Satire, Opening Onto Sincerity

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Jonathan Gibbs’ The Large Door

Jonathan Gibbs, The Large Door.
Boiler House Press, £10.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Admirers of Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall (2015) will be happy to know that art is also at the centre of his follow-up, The Large Door. Randall, Gibbs’ début, is a gleeful skewering of the British art scene in the 1990s: it imagines an alternative timeline in which the late Damien Hirst is succeeded by the even more egomaniacal Randall, an obstreperous artist who plays the role of Virgil to the reader’s Dante on a panoptical tour of the Britart Inferno. The Large Door is not about the art scene as such, but the core of the novel dwells at length on visual artistry, and gives the book a lens through which to pose questions about the nature of making art and the responsibilities of the artist.

For the most part, The Large Door is a tightly contained novel, more localised in its narrative action and more bounded by internal constraints than the sprawling, freewheeling Randall. The story takes place over the course of a weekend in Amsterdam, where a middle-aged linguistics lecturer named Jenny Thursley is slated to speak at a Festschrift event for her one-time academic supervisor. Jenny doesn’t know exactly what to say, or, more provocatively, what she might end up saying impromptu, on the spur of the moment. She wants to honour the valedictory spirit of the occasion, it’s true, but she also remains haunted by an incident in which her supervisor once made a pass at her, and by her silence on the matter over the years that have slipped by since then. During her time in Amsterdam, while she wanders the city and drafts her speech and wrestles with the past, she strikes an acquaintance with Jaap Vos, a seductive academic-on-the-make, and struggles to come to terms with (a) belatedly learning that her supervisor is terminally ill and (b) suddenly realising that she is the only person not already aware of this. On the whole, and only on the surface, The Large Door reads like a campus novel blended with something like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956), in which a midlife crisis, verging on a full-scale existential dilemma, unfolds in a timespan so tightly compressed as to be claustrophobic.

It’d be misleading to say that The Large Door is a lesser work than Randall. It’s more the case that it unfolds on a different scale, being self-consciously not a maximalist novel. By comparison, then, it is less ambitious and somewhat more cautious, more inhibited, in picking out targets for full-throated satire. But, taking as given its relative circumscription, it has the same swift narrative momentum and the same propulsive quality to its prose. There’s hardly a page that lacks some sparkling turn of phrase, some energising construction. When Jenny steps into the path of an oncoming cyclist, the cyclist yelps, swerves, then peddles off, “throwing back over her shoulder a no doubt withering and entirely justified kite’s tail of invective.” Just prior to this, when Jenny embraces an old colleague with whom she has regretfully lost touch, Gibbs writes that she breathes in deeply, “hoping to take into herself something of Frankie’s scent, some thread of spoor leading back to the past, but there was nothing, just the sterile residue of hotel soap and shampoo.” Elsewhere, the prose engages in light formal play: lines of text break off suddenly, without a full stop, as characters backspace the messages they’re writing on their phones, and one scene describes a presentation delivered at an academic conference by allowing the prose to devolve into hurried notes: “M wrong about JV … Men use their intelligence tactically, like women use make-up, hair, clothes. Intellect as clothing? … Fundamental beliefs = underwear? Hygiene. Support. For e.g. the woman with JV after coffee break.”

Those notes, it must be said, belong to one of the weaker parts of the novel, a subplot involving two of Jaap Vos’ graduate students and their attempts to insinuate themselves into his personal life. Yes, this subplot is on point, dovetailing elements of linguistic theory with the broader narrative events. Yes, it’s also thematically apt, offering new angles on the theme of seduction that suffuses the account of Jenny’s experiences in Amsterdam. But Gibbs develops it in such detail that its length is finally disproportionate to the significance of its contribution to the whole. In fact, it’s the one strand of The Large Door that gives away something of the novel’s creative origins: The Large Door began life as a short story, ‘Festschrift’, published in gorse magazine, and while most of it doesn’t feel like an expansion on a brief work, Jaap’s students do feel like ancillary players, appended to a larger narrative rather than integrated into it. This isn’t alleviated by the fact that the students’ arc is fuelled by a dramatic conflict that doesn’t meaningfully diverge from Jenny’s. Jenny’s is simple enough, a neat pair of will-she-or-won’t-she? dilemmas: will she or won’t she reveal the truth about her supervisor’s indiscretion? and will she or won’t she be seduced by Jaap Vos? The students implicate themselves in something similar, albeit at a more relaxed pitch. Although not lacking a share of the novel’s high points and stylistic verve, their confusions too often read like a recapitulation of Jenny’s to warrant the time devoted to them.

