terms with who and what he is.
Yet, despite all defiance of postmodern cabals, O’Neill’s novel doesn’t satisfy traditional definitions of realism either. Events are just what they seemed to be. But there is nothing beneath the surface of these events, no enlightenment. There is simply nothing there to come to terms with, there is no category of “experience” introduced, nothing to gain any knowledge from. Neither is reality in any way negotiated, and O’Neill’s attempt to read something deeper into it fails. Thus, one might hold that This is the Life is what has come to be called a neorealistic novel; a turn back from postmodernism to realistic modes of writing but without the agenda of traditional realism.
This makes the novel an enthralling and at the same time disappointing reading experience which leaves the reader with an uncanny sense of lack, loss, an empty spot where something meaningful should reside.
(For more on “surface-knowledge” see: Winfried Fluck, "Surface Knowledge and 'Deep' Knowledge: The New Realism in American Fiction." Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction, ed. Kristaan Versluys. Amsterdam, 1992, 65-85.)