Book review: Life-like by Toby Litt - marriages on the brink

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

by Toby Litt
Seagull Books

Toby Litt's books have always been so markedly different from one another that it's a challenge picking up the common thread between crime thriller, parody chick-lit, Jamesian meditation and cod-rock memoir. Yet the characters of Paddy and Agatha keep popping up like fixtures on a dinner party circuit, whose behavioural tics and conversational repertoire one has come to recognise.

The couple first appeared in 2004's Ghost Story, a claustrophobic narrative in which Agatha succumbed to agoraphobia, having miscarried her second child.

Life-Like collects the stories that Litt has published detailing the subsequent course of Paddy and Agatha's relationship, which has endured without exactly going well. In the first sentence, the couple's four-year-old, Max, breaks his arm when his bedroom door blows shut.

Paddy - a philosophy lecturer who was supposed to be on parental duty - knows that the accident is his fault. But he is also determined to leave, as scheduled, for an academic conference in Hull: "The fact that it was Hull seemed to make it less defensible than Glasgow or Manchester. The place didn't possess any philosophical gravitas."

The relative unimportance of short stories is emphasised by Litt's self-deprecatory statement that one piece here, John & John, "won the semi-widely known Manchester Fiction prize". It's also notable that this story - an interior monologue in which Agatha's writing tutor attempts to banish pornographic thoughts while listening to a meditation tape - is the most mannered and indulgent episode in the collection, although it sets up a cleverly bifurcating structure in which Paddy and Agatha's new partners meet new partners who each reveal their own narratives and so forth.

The most affecting tales turn out to be those which feature Paddy and Agatha's rather smug friends, Henry and May, who also first appeared in Ghost Story. In that novel, May's success in bringing a baby girl to full term increased Agatha's despair. Now their marriage is also in trouble, as Henry, a journalist, succumbs to a disastrously cliched affair with a young woman in the office, while May seeks solace in online computer gaming.

There's a hilarious narrative in which she seeks out a role-playing game that will be as violent as possible: "May wanted killing. Lots and lots of killing. She'd had quite enough of birthing, mothering, caring, loving. It had done nothing but make her unattractive and unlovable."

Litt's stories can be a little abstruse and inconsequential at times, but there is hardly one that fails to deliver a small, sad observation of this quality.

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