Thursday, May 5, 2011

"I Could Love You," by William Nicholson


If you are middle class, or doing a little better, "I Could Love You," is not so much an escape as it is a mirror.

William Nicholson's characters can be difficult to distinguish from one another. They have generic names (Alice, Laura, Jack), are all white, and each luxuriating in the search for meaning or LOVE.

They talk similarly as well. Idioms, slang, and varied voices are not the author's strong suit, but narration itself changes pitch and tone as his assemblage of characters take turns under the literary microscope.

"I Could Love You," comes off as one of those ensemble movies that Hugh Grant stars in, featuring lots of people living in close proximity, yet only mildly conscious of one another.

"Love Actually," comes to mind.

And that's the set-up. Sometimes paths cross unexpectedly and narrative flames are sparked as a result.

This is a zeitgeist piece including references to Facebook and the MP3 player. If you are wondering whether you'll have much in common with these folks, you will, unless you're the kind who helps people in Africa or works as an undercover agent in the war on terror.

Whether you'll care about them is another question, but Nicholson is a writer of true command, a deft hand relaying a story that seems milquetoast on the surface, but offers edgy and insightful moments, meanings, and passages.

"Once you know that you don't know," he writes, "everything changes. The absurdity of so much of our lives ceases to be a puzzle. Of course we're ridiculous. Of course we make fools of ourselves. Why wouldn't we? We are fools. We know so little. But are not any the less loveable for all that."

One of the novel's strengths is its multi-generational tack. Literature has never scanted young love, but Nicholson renders the complexities and epiphanies of middle-age very nicely.

For example, Tom Redknapp finds himself oddly removed from a big issue at the hospital where he performs plastic surgeries. As the conference room debate rages, he is thinking about his extramarital affair:

"In some strange way he feels as if he's started his life over again. This time round there's no drive to achieve, no deferring of pleasure in the interests of later gain. This time, the pleasure."

The art world comes in for some particularly pointed observations the indoctrinated, and not-so-indoctrinated, may find provocative.

Nicholson's portrait of the forgotten and declining painter Anthony Armitage is a strong departure and counterpoint to the rest of the youthful, mainstream ensemble.

But as the title suggests, love is the big issue here and the characters' experiences are varied enough to offer succor, advice, and cautionary tales for those who like, enjoy, desire, or think a lot about the big L.

The author does an intelligent job of putting something across that is light and entertaining, yet somehow substantive and unsettling.

His larger point is best summed up in this passage, also from the brain of Tom Redknapp, daydreaming of his paramour who is no great shakes in the looks department:

"Nothing to write home about. And there's the wonder of it. Beauty turns out not to create desire after all. Desire creates beauty."

With its many contemporary and hip references, "I Could Love You," is not bound for the classics shelf, but its author was not trying to achieve that.

Still, what Nicholson sets out to do, he does well in this easy and entertaining read.

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