Novel. Novelty. Newness. The newest literary form. Only a few hundred years old. A callow youth compared to poetry and drama. Its name suggests that, whenever you read one, there should be something you’ve not come across before.
However, this is usually far from the case. Your average potboiler serves up something familiar you know you’re going to recognise and not object to. From formulaic Peter Robinson/Lynda La Plante potboilers to Misery-Lit to police-procedurals as full of twists as Saturday Kitchen.
And then there are novels like Dogged. Emma Purshouse has made her name as a poet and performer and has acquired a reputation as one of a number of writers (Kit De Waal being the best-known) who are tagged with the “Working-Class-Writer” label.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity, but it’s a shame that such fine writers get herded into a nice, neat paddock before people have even had a chance to see how good they are.
Martin Amis didn’t get labelled as posh-sons-of-posh-famous-writers whenhe wrote The Rachel Papers, even though that’s his weakest work. So, why, then would anybody want to put Dogged into any sort of pigeonhole?
In style, it’s a sophisticated synthesis of picaresque adventure plus Woolfian stream of consciousness (extending to pets, naturally), a tragicomedy which dilutes neither the tragedy nor the comedy, with characters so lightly-drawn they float above the stereotypes that might otherwise weigh them down.
The tale is of two septuagenarian ladies who attempt to hang onto a big bingo win under threat from addled heroin addicts and leeching family members intertwined with the love-life of a vet, whose habit of bringing his work home proves a considerable disincentive to seduction. I’ll spare you the details, but I haven’t crossed my legs since.
In tone, the nearest thing I can compare it to is Anna Burn’s wonderful Milkman, in that it creates a self-contained, claustrophobic universe via the medium of the language which defines life’s boundaries. Which is a fancy way of saying it uses Black Country dialect, though that, in itself is as fancy a thing as Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, Joyce’s Dublin or any of Borges’ imaginary cities.
And there’s the thrill of it: if anyone tries to pigeonhole this as working class fiction they should be bashed about the head with stolen library copies of Hobson’s Choice and then made to swallow the first draft of the screenplay of This Sporting Life until they surrender and admit to liking PG Wodehouse.
The ending’s as chaotic but crafted as the Beatles’ A Day in The Life; there are laugh out loud moments (I still won’t cross my legs), and the refreshing way it treats older people is a tonic that means old age has no fears.
If there were any justice in the world, this would win some prize or other. However, this isn’t a fair world so until then you’ll just have to enjoy novels like this that turn life’s reverses into gold.