But — and this is very much worth stressing — none of those criticisms speak to Gibbs’ handling of seemingly superfluous material in general. The central scene in which Jenny encounters a work of art, for instance, is also only barely integrated into the broader narrative, yet it is arguably the high point of The Large Door in several respects: stylistically, conceptually, and in terms of pure narrative pleasure. It helps that this scene is preceded by another in which Gibbs shows his mastery of subtext and implication. Side by side, Jenny Thursley and Jaap Vos walk along the canals of Amsterdam discussing nothing of great importance, exploring the differences between a tourist’s view of the city and the lives of its residents, and peppering their exchange with plenty of wordplay and linguistic dexterity: “Glib, glibber, glibbest”, says Jenny. “Glibber. My god, that must be the worst word in the English language.” The entire scene could have been condensed, or perhaps even cut, with not great loss to the narrative, minimal impact on Jenny’s dilemmas. But as the two characters walk on — with the reader knowing that Jenny has been encouraged to become familiar with Jaap, and that Jaap has a reputation for seduction, or at least a reputation for carrying about him an air of seductiveness — the scene becomes a masterclass in restraint, innuendo, and the regulation of pace as a way of building suspense. As they talk history, capitalism, legal prostitution, theory and politics, their verbal thrusts and parries transmit both a literal meaning, appropriate to the moment, and a more subtle meaning that illuminates the unspoken dynamics of their relationship.

When Jaap leads Jenny into a terrace house, where one whole room is devoted to displaying a painting from the Dutch Golden Age, Gibbs heightens the register of the prose and lets the novel soar. It’s always a gamble for a writer to attempt a description of a work of art, mostly because it’s difficult to find language to describe an inanimate object without belabouring the passive voice, but Gibbs gives five pages to detailing this one painting, plus a few extra pages to a discussion in which Jenny and Jaap call out some of its particular features, and the result is a stretch of ekphrastic prose that doesn’t falter for an instant. That’s the stylistic achievement of this scene. Its narrative achievement is simpler, bringing suspense to the situation as Jenny and Jaap face the prospect of being caught out in illicit behaviour, but here, too, Gibbs toys with language, particularly Jenny’s inability to understand Dutch, to conjure suspense from his stylistic devices as much as from the situation. It’s the conceptual achievement of this scene, however, that really gives it a depth and substance to overwhelm its brevity, to break the bounds of the chapter and touch the novel as a whole. At first glance, its conceptual significance might seem no great achievement at all, a simple infinite regress: the painting that Jenny beholds, in a room devoted exclusively to this one work of art, is a painting of a woman who has her back to the viewer, in a room almost identical to the one in which her image has been hung:

[Jenny] took a step back and looked again, and gasped out a laugh that, instinctively, she swallowed back. Yes, it was true.

The painting was placed in the room such that the viewer stood not right in front of it, but a few yards back, in what she supposed was the natural viewing position, [and] found herself in relation to it as the woman in the painting did to the room she was in.

Following Jenny’s realisation of the significance of the painting, she and Jaap engage in speculation about the situation of the woman in the frame, subtly involving her in several potential narratives of their own devising. Then the conversation becomes more explicitly regressive, applicable to the situation at hand, almost addressing the reader of the novel — “What I find so strange”, says Jaap, “is that it’s unclear if we are dealing with allegory or realism” — and finally, daringly, Jenny Thursley peels back the very pages of The Large Door to direct a message at her creator and at us:

If you took the logic of it seriously, the logic of whoever had put this painting here, and arranged the room around it, you would have to assume there was another person, someone else, behind her, not with them in the room, but entirely outside its frame, outside its order of perspective, as this room was outside the frame of the room contained in the painting. And that person, in whatever extravagant exploded dimension it would take to turn the room she was in into a picture, or an object of aesthetic perception, would be looking at the room she herself was standing in, and looking at the back of her head, at the tip of her nose and the crest of her cheek… and they would be wondering about her and her actions and intentions, trying to guess them from her not-quite-visible face, just as she was considering those of the bonneted woman. …

She wanted to turn around and look at that person and address them, as she imagined the woman in the painting, if she were given the ability to do so, would want to turn and address her, anyone looking at her. She wanted to tell them, you don’t know what’s going on in my head. My thoughts and desires and intentions are not yours to know. They are barely mine to know myself, and I’m not going to let you near them.

