Untangle Yourself

Aged sixteen, I read Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water for the first time, inhaling it over the course of two days, and then read Sick Notes and then Cold Water again. Her first two novels detailed a world I knew well as a teenager: afternoons in Manchester’s Central Library; nights at the Star and Garter; short-lived flings. They felt important to me in a way that few others did at the time. Perhaps for this reason I’ve felt uneasy about writing on her work. At what point does familiarity shade into overfamiliarity; overfamiliarity into a critical handicap?

For example: up until re-reading Riley’s novels in quick succession for this essay, I believed them to be lyrical but basically realistic depictions of everyday life. Somehow, I’d never noticed just how narrow her focus is. None of the following (commonplaces?) appears in her novels:

  • Groups of friends
  • Sexual pleasure being experienced by a woman
  • Full meals being enjoyed by a protagonist or her friends (food exists in Riley’s work but only as an optional extra. Characters consider buying chocolate bars and then don’t; gaze into empty fridges; talk about the sum total of what they ate on the previous day: ‘half a cabbage, shredded’. Full meals are coded as either suburban – and so associated with the protagonist’s mother and tense restaurant scenes – or bestial, and so associated with characters the protagonist finds repugnant, such as the father in First Love (2017), who dies from overeating)
  • Queer women
  • White-collar work
  • Close relationships with siblings
  • Happiness for no particular reason, just because
  • Sport
  • Pets
  • Non-terrible holidays (i.e. for relaxation, not for escape/to pursue someone who is bad for you)

I could go on. Until her latest novel, My Phantoms, Riley has zeroed in on the same handful of themes: unhappy love affairs; life when books and films feel more real and more vital than the people and places around you; British cities (largely Manchester in the early novels); and the protagonist’s difficult relationship with her parents.

Riley grew up on the Wirral but published her debut, Cold Water (2002), while studying in Manchester in her early twenties. You get the sense in interviews that she doesn’t think much of her early work, but that short and sharp first novel set a blueprint for the next four. Cold Water, Sick Notes (2004), Joshua Spassky (2007), Opposed Positions (2012), First Love (2017) – each is told in the first-person by a female narrator who seems set to a different frequency than the world around her. She’s usually over-sensitive, preoccupied with questions of authenticity, bleakly funny.

Minor biographical details and supporting characters vary, but the novels all riff on what are effectively the same three characters (or four, if you read the American man in Sick Notes, Joshua Spassky and Opposed Positions as the same character, which I do). There’s the protagonist and there’s always the protagonist’s mother – an extroverted woman who was physically and emotionally abused by her first husband, the protagonist’s father. Then there’s the protagonist’s father, who is a dim-witted bully.

My Phantoms marks a radical break inasmuch as it strips this already minimal focus back even further: her usual handful of topics is slashed to just one. Placed under the microscope is the protagonist’s mother, Hen, ‘a person without bearings’. As per her daughter Bridget’s perspective, Hen is petulant, self-absorbed, incapable of an original thought, much less an original sentence, desperately insecure and allergic to the idea of therapy. Riley – always at her sharpest when writing about contempt – reaches blistering heights. ‘My mother loved rules’, she writes. ‘She loved rules and codes and fixed expectations. I want to say – as a dog loves an airborne stick’.

Unlike in previous novels, we are only granted access to the protagonist insofar as Bridget relates to her mother (for instance, we’re never explicitly told what Bridget’s job is – it is hinted that she’s probably a university lecturer). It struck me that this might be a clever reversal of the cliché that it’s disorientating for children to imagine their parents living before they themselves existed. As such, we only get the narrator-as-daughter, rather than a fleshed-out character. It gives the novel the sort of tidy claustrophobia typical of rooms devised by Bond villains, walls sliding in on each other.

