Bathos and Bicycles

19 August 2011
St Ives, Cornwall

In which I yawn my way through One Day by David Nicholls, this summer’s It-Novel.

Spoiler warning: This blog reveals the ending to One Day

A holiday to the beach, with long train journeys to and fro, always brings out my inner optimistic book-reading tendencies – or possibly, my masochistic book-reading tendencies – in which I dutifully plan to finish ploughing through whichever worthy text of Great Literature has been sitting on my bedside table or on my bookcase for months, or the one colossus I’ve never been able to start or get to the end of. The greater and worthier the text, the thicker its volume and more impenetrably small the font size, so until I became Kindled, holiday reading material occupied a substantial portion of my luggage allowance, and endless self-debating about what to take, just in case the weather should be rubbish and I get on a reading streak, versus what to leave behind and so make a lighter bag and a generally happier life.

Now that I’m on holiday, am I reading any of them? Of course not. On a whim, I decided to buy and read One Day by David Nicholls, the “It book” of the year that everyone seemed to be reading on the Tube about 3 months ago, and which has now been (hurriedly, from the looks of things) made into a shallow, unsatisfying looking film. One Day has shifted a million copies in the UK and became a bestseller in the States (hence the film adaptation, one assumes). My motives for reading it were largely resentment, morbid curiosity as to what the formula is for a bestseller, a need not to be behind the zeitgeist, and a secret desire that it would be really, really bad – but an enjoyable kind of bad that would lead to a couple of happy hours spent mentally nitpicking and trashing it.

Happily, it delivered on all counts. A friend who ought to know better described it to me as the defining novel of the New Labour generation of 30somethings who came of age in the 90s and started on their career path in the Noughties, which is more or less my generation, give or take 5 years or so. The main characters, Dexter and Emma, appear to be about 10 years older than me – born in the late 1960s, at university in the middle of 80s Thatcherite Britain, and counting the Internet, Cool Britannia, the Gulf War and Big Brother as their cultural reference points. The story is a fairly predictable romantic comedy, starting with a one-night stand at university in the 80s and tuning in on the same day once a year for the next 20 years, as they grow up, fall in and out of other relationships, and eventually come together again. Until the Big Shock Ending (which wasn’t very shocking or very surprising to me, but more on that later).

The author has said in interviews that the once-a-year plot, as well of the tone of the book, was inspired by Thomas Hardy. The homage to great 19th century fiction is stretched further by having quotes from Hardy and Dickens as frontispieces to various chapters throughout. It’s all a bit pretentious, and a too-conscious attempt to lend the book a complexity and gravitas that it doesn’t really have. Essentially it’s an airport novel, closer to the “lad lit” of Tony Parsons or Nick Hornby than it is to anything like Dickens.

The character of Dexter is yet another iteration of what’s becoming a staple of British popular novels: the irresponsible but ultimately loveable overgrown manchild who can’t quite bring himself to settle down, grow up and turn into his dad, and who distracts himself with casual sex and drugtaking which he later learns to disavow. It’s the Loaded magazine-reading male equivalent to Bridget Jones, delivered with some panache by Hornby in Fever Pitch and About A Boy,  with less writerly skill and much more sentimentality by Parsons in Man and Boy, and now with feeling but little fresh insight by Nicholls. Still, at least Dexter feels plausible: the best part of Nicholl’s novel is (as is so often the way with modern novels, in the first chapter, where Dexter’s observes Emma’s university bedroom:

In his last four years he had seen any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album, and though he’d rarely seen the same bedroom twice, it was all too familiar…. She had that arty girl’s passion for photomontage too; flash-lit snaps of college friends and family jumbled in amongst the Chagalls and Vermeers and Kandinskys, the Che Guevaras and Woody Allens and Samual Becketts. Nothing here was neutral, everything displayed an alliegance or a point of view. The room was a manifesto, and with a sigh Dexter recognised her as one of those girls who used ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse…. Feeling for an ashtray, he found a book at the side of the bed. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, spine creased at the ‘erotic’ bits. The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same.

My heart leapt up when I read this passage in the opening chapter. I too have been in bedrooms like Emma’s, and I’m fairly sure my own bedrooms looked fairly similar to this when I was at university. I definitely recall quoting The Unbearable Lightness of Being to someone at a party in the hope that I’d get them into bed. I was impressed at how deftly and wittily Nicholls captured the pretensions of a particular kind of undergraduate arty angst and youthful idealism, and I wondered whether he might in fact be the great new chronicler of the X-Generation, now that Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis appear to have become middle-aged golfers.

Alas, the rest of the book didn’t live up to this level of wit and insight. There are another couple of “humorous list” passages, where Dexter (or Emma – it doesn’t really matter which, since they both sound the same) note the painfully generic qualities of 30something designer weddings, but mostly it becomes a narrative about how poor Dexter is seduced by the glittering hollowness of ‘yoof TV’, goes off the rails with drugs after the death of his mother, and waits around for Emma to transform herself from ugly duckling to French-speaking existentialist bombshell so that he can steal her away from her utterly cliched French boyfriend after her utterly cliched year of being a writer in a Paris apartment. Emma is written with considerably less feeling and panache – though I get the sense Nicholls is rather proud of himself for writing a convincing female character – but her scenes simply don’t have as much interest as Dexter’s do.

At least Emma fares better than Dexter’s wife, Sylvie, an occasionally amusing but crudely drawn caricature of a blonde ice maiden who doesn’t like being touched and who comes from a bloodless middle-class family who specialise in sadistic parlour games. It’s the stuff of lads’ mag fantasies – the chilly virginal wife who’s a slut in the bedroom – and a rather too-convenient hurdle over which Dexter and Emma (and their beleagured author) need to vault to get to Happily Ever After.

It all ambles along amicably enough – Dexter learns to live without booze, Emma drops something of her irritating Northern self-deprecation and post-feminist tristesse, and soon they realise they’ve become the cliches they never wanted to be – the mostly happily partnered couple in a middlebrow novel one of them spent two years trying to write – until bicycle-riding Emma gets hit by a truck one day and dies on the side of the road. It’s reasonably affecting, and even better, it gives Nicholls a chance to go on (and on and on) with Dexter’s sensitive straight boy, by now heartbroken and a rampant alcoholic mess in the light of Emma’s death. At some stage it peters out – I don’t remember how exactly – by which time my brain was the consistency of pate.

It’s a nice enough book, and I can see why it was a bestseller – easy readibility, enough cultural checklisting to seem relevant to a bookreading 30something audience, a “Will They or Won’t They?” romance that provides some narrative tension, just enough narrative flair to make readers feel they’re reading “a proper book” and not the latest Jilly Cooper, and a Titanic-like weepathon as the 11th hour showstopper. OK, so maybe it is just like Dickens.

What was missing for me, crucially, was something more than just a standard Guardian blogger level of wit and insight, or a story that didn’t creak so heavily under the weight of its own contrivances.  “It would make a good film, if they cast it right”, I thought, as I consigned it to the “Archives” section of my Kindle, and prepared to move back to the comforting moral heft and weightiness of Forster. Alas, the film version appears to have been a damp squib (though admittedly also a box office success), inexplicably casting the willowy American model-like Anne Hathaway as Emma, and the wispy, edge-free Irish actor Jim Sturgess as Dexter. From the looks of the trailer, they make a stiff, uninvolving, chemistry free couple, and Hathaway’s appalling attempt to sound like a Yorkshirewoman has already entered the annals of Bad Movie Accents. Oh dear oh dear.

Still, I’m sure David Nicholls isn’t crying – or if he is, it’s all the way to the bank. He’s hit on what is for many readers the Holy Grail – he’s found a formula that’s struck a chord with a mainstream audience, and written a bestseller. I wish him well, though I’m concerned that he might not realise how formulaic his own writing is, and might be under the mistaken impression that he’s created a work of High Art. The challenge Nicholls throws down, however, is that he has Done It. It’s an even harder task for a writer to write a complex work of fiction that also strikes a chord with a mass audience, and that’s still for Nicholls – or someone else, like me – to do.


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