There are readers for whom this sort of thing is pretentious, an invitation to toss a novel aside. There are readers for whom it’s a snooze — been there, done that, so much pastiche of Pirandello’s Six Characters (1921) — and there are those for whom it’s not quite a deal-breaker so much as an irritant, a blot on an otherwise worthwhile book. In the case of The Large Door, however, I think it’s something else, very much worth dwelling on. It’s not just a feature of the novel’s design, I think, but also an integral component of its moral and political purposes.

Let’s take seriously the implications of Jenny’s thought experiments. If we slowly withdraw from Jenny as the observes the painting, pushing through the layers between the character and ourselves, what will we find at each stage of the process? First: a character with “thoughts and desires and intentions” that are chaotic, contradictory, and at best opaque even to herself. Second: a narrator who accesses her thoughts, and transmits them to us, often through a free indirect style that inevitably alters them, appropriating them, summarising and rewording them. Third: a narrative structure in which characters repeatedly find themselves in objectifying situations, either appraised by others as objects to be possessed or, more disturbingly, appraising themselves as objects worthy of possession. Fourth: an author, a male author, who manipulates his materials to create this structure, this narrator, this character, each of which speak of and to the treatment of women by men.

There’s more in the mix, too, particularly when it comes to addressing the subject of female desire. A number of female characters break with heteronormativity, sometimes confidently, sometimes not: Jaap’s two students are both women and are sexually involved, though not exclusively so and with a degree of gender fluidity, and Jenny herself was fleetingly involved in a homosexual or bisexual relationship at one point in her past. Bearing in mind Jenny’s thoughts in front of the painting, her denial of her creator’s authority and her doubting of the reader’s capacity for true sympathy, it’s difficult to know what to make of a passage like this, in which Jenny reminisces on her affair with a woman:

She saw Frankie’s bust rise, and then settle. It was not maternal in effect, but matronly. What was hard was to marry the sense of this clothed bulwark, fixed and impregnable, with the flesh that lay beneath or behind it, fatally susceptive. Frankie’s breasts, splayed as they would have been down across her body, as they lay in bed, had always been pillars of her strength. Jenny’s own had only ever been boobs, tits, inconsequential puddles in comparison, barely worth mopping up.

This passage is difficult for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, right now, in 2019, it’s difficult to imagine a man writing freely from a woman’s perspective as she appraises women’s bodies, without having created a conceptual framework that allows the woman to pre-emptively challenge his authority in doing so. On the other hand, it’s also difficult to see where Gibbs might want to lead us by short-circuiting the reflexive, readymade response that our cultural discourse makes available to us. The scene in front of the painting doesn’t seem to be part of a strategy for Gibbs to give himself a license to write about women in this way. Yet neither does it seem to be a device for just batting aside any moral and political impositions on the exercise, for flippantly spotlighting the reality that Jenny Thursley is “only a character” towards whom nobody has any meaningful obligations.