It isn’t meant as a swipe when I say the outlook in these works is essentially teenage. It’s not that Riley’s work is emotionally stunted, only that her protagonists seem to operate much as Salinger’s do, within a strict self-imposed moral framework (if weaving in Salinger here seems like a stretch – as per a 2004 interview with Riley: ‘I love Salinger most of all’, ‘Buddy Glass…gives me a whole other kind of feeling, some kind of sense in my soul’). Of course, self-adopted rules – as opposed to the social ones followed by Bridget’s mother – are not in and of themselves teenage. But they often stem from that specific moment in life when you venture out into the world for the first time, encountering the inauthenticity and ugliness which governs much of adult life. Devising and imposing rules becomes a way to reassure yourself: I won’t be like that; I won’t become a phony; I won’t lose my dignity.

These self-imposed rules crop up a lot in Riley’s novels: ‘Lose your temper and lose the fight. That’s a life rule, but it’s hard to keep to’ (Cold Water). ‘I just can’t endure conversations which aren’t conversations. I won’t have any part of that’ (Sick Leave). On learning of the protagonist’s habit of not getting into relationships, her lover has the measure of her: ‘So, what, is that a policy decision?’ (Joshua Spassky). ‘Untangle yourself. Stop saying you love him. You’re wearing a groove in your mind. Say it when you mean it. Save money’ (First Love).

Arguably, the first rule of the Riley canon is this one: ‘leave the things that make you lonely. At all costs, leave’ (Sick Leave). Her novels are clear on how a self-respecting person should conduct themselves – this is a lesson imparted through Riley’s protagonists, who have a difficult decision to reach. They can make ugly moral compromises: have passive sex with men they don’t feel much for or escape to America or pursue someone who doesn’t treat them well. Or they can stay true to themselves and make peace with their loneliness, refuse to lower their standards, because what’s the point? As Natalie puts it in Joshua Spassky’s most third-whiskey-at-4am sentence: ‘When you hold another person, I think you’re only ever holding onto your own fathomless situation.’ 

This, I remember vividly from my own teenage years: some persistent hunch that connection was rare, that self-reliance was the main thing. Where did this stem from? Certainly not from inner grit – nobody would consider me ruggedly independent, nor was it contextual (I had and have a close-knit family; an instinct for intense friendships). All the same, the memories that linger from those years are of facing down strange and unsettling scenes on my own: after one ugly incident, buying a bus ticket so I could cry on the top deck – if I had cried in my bedroom, the friends I was living with would have wanted to know what was wrong. So maybe this was why Riley’s novels appealed so much. They deliver a very particular kind of happy ending: her protagonists typically end the novel alone, having achieved some sort of self-sufficiency.

But while the first rule leads to Riley’s version of a happy ending, it creates an issue for her mothers and daughters. They share one key characteristic: they’re lonelier than anyone else in these novels, all the way down to the marrow. The tension between them stems from their markedly different reactions to this loneliness. As per her rule, The Daughter curls in on herself, lives through novels and films and writing, tries to find a hard centre of self-reliance. In contrast, The Mother grows sadder and more desperate, looks for distraction in the form of second husbands, cocktails, new homes, holidays. Riley’s first rule has always meant The Daughter responds to The Mother’s coping strategies with a degree of contempt. In My Phantoms, it has blossomed into full-blown repugnance.

This is a shame. For me, the strongest parts of Riley’s canon on The Mother are the passages that function like that optical illusion which in one moment looks like a vase and the next you realize is two faces. The best passages are those where you think: The Mother is a monster! And, simultaneously: The Daughter is a monster! I love the part in Cold Water where Carmel tries to help her hoarder-mother by cleaning out the fridge, and her mother, who presumably has a better sense of the family’s finances, grows desperate and starts rummaging through the bin bag trying to salvage anything still edible, an image so offensive to Carmel that she pours the bin bag’s contents over her mother’s bed in a rage. Is the best moment of Opposed Positions the mother’s attempt to be ‘practical’ when child-Aislinn reports that she doesn’t have any friends, feels lonely, and suspects she doesn’t exist? When she tries to draw up a list of pragmatic solutions to these existential feelings on the cardboard from a packet of KitKats? Probably, though I also enjoy the exchange when Aislinn refuses to look at photos of the mother’s city breaks with her second husband: ‘“You’re so rude,” she’d say. “Why are you so bloody rude?” Once I came out and said it: “Because you terrify me and I can’t stand it”. “Well then”, she said, “then you must pretend to be interested, like a normal, civilised grown-up.”’

