The Idea of England
At regular intervals, after writing a novel set in Europe or America, Caryl Phillips returns to the country that seems to affect him like no other, and that has been as fertile a ground for his imagination as it is barren for his characters. A cosmopolitan traveler who has lived for many years in the United States and whose work often follows the tracks of the black diaspora across Europe, Africa and the Americas, Phillips has nevertheless remained rooted to England. His first novel, published in 1985, was called The Final Passage, as if there was no going back for the characters who had left the Caribbean for England: having disposed of their belongings, said farewell to their friends and boarded the ship, they were condemned to stay on in an indifferent mother country, desolate figures shuffling through a grim postwar landscape, their final passage bringing full circle the journey set in motion by the Middle Passage of African slaves shipped by the English to the sugar islands of the West Indies.
If the characters cannot return, the writer, however, can. Phillips's latest novel unfolds in contemporary England, a world, at least in its external markers, far removed from the gray zone etched in The Final Passage nearly a quarter-century ago. In the Falling Snow pulsates with the bright materialism of New Labour. There are Pizza Express outlets everywhere, bottles of Sancerre are as ubiquitous as bottled water and the municipal councils are so enlightened that they are equipped with race relations units. As for Keith Gordon, the middle-aged protagonist, he belongs to English society in ways that his fictional West Indian predecessors couldn't have imagined. Raised partially by a white stepmother, married for many years to a white woman from the Home Counties, he is also the head of the Race Equality Unit in a government agency in London. Still, from the novel's first scene, in which Keith heads to an assignation with a young co-worker named Yvette, it's clear that some things haven't changed in Phillips's England. Keith may be a smartly dressed urban professional, but he still maps the city into the sections where he belongs and those where he doesn't, as in this suburb, where he sees people fighting the impulse to cross the street as he walks toward them.
There's more, however, to Keith's lacerated sense of self than the edge of racial difference. When he sleeps with Yvette, a recent hire at the Race Equality Unit and herself of European and African descent, the sexual intercourse between them, perceived through Keith's point of view, is layered with details yet stripped of all affect, as if Keith is removed from the act even while it occurs: "He watches as she loses herself in what he imagines is the familiar entanglement of female feelings of guilt and vulnerability, but he is untroubled by her temporary plight." If there is any emotional backlighting to their coupling, it is provided by Keith's regrets about his separation from his wife, Annabelle (caused, so he says, by a single, drunken act of infidelity), and his worries about Laurie, their troubled 17-year-old son. But Keith's feelings about them seem to be on a low setting, emitting a steady but dim glow. The measures he takes to sort out his tangled relationships just make things worse. He terminates the affair with Yvette, in part because he can't commit to being with her beyond their interludes of joyless lovemaking; but he breaks things off so awkwardly, and with such indifference, that she brings a sexual harassment charge against him. When Keith is forced to go on leave by his manager, his isolation is complete.
Despite giving the appearance of experimenting with form, Phillips's fiction has always been steeped in realism, deriving much of its emotional charge by setting the story of a character's education, his or her Bildung, in a rich social and historical setting. It seems reasonable therefore to see the central theme of this novel as the unmaking or remaking of Keith in contemporary England, and the novel's third-person narration seems to emphasize this by staying within Keith's point of view, following it closely across rapid shifts in time even as the present tense of the main story ensures that we experience immediate events at roughly the same pace as the protagonist. If this approach demands from us a willing immersion in Keith's life, it also requires that Keith be able to hold our attention, and that the novel animate his existence beyond the situational details (the separation from his wife, the sexual harassment charge and the estrangement from his son) or contextual markers (blackness, masculinity, middle-age alienation and millennial dysfunctionality) that accrete around him.
Keith's confession that he will fill his solitude by pursuing a long-deferred ambition to write a book about soul music, reggae and "World Music" offers just this sort of promise. Another novelist might use this kind of project to signal something about the protagonist and the laws that govern his or her world. With Phillips, one expects him to tap into a vein from his nonfiction writing on music, which includes a superb piece on the R&B singer Marvin Gaye in the essay collection A New World Order (2001). The possibility that Keith will engage with Gaye is a tempting one, and not just because the singer's life and work spiraled around race, social unrest and sex. Gaye's death at the hands of his father mirrors, in a different time and place, Keith's uneasy relationship with his father, who lives somewhere in the north, and with his son, who exists in a land of youthful rebellion that Keith can't comprehend, let alone visit.