So, then, what? There’s a loss of stable ground for readers involved in this situation — not knowing what to make of The Large Door when the terms of the scene with the painting are fully taken onboard — and I’m tempted to say that this loss presents its own sort of moral challenge, which the novel alternately pushes its readers to rise to and to fail. Let me backtrack a little. I glossed over something when I wrote, above, that The Large Door is more cautious than Randall with respect to satire. In fact, The Large Door goes to some lengths to balance its satire with instances of disarming sincerity. The balance it strikes between these effects seems to be carefully calibrated, and operates on both a macro and a micro level. At the macro level, the novel opens with a satirical portrait of Jenny and ends with a maligned character’s sincere apology. The satire amounts to a gentle mocking of the stereotypically addle-brained academic: “As in the manner of these things, Jenny had spent the weeks leading up to the trip resolutely avoiding doing any work whatsoever on her speech. Procrastination, she told her students often, is a skill well worth developing. It allows you to get a hundred small things done.” The sincerity amounts to the self-laceration of a man already reeling from other existential troubles: “I want to say it. I fucked up. With you. … I didn’t try to make it right, when it happened. And [so] I sacrificed our friendship out of fear of being made to feel small. I had a million chances to apologise, and I ignored them.” The one scene offsets the other, tempers it with a dose of a different tone, and Gibbs often strikes a similar balance on the level of the sentence or the paragraph. Take another look at the passage above, in which Jenny dwells on her breasts in relation to Frankie’s. The first three sentences are pure sincerity. The last two aim for satire. More than that, and most importantly: the satire is deployed as a defence mechanism, a means of deflating the sincerity, even almost belittling it. It’s as if the default response to honest emotion, here, is an aversion of the gaze; the emotion burns too brightly to continue looking at it.

Can we look without looking away? Not just practically, but temperamentally: can we dispose ourselves to honour an act of sincerity with appropriate attention? It takes effort. To be sincere is to make oneself vulnerable to others. So, too, is to give oneself over to protracted uncertainty, and to make oneself available to seductive manoeuvres. All of these things involve exercises in trust, in the hope that one’s vulnerability, once exposed, will not be exploited. But the discomfort of the exercise can spur any number of attempts at distraction or misdirection, at downplaying one’s vulnerability: blunt dismissals of sincerity, self-deprecation, ridicule of others, and, yes, forays into satire. This is all the more true if we are conditioned, enculturated, to make recourse to one of these outlets and use it as a safety valve in moments that are emotionally charged. And, equally, the conditioning, or the enculturation, makes it all the more challenging to not default to an avoidance strategy, to fight the instinct to look away and instead to stare straight into someone’s heart.

The Large Door simultaneously pulls its readers in one direction and pushes us to take another. By opening in the satirical mode, and by repeatedly employing comic relief, it enculturates its readers to see satire as its baseline way of proceeding, to grow comfortable with the rhythms that return us to it. But then it punctuates the satire with moments of deep sincerity — in Jenny’s misgivings about her supervisor’s advances, in Jaap’s misgivings about his relationship with his students, in the scene between Jenny and Jaap as they observe the painting — and we, as readers, are faced with a challenge. Can we try not to respond to these moments the way we have been enculturated to respond? Can we admit their gravity and not crave the levity of the satirical drug? Can we resist the kneejerk dismissal, or the kneejerk critique, and instead bring ourselves to accept the sincerity on its own terms? Take pause, think twice. Can we soften the sharp edges of instinctive scepticism, rein in the reflexive swerve away from earnestness?

Over and over again, The Large Door tests us. One of Jaap’s students finds herself disturbed by her own use of social media on a smartphone — she opens her camera app, switches it to the front, and watches her face become “a blurred mash of pixels” — so that she tries to theorise its effects on her experience of the world. She regrets succumbing to habits that “concertinaed together action and reflection, text and interpretation, collapsing idea and reality, emotion and response into one virtual space. What had felt like intelligent insight [when shared on social media earlier in the day] now felt queasily personal.” But how seriously can we take these thoughts — with how much good faith can we accept this character’s anxieties — when this passage follows on from a passage in which Jenny similarly theorises her experience of eating canapés at a party?

It was a blini with a thick smudge of sour cream and something herby. She popped it into her mouth, then turned with the waiter as he continued past… and took two more.

Frankie was nodding with overt appreciation. “These are good,” she said.

“They’re like sweets,” Jenny said, wanting to be clever, wanting to be loved. … “Each individual one is only really pleasurable to eat insofar as it posits the pleasurableness of the next one. … Pleasure deferred, infinitely, or as close as. Which means, I suppose, that it’s only ever the last one that truly tastes good.” She put another blini in her mouth.