There are moments in My Phantoms when Bridget’s own moral failings in the relationship are implicated. But largely, the novel seems to flatten this complexity. Bridget is a Riley protagonist in outlook, if in not much else. All of the romantic struggles of before? Gone: Bridget has been with the same man for years. Money problems? None to speak of. Moments of desperate neuroticism or loneliness? Quite the opposite, she is quietly satisfied with her lot. Bridget, with her steady outer and inner life, seems largely above criticism.

In contrast, Riley has turned the dial up in creating Hen. Hen is The Mother, but in the worst condition we’ve seen her yet. She is now 68 years old, alone and simultaneously incapable of being alone; living in a ‘student block in a student area’ in Manchester, having been exiled from Liverpool by her brutish second ex-husband. She has a full social calendar and no real friends. She has health issues. She’s The Mother at her most fragile and most infuriating.

The novel also boasts a character who seems to have been invented purely to confirm to the reader – as if intent on winning an argument – that Hen’s awfulness isn’t Bridget’s delusion. On learning that a Riley protagonist is happily coupled up, the reader is agog: what is Riley’s idea of a pleasant man? The Riley canon has boasted approximately as many over the years as it has unicorns. So imagine the disappointment when you realize that John is basically a cipher. The only time you get to hear him speak at any length, it’s about Hen, and his voice is practically indistinguishable from Bridget’s. Conveniently, he’s a therapist, which means his thoughts (‘She’s clearly frightened of engaging. That’s a sad thing. A sad and defensive thing.’) are not just an opinion, but something approximating a diagnosis.

In the earlier novels, there’s a sense that the protagonist is deeply preoccupied with her mother, despite the mother’s failings. In Cold Water, Carmel’s brother suggests that their mum probably didn’t confide in her about re-initiating contact with an old ex-boyfriend ‘because you’d get all obsessed and weird over it’. There’s a sad passage in First Love about Neve trying to get close to her mother as a child, trying to kiss her mum’s bare feet, who reacts with horror (‘“That’s like what a…boyfriend would do,” she said. “Not your daughter. No.”’). That there’s none of this in My Phantoms doesn’t ring entirely true: why lavish so much attention on someone you despise so completely?

Maybe I’m being unfair. The position the novel espouses is an interesting, if chilling one: real connection is challenging, if not basically impossible with certain people. Conversation is 90% showboating, we talk at cross purposes, we make microscopic digs at each other. My Phantoms is a real book, as per that hoary Kafka definition (‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us’). I don’t care how healthy your connection with your mother is or was – it’s impossible to read My Phantoms and not feel something.

All the same. My Phantoms, which is largely composed of vignettes showing Hen at her worst, made me think of a trope from Riley’s earlier novels.

Cold Water: ‘Dad always seemed to photograph Mum when she was off guard; when she’d woken up, when she’d come in from shopping. He thought it was funny. He was trying to get one over on her. That’s why they’re ugly pictures.’

Opposed Positions: ‘He liked to take photographs, too. I know that was a craze for a while. Whenever she was harried or un-made-up would do: when she was cooking, or when she was ill. When she was on the toilet was a favourite (he unscrewed the lock from the bathroom door the day they moved in).’

It’s a brilliant novel, but it’s horrible, too – the book-length equivalent of photographing The Mother on the toilet (a scene Riley already wrote in First Love). Riley has always been especially skilled at psychological minutiae: at teasing out a character’s pretensions, self-delusions, desperations. To train that attention exclusively on The Mother at her lowest points makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. Presumably this discomfort was the primary mission of the novel? If so: Mission Accomplished. My Phantoms is impressive as a refusal to sentimentalize a relationship that’s commonly sugar-coated.

When I finished it, I felt out of sorts. I was either going to call my mother that night and the following night and every night that week, or I was going to never call her again. Our mothers are terrible, but I suspect we’re terrible too.

Read on: Emma Fajgenbaum, ‘Memoirs of an Undutiful Daughter’, NLR 120.