Robert Irwin: Tom’s Version
This book, in a way, is a follow-up to Irwin’s The Runes Have Been Cast, in that key characters from that book are key characters in this book. However, this book very much stands on its own and you do not have to read The Runes Have Been Cast to appreciate it. Anything relevant from that book is explained in this one.
The book opens with nudity. A group of people have all taken their clothes off, one but only one reluctantly. It is one of those organisations where people get together to find themselves, called an encounter group. It is called Quaesitor which seems to be a real thing. A more famous version is the Esalen Institule. The participants are all white and middle class. There are six women and six men plus a male moderator. They have to remove their clothes because clothes are just another form of armour that would conceal their real personalities. I am not sure that my real personalty would be revealed, were I to be naked in the company of twelve strangers. Indeed, as in his previous book, I am assuming that Irwin is mocking the whole charade. This, by the way, is taking place in October 1970 in London, when people might have been more inclined to do this sort of thing.
Eventually, they are paired off and each couple has to co-counsel one another. This takes place away from these sessions. Molly, the key character from The Runes Have Been Cast, is paired off with the eponymous Tom.
We learn that Tom is Irish. He wants to be a poet but feels he cannot compete with W B Yeats. He has promised his girlfriend there, Maeve, to come back a poet but it is not working out. He is currently a warehouse supervisor. Molly’s issue is that all the men in her life have been disasters. However she would like to be an adventuress like Constance Markievicz, a friend of Yeats or Lola Montes, also Irish, despite the name (Max Ophuls’ film of her life is well worth seeing) In short they want to resolve these issues though we soon learn that both have an ulterior motive.
Molly, it turns out, has written a book, a Russian novel, and she is promoting it as is her publisher who calls it a Dr Zhivago for the seventies.
Things get more complicated when one of her exes seemingly wants to shoot her (for which Tom is drafted in as a bodyguard) and another returns from the dead.
More particularly Irwin has great fun mocking all and sundry such as NASA looking for Martian ghosts and a dead man outlining his theory on what makes a story (a well-made story has to have an end and a point ) and we get into that old idea (thank you, Pirandello) that readers and characters are one and the same.
His mockery does not stop there. Indeed there is little he does not mock: Oxford dons editors/reviewers of the Times Literary Supplement (Irwin himself is a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and says of them here that they are hard-bitten, hard drinking types with a taste for paratactic prose. The sort of people who cut their teeth on Hemingway and Chandler – no doubt Mortimer Salter, the TLS fiction editor who appears here is based in a real person), ghost hunters, academics with strange literary theories, people living in the past, second-rate writers, people who use big words to show off their learning, misogynists, and those academics/literary types. etc. who live in their own little world and ignore everything and everyone else (you are not human beings. It seems that you have no parents and you have no children. If you have friends and neighbours you do not talk about them) and lots more.
There is a plot which involves our main characters running around, often behaving badly, under the somewhat naive and questioning eye of our narrator, Tom. Much of it revolves around the apparently very attractive Molly and her various past and present beaus who disappear, want to kill her or who, more normally, want to get her into bed. Characters turn up and then disappear and then reappear. Somehow Tom, who thinks that he is not part of the story but discovers that he very much is, has involvement with all of them, wittingly and unwittingly.
One key plot element concerns an Oxford don, Raven, who tutored several of the key characters. He had a colourful history but is now dead. He comes back from the dead (in the form of a tape recording) to tell all our protagonists what is what, as regards his story, his theory of how stories should be told and how he tried to make some of them part of a manipulated story. This leads on to a general theory promoted in this book, mentioned above namely that the characters are both character in the story and tellers of the story. The quest for the meaning of your story is the meaning of your story. His idea was to make three of them a Jules et Jim ménage a trois. It did not quite work out.
The other key theme is that nothing is what it seems, a common theme of novels. Raven, for example, has a back story which turns out not to be accurate. Both Tom and Molly pretend to be at the encounter group for one reason but, as we learn, they both have another reason. There are many other examples of this and it goes further when one of the participants at the encounter group who moves into the main story is a professional magician and is, of course, deceiving. Illusion and deceit are doubtless key to many novels and certainly are to this one.
Of course, though this is (probably) not a detective novel, it ends up with the key characters meeting in the lounge of a country house for the denouement. There is no detective, as there is no murder – yet, though one is promised.
It is all enormous fun as Irwin enjoys mocking all and sundry and giving us a somewhat improbable and complicated plot. If only the real world could be non-fiction says Mortimer Salter the TLS fiction editor. Fortunately it is not.
First published in 2023 by Dedalus Books