Or, equally, how seriously can we take Jenny when she waxes poetic about the honour that Jaap bestows upon her intellectual endeavours, and its erotic undercurrents in the context of an academic conference, given an earlier, snide remark on her presence at academic events? “In showing [her] her own work in a new and kindly light,” Jenny feels,

Jaap was entering into an exchange with her thoughts and ideas that was powerful enough to cross the mind-body membrane. Was that not the dynamic underlying every academic exchange? The corridors, the journals, were full of it. Conferences were simply where what was latent became manifest.

We speak of admiration, respect, friendship. But if the expression of that admiration takes the form of the sexual, who’s to say that’s not appropriate?

How poetic, how eloquently reasoned. How heightened the language, how sincere the sentiment. But how are we to take this sincerity after Jenny has been bluntly denigrated by another character, in private, as “a regular conference shag”? If, after this point, Jenny were to sleep with Jaap, what would she be substantiating? The satirical view of her character or her own sincere yearning for connection, physically as well as intellectually? Can we accept that she might be substantiating both, without allowing the baseline satire of the novel to depreciate the value of her sincerity?

Later events in The Large Door pose different questions of a similar type. What if Jaap were to be ridiculed for his awkward dancing, and then want to dance for his own sincere gratification? What if Jenny were to be looked at aslant by a group of young people, contemptuous of her age, and then want to spend time in their company, sincerely, to bask in the glow of youth? Can we see the behaviour of these characters as silly, perhaps even inappropriate, but also an expression of need, not worth writing off? Can we do other than make a judgment of the whole on the basis of something incidental? Can we register the ways in which a person might be out of tune with their peers, or periodically misaligned to the spirit of the times, or simply impolitic, and yet refrain from quick damnation? Can we do the same for an entire book? Even one that strategically entices us to take the easy out? Can we accept knowing that a character is “only a character”, and that she may well suspect she is “only a character”, while also accepting that our knowledge demands something more of us than playing along with a metafictional send-up of conventional reading practices?

Towards the end of The Large Door, Jenny asks herself two pointed questions about the sincerity of one’s conduct in a public forum: “What are the options?” and “What is permitted?” She poses these questions only rhetorically, but she seems also to want some actual answers as she casts about for ways to express her sincere admiration for her old supervisor. She is afraid that the speech she has already written is “trash”, and that the speech she may yet write will be “hedged about with the worst kind of mawkishness” now that she knows of his terminal illness. Sincerity is not an option, apparently; she is doomed to be an object of ridicule when she speaks before the assembled crowd. In contrast, she realises, Jaap has managed to express his sincerity towards her, in a series of emails regarding her work. These emails, which amount to “a personal commentary on what had seemed to her the driest of academic papers”, seem now to turn her work “into something more than that, something worth reading, worth having written.” How does Jaap manage it? He makes himself vulnerable to her. When he gives a warm, “genuine” response to a dry subject that doesn’t seem to warrant it, he does so at the risk of coming across as a bore and he owns this behaviour. Crucially, though, Jenny only sees this vulnerability in him when she slows down, walks back her initial judgments, revises her reflexive responses. The paragraph in which she thinks on him begins with these words: “She considered Jaap again.” Deliberate reconsideration, in a context of impulsive dismissal, is an act of generosity, and as The Large Door oscillates between satire and sincerity, it seems to me to be testing our capacity for exactly this — or our capacity to re-accustom ourselves to enacting it.

When The Large Door is set beside the monumental Randall, I imagine there will be an inclination for some readers to diminish its lasting value, to conceive of it as chamber music within earshot of a symphony. In a certain sense it may be so, and ultimately I do still feel that Randall is the better novel, but when I take pause and think twice, there’s a thought I keep coming back to. It’s this: if there’s a sense of achievement to a novel like Randall, given that it amply delivers on its promise of sprawling iconoclasm, there’s a similar sense to The Large Door, given the way it purports to offer pleasures of a more restrained sort and yet manages to invest them with unexpected depths of significance. Like the painting Jenny admires, its meaning overflows the limitations of its form. Despite its slimness, to look up from its pages and away from its words is to find oneself looking at a world that still bears the impression of its questions.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Birmingham, England. His début novel, Blood and Bone, was published in 2014 and won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. His second novel, At the Edge of the Solid World, will be published by Brio Books in 2019. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.