Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Private View

Private View by Jean McNeil is another book I pulled at random from AndiF's "Brit Lit" sack.  The protagonist is a woman named Alex who is living in a London loft with an artist named Conrad, although they are not "living together" in a relationship.  Alex was once an artist but she can no longer create.  McNeil tells the story mostly in linear form but with flashbacks at the end of each chapter to a traumatic incident that Alex experienced when traveling in Central America.  Alex's lack of creativity dates from the incident and, as a result of the incident, she has suffered some memory loss.


I liked the way McNeil strung her sentences together.  In places she is almost poetic, especially when Alex is concentrating on her past.
She keeps them in a deep drawer, a slippery slew of unsorted photographs. She slips through these glossed slices of memory until she comes to the one she is looking for.
And yet at the same time she can write the spare modern sentences composed of brief bursts of dialog between characters.
The journey from the kitchen table to the bedroom is full of sudden silences and shynesses and negotiations. "No, it won't be a problem, don't worry about the toothbrush." "What time do you want the alarm set for?"
I thought it was interesting that the chapters that compose the linear "real time" story are numbered and had names whereas the chapters (sections?) of the story that are Alex's fragmentary memories of the incident have only an asterisk at the top of the page and no title.
McNeill's pacing of the incident story is very good.  She draws it out just long enough to keep the reader's interest and yet not long enough to be annoying.  She also tells all of it and yet still has Alex not remember certain essential pieces - memories that she may never regain.  I did not think the pacing of the real time story worked as well.  It was almost as if McNeil had so many ideas for good "scenes" that she wanted to get them all in and sometimes they seemed forced.  For instance, the eventual disclosure of the complete picture of Alex's relationship with Conrad seemed almost an afterthought - although it couldn't have been because everything led up to it.   And part of me thinks that Alex's sexual relationship with her female co-worker was put in, not as a true character building device, but as a means of diverting the reader's attention from what the female character was going to bring to the plot later in the story.  In other words, that McNeill didn't want us to guess her background and so tried to divert us with sex.   
But, despite my confusion, on the whole I enjoyed this novel.  I especially liked the many discussions of the various types of modern art that Alex and Conrad would see as they went to "private views" of their friends' and acquaintances' work.  And the final description of the incident that Alex endured stayed with me for weeks.