March 9, 2012 10:11 pm

Animal spirits

A comic tale of counter-culture parents and their more conventional kids

Various Pets Alive and Dead, by Marina Lewycka, Fig Tree, RRP£12.99, 384 pages

 

The epigraph of Marina Lewycka’s fourth novel is from Gogol’s Dead Souls: “We live in new times – the age of the hero is past – now is the time of the non-virtuous man.” In Various Pets Alive and Dead Lewycka, too, gives us two ages and a series of falls from grace.

Doro and Marcus are diehard lefties who once lived in a free-love-embracing, lentil-slurping commune in 1960s Doncaster. Their grown-up children, still shadowed by an unconventional upbringing, belong