The Trick of It, by Michael Frayn

 Two professors of literature, old friends, one in England (RD, our narrator), one having emigrated to Australia (R), are writing letters to each other. This suggests one of the many metaphors in The Trick of It (Viking, 1989, 172 pp.): “Forgotten questions and meaningless answers passing each other somewhere over the Indian Ocean at thirty thousand feet—an image of human communication. Of love and literature and life.” So is this an old-fashioned epistolary novel? Far from it. The Trick of It is a marvelous, sparkling-new one-way-epistolary and modern piece of metafiction. I would rank it right up there with Don DeLillo’s White Noise as one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century.

This book is about a book written (brilliantly) by a literary critic who never quite figures out how talented he is as writer of fiction. The narrator, RD, Richard Dunnit—as in Who Done It? He done it, but he never knows he done it—has devoted his professional life to researching the works of a woman writer, JL. Then he invites her to speak on campus. She comes up from London, he meets her, sleeps with her. He has opened a huge can of worms, and only much later does he realize that on that day the story of his entire subsequent life began. With the invitation he has set in motion the plot.

He writes to his friend R, “The fearful truth is that I am in love. Possibly. Or possibly not. I am in something” (31). What he is in is literature. His life, which, previous to his first encounter with JL in the flesh, was his own, ostensibly real life, becomes immersed now in a fiction—and will continue so immersed for the remainder of the action of this novel.

Much later he looks back on the day his life changed. “This whole strange painful thing, as I now see it, is in a sense my creation. I wrote the first sentence, just as she might write the first sentence in a novel. I invited her to come and be talked to, and from that everything followed.” All through the subsequent narrative he is dimly aware of what is going on. “It’s me doing what she does,” he thinks. “Not in ink [he adds], but in breath and in skin.” And yes, ultimately, in ink as well.

Soon after their first meeting he marries JL, goes on studying and teaching her works, while, simultaneously, studying her in the flesh, trying to figure out the secret of her creative talent: the “trick of” writing fiction. She is aged 44 when they marry, he is 32. Fifty pages later in this short novel she has made it almost to 48, and by that time their marriage in on the rocks.

We never learn JL’s real name, although the narrator, who “loves the ludic touch,” refers to her by various nicknames, all infused with light irony. As the story goes on the names seem more sarcastic than ironic: MajWOOT (major writer of our time), Her Maj, Her Majesty, HM. Little by little we learn the titles of her novels; At the beginning her novels are just letter abbreviations, but halfway through the book there is a listing of them all: The Book of Angels’ Dreams, The Sunday Runners, Falling Down Duke Street, Scatterbrain, Whistling Woman.

Not much is quoted from JL’s works, but RD makes them sound fascinating. They are replete with bizarre incidents and personages: a psychic lemur, a superstitious dog. A family refrigerator suddenly bursts into flames, the sky rains down cornflakes (and later gooseberries). In JL’s most recent novel, written after her marriage to RD, we have “aircraft tumbling out of the sky, a dog eating half an old-age pensioner, a girl raped on a runaway Underground train by a group of marauding Centaurs.”

Here is a citation from one of her early works, The Sunday Runners: “The train stopped in a small grey town full of chapels and boarded-up warehouses. She could not see the name of the station. The only words visible were on small shops in the street outside. Fags ‘n mags, said one of them. Cash in a flash, said another. An old man in a ragged overcoat walked slowly down the street pushing a pram with a dog sitting in it [the superstitious one?]. No one got out of the train, no one got in. Discouraged, it began to move out of the station. The old man in the ragged overcoat stopped to wipe the drip from the end of his nose on his long woolen scarf. ‘Here,’ she thought suddenly. She dragged her suitcase down from the rack, opened the door and jumped down on to the slowly withdrawing platform. ‘Here is where I will start my life.’”Like everything else we learn about JL, this citation is filtered through the imagination of her husband RD, who quotes the passage from memory.

Although the reader’s take on RD is mixed, and ever more negative as the book progresses, JL is presented consistently as a highly positive character. Although devoted to her writing, she is not obsessed with literary art to the exclusion of all else and all others. At one point she takes an interest in RD’s poormouth West Yorkshire relatives: “they think she’s wonderful.” Later she nurses RD’s mother in the final days of her life, treats her as a real daughter would, while son RD largely ignores poor old mum. JL never makes an independent appearance on the page until way late in the book, but what becomes the ordeal of her marriage makes her ever more sympathetic.

Before he even meets JL the self-obsessed RD assumes that he knows everything about her, knows her even better than she knows herself. How? Through study and teaching of her fiction. But the entire book is a refutation of this smug assumption. What RD knows about her is only his own invention—his imaginative re-creation of her in his mind through blowing on her fictive sparks until a fire flares up: largely his own private conflagration. After they are married she writes another novel, and this time the critic RD—assuming that he knows best how her novels should be written—begins hounding her to change it according to his own specifications.

His wish to tell her how to write is grounded, of course, in an inferiority complex. Like so many literary critics and teachers of literature RD has a secret wish to write fiction himself. After he sleeps with JL the first time, adding actual physical intercourse to the mental copulation he has engaged in for years, RD exults in what he sees as his equality: “I couldn’t help thinking that this was a revenge for all those long years when she had been up there, oblivious of me, and I had been down here gazing so intently up at her. Because here she was gazing no less intently up at me; and for that short time she knew me. She knew me as I knew her, and we were equal.”

Revenge. Not a good way to begin a courtship. But after their marriage they are still far from equal. She who knows “the trick of it,” the secret code of fiction writing, is still up there and RD is still down here. The ignominious life of the literary critic, in RD’s view, has him constantly writing not on the genuine front side of paper, but on the backside of something with writing already on the front; using not one’s own sui generis ideas, but the ideas of others, “other people’s books, other people’s imaginations, other people’s lives.” Meanwhile, JL has read not a word of what he has written about her in his articles.

Here is what RD writes to R on the eve of his wedding to JL, and it certainly bodes ill for the fortunes of his marriage: “I thought I’d end up married all right—married to the wife of one of the major writers of our time.” At the very start, therefore, the reader anticipates that the marriage is doomed; RD, with his corrosive envy, will be “the bump in the road that brought the whole rickety load tumbling off the back of the lorry.” In his persistent efforts to dominate his wife, and to keep her isolated from the world, RD moves her twice, first out of London to his provincial university town, then to the Persian Gulf, where he takes a position as professor. Meanwhile, he goes on mindlessly destroying their life together, while convincing himself that his intentions are benign: “I merely want to help her to locate the true shape and nature of the book [her new novel, The Invisible Banquet], to discover what is still hidden inside herself.”

 

All that I’ve written above—about the struggle of a would-be author and literary critic to assert his ego, while deflating the ego of his wife, who is a genuine author—sounds like a grim business. It is nothing of the sort, because The Trick of It sparkles with wit. The book is FUNNY. Take the narrator’s view of his rivals, fellow researchers on JL, fellow university professors in the U.S. One of them is “my esteemed colleague Vlad the Impaler,” who is “always masterfully sweeping his specimens off on joint family holidays in Tuscany before he puts them into the killing bottle and pins them into his collection.” RD takes swipes at Vlad throughout the narrative, but only on p. 146 do we finally find out Vlad’s real name, Vladimir Katc. Another is Dr. Swoff, or Spoff, or Snoff, or Sloff, a woman who RD imagines ingratiating herself with JL by visiting from abroad, “bearing little jars of home-made-arse-salve.” Later on RD reveals with a smirk that Dr. Sloff is not a real woman at all, but “a humorous personification of the Society for the Propagation of Feminist Fiction.”

Also hilarious is the description of RD’s “seduction” of JL, at which event he discovers “an appalling solecism”: her underwear “dsntmtch.” At first he is too embarrassed to write the actual words down on paper: “doesn’t match.” Then he experiences “the sense of outraging a divine sanction . . . “a taboo against intercourse with an author on your own reading list.” Rife with hilarity, The Trick of It has a belly laugh or two on practically every page.

There are several main characters in the novel, but there is really only one: the solipsistic RD. Early on RD asks R, his correspondent from Australia, “You are keeping these letters, aren’t you?” The narrator makes it clear that he wants his letters to be published some day. He’s thinking at first of a critical study, later of some kind of biographical account. We the readers are aware of what he never learns: that we have in our hands a scintillating work of fiction, a one-way epistolary novel.

How and why is the narrative “one-way”? Let’s say a few words now about the other end of the correspondence, Prof. R. He teaches German literature in Australia, specializing in the romantic poet, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875). We are not privileged to read R’s responses to RD’s letters, but from what we learn of him it appears that he lives a normal life, with love affairs and, eventually, a marriage and children. This while, simultaneously, RD marries a writer and begins living a life in literature, becoming, as it so turns out, more a character in a novel than a real person.

RD says the following in reference to letters he wrote and never sent to JL shortly after they first met, but this passage looms large in the context of the book as a whole: “It was all a dream. A fiction. A private video inside my head to keep me going on the long ride from here to nowhere.” This, in fact, is a description of RD’s relationship with JL, and it could serve as an epigraph for The Trick of It.

Since everything in the book is mediated through the consciousness of RD, R himself is less at times a real person than a fictive correspondent of RD, who invents R’s responses in order to have a conversation in his mind. On the eve of his wedding he holds a solitary “stag night,” drinking malt liquor while pretending that R is drinking along with him and they are getting lachrymose. Again and again the principal irony of the whole book is emphasized: that RD, who thinks he doesn’t know how to write fiction, is writing fiction all the time, making up facts and personages.

Repeatedly RD invents R’s response to something he has revealed to R, then argues with that response. This is the rhetorical device known as prolepsis. See, e.g., p. 143, where he complains about R’s “ill-concealed scorn” (invented by RD), then goes on to say, “I’m not going to say anything more about it to you, for that matter, since you’ve taken it the way you have.” The real R has not taken what he has been told in any way, since he has not yet received this letter in progress. Again and again RD invents imaginary dialogues between himself and R.

The real R makes an actual appearance in the book, when he, his wife and child, visiting England from Australia, drop in on RD and JL. But, once again, we are not shown that scene in a straightforward way. Like everything else in the book it is mediated through RD’s mind in his letters. A telling detail is this: the two old friends do not get on very well when they meet again in the flesh. By this time RD prefers the R he has created in his own imaginary dialogues: “I’ve had better conversations with my fictitious version of you in one of these letters.”

This is a book full of metaphors, good metaphors, extended metaphors. Take this early passage: “I will write a long letter to my old mucker in Melbourne, I thought, and kill two birds with one tome. I’ll get it all off my chest (does this poor exhausted metaphor refer to some mysterious weight pressing on the outside or to bronchitic lungs full of phlegm within?), and at the same time relieve the dreariness of his Australian exile by providing an opportunity for jealousy, irritation, disapproval and condescension. So here we are off my chest and on to yours—a great gob of narrative phlegm, spat ten thousand miles down the airways by your fellow-toiler in the vineyard of knowledge.”

This is a good sample of the way that RD writes. Note the sheer literariness of his style and the tongue in cheek. Note, e.g., the way he “kills two birds with one stone” by rejuvenating two tired clichés in one passage. Note, especially, the irony, what he calls the “light ludic touch.” Several times he mentions that the perpetually serious JL, who “never laughs,” has not one iota of the ludic. In fact, the big fight between husband and wife over her most recent novel, The Invisible Banquet, involves largely RD’s insistence on her infusing the novel with touches of light irony. JL, he writes, has “lost her taste for the ludic possibilities of fiction, when some of us have committed our lives to them.” But she cannot have lost what she never had.

More metaphors. Extended metaphors. Sometimes whole chapters are built around highly developed metaphors, as the one beginning, “I’ve suddenly discovered the joys of free-fall parachuting.” RD has rashly rebelled against prospective changes in his department and resigned from his university position. The metaphor continues. “You may, it occurs to me, think I left the plane rather precipitately. A routine announcement from the captain about diverting to a slightly different destination, and I was out the door, taking the quick way home.” And continues. “So there I am, falling down the empty sky. That’s why I’m writing. To say PLEASE SEND PARACHUTE. Because it occurred to me only when I reached to open it that I had omitted before leaving the plane to provide myself with this obvious and elementary requisite for the sport.”

Why mention all the metaphors? Primarily because this is good, good writing. Repeatedly, over the course of this short novel, the reader is reminded that RD is a brilliant writer of comic fiction. Does he realize that he is? No. Time and again he bemoans his lowly status as writer of litcrit, envies his wife the author, puzzles over “whatever it is these people [fiction writers] do, what it is the buggers do.” He despairs of ever finding “the trick.”

After a desperate move to the Persian Gulf, taking in tow his long-suffering wife, JL, he makes the logical decision: RD decides to become a fiction writer himself. After all, “it’s a trade, writing, that anyone can learn, not a Masonic mystery. Part of my aim is to demonstrate that any bloody fool can do it.” This novel is an account of a man who relinquishes all his scruples [“little white scruples scrupling in the wind”], destroys his wife’s peace of mind and ruins his own life in order to find the trick. But then he still cannot find it. First, “I believe I can see how it’s done . . . I believe I can see the trick . . . Anyone can do it, even me.” Then, finally, “After all these years I still had not the slightest idea how the conjuring trick was done.” RD gives up on the “something-or-other” that he has been toiling over, a work of fiction, and throws it in the Arabian dustbin.

At this point the novel is making its way into the place that any great comic novel eventually comes to. The “light ludic touch” fades, and we are into serious pathos. Adrift in the searing desolation of the Persian Gulf, the ever-more-desperate RD describes how JL, whom he has tried to bully into changing her new novel before publication, has nursed his mother in the end. “She was the one who coaxed her into the local hospital, and washed her nightdresses, and sat with her every afternoon while she was still conscious. . . Did I tell you my mother had died? Last November. Secondaries in the bowel. Perhaps I didn’t even tell you she had cancer. . . Or how much I loved her. . . I’m not sure I’ve even told you how much I love JL, for that matter. In spite of what you might think. . . But then men don’t talk about these things.”

Soon after this the manipulative narrator, for the first time, cites JL speaking in her own voice: “You have led me into a desolate and stony place,” she said, “and things are very bad between us. You hedge me about, you cage me and patrol me, and take all the ground and the air from around me. But you don’t own the words I say or the thoughts I think, and you never will, and you never can.” So speaks the most decent character in the book, but one whom we never get to see entirely in the clear light of day, as RD consistently throws his own oppressive narrative shadow over her.

The supreme irony of the whole novel, or course, Michael Frayn’s practical joke, and the ultimate “trick of it,” is that RD is a great writer. He doesn’t think he knows the trick, but some neurons deep inside his brain are totally confident; they know how to write a comic novel. They know not only the ludic, but also even the time to temper the ludic with pathos. One more big irony consists of hints that JL’s star is fading in academia. Her poor bedraggled husband, her tormentor may end up being a better writer of fiction than she is.

Driving back from work one day in the desert, RD brakes for an Arab on a motorcycle. The man is carrying a can of water, which spills all over the road. “By the time the crowd had dispersed, and the motorcyclist had dusted himself down, the wet patch on the road had ceased to exist. In those few minutes under the noonday sun it had lost first its gloss and then its dark wetness. It had become nothing but a faintly coastlined whiteness in the whiteness all around. And suddenly I thought, that’s not just a story about water. That’s a story about me. I could disappear off the face of the earth here just as easily, and leave little trace behind.” More pathos: a metaphor for the transience of a human life.

“You suddenly see yourself as one of those tedious, bumbling characters in an old-fashioned detective story who turn out at the end to have solved the problem.” Except that RD turns out NOT to have solved the problem (“the trick of it”), except again that, paradoxically, the book he ends up writing HAS solved that problem.

In the end, dimly aware that his letters to R constitute a brilliant comic novel, RD pleads with him to preserve the letters at all cost. R sends him a cable: “Letters Lost.” It might be a good title for this book, were the book not about “the trick of it,” which, unbeknownst to the narrator, is not lost at all. The very novel itself is a demonstration that RD knows the trick. Of course, if the letters were lost how did they make their way onto the pages of this luminous and dazzling comic novel? Only Michael Frayn knows that trick.

U.R. Bowie, author of Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of A Purloined Skull

 

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