Lord Jim at Home was probably not for the faint of heart, even in its original year of publication, 1973, when public alarm was at its peak as a literary method and objective. Its target social anxieties – slyly presented and self-reflective – belong to the two decades after World War II, when the fear of the ruling classes was that, if given half a chance, whole sections of society would break away. social and cultural contract, reject the capitalist project and have fun instead. Fifty years later, it reappears in a timely edition with an introduction by Ottessa Moshfegh, someone who did her part to alarm the public.
Born into a privileged background somewhere in Cornwall in the 1920s, Giles Trenchard receives an initiation both strange and mundane into upper-middle-class life of the time. His sense of worth is exhausted before he leaves the nursery, by the interlocking efforts of a drunken, darkly dismissive, and mostly absent father and a nanny determined to control his bodily processes. He is expected to strive toward personal action, but he is always punished for demonstrating it. He is separated from the mother he adores. He is forced to eat food he cannot bear. Nevertheless, he visualizes himself as “the Prince”. It is a poor emotional education that can only be supplemented by a public school – in this case Rugby, where, already fragile and struggling, he learns to survive in mediocrity, dissociation and doing as little as possible; while beneath the vague and docile surface which so irritates his teachers, all the repressed needs, greeds and ambitions of early childhood still twist. Inevitably, this contradiction will shape his adult life, which Brooke unfolds throughout her novel, just like one of the dirty diapers that the nanny draped over Giles’ face at six months old to teach him good and bad in the context of bowel movements.
At the time, this novel was seen as a class provocation, like Lindsay Anderson’s film If… Brooke’s performance is more subtle but actually more confrontational. His narrative develops quickly, sometimes without many cues; there are constant playful acts of ventriloquism, joyful shifts of register and point of view. When a book explicitly presents itself as a revision of Conrad’s Lord Jim, we know roughly what to expect: we know that Giles will fall from grace; what we desperately need are the details. When we get them, they are as triggering as we hoped. Meanwhile, her characters develop with such skill, such flashes of painterly realism, that we forget that they are caricatures – at least for as long as she needs them to be. She’s a sort of professional Viz for adults, which she controls with surprising combinations of discipline and brilliance.
By the late 1930s, Giles was so stuck that the demands of World War II relieved him: a non-commissioned seaman aboard the frigate Conradian Patusan, he was simply grateful that someone else was thinking for him, and not to catch fire or drown. He likes being one of the guys. The guys call him “the Lord”. At first, not much happens: the weather is freezing, the food terrible; they chase a submarine, catch nothing. Their job, they conclude, is not to fight a war at all. It’s about being together on the ship, as friends. In this sense, his stay at sea is Giles’ idyll. And when war finally descends on Patusan, he is able to distance himself psychologically, even as his companions fly to pieces around him. Brooke’s descriptions of battles at sea are so astonishingly unpleasant that they become an anthem – one can only boast of her talent in a performance that we might describe as pseudo-comedy. Rage pours out, unadulterated and refusing to take no for an answer.
After the war, on his home beach, our hero drifts into the moral and emotional twilight of post-war London, more comfortable with bistros, constant brief sexual encounters, the life of an “unwiped ass of the establishment”, than with the concerns of his own class. Now a failure in everything, panicked and alcoholic, he is the most complex monster. We understand why he moved away from the life he was supposed to have, how he slipped from the status of privileged descendant to that of “prince of the shadow, despised and mocked by all”. If it is a 1970s revision of Conrad’s Lord Jim, it also seems at times to be a less vigorous echo of Anthony Powell’s rootless Uncle Giles in A Dance to the Music of Time.
In his foreword – rather disapprovingly it seems – Moshfegh describes him as “not really a character in the usual sense of the term” because he lacks “the lowest level of action and self-definition “. We can see clearly how this condition was created by his first experience, the product of a methodical process. Perhaps we cannot forgive him for the revenge he takes on this education; maybe we can. But if we can understand it, we owe it to Brooke’s immoderate talents. At times its subject matter is as genuinely difficult to swallow as the congealed food on a seven-year-old boy’s plate – “large chunks of fat, with several veins showing through” – but the book’s success lies in its readability on the face of it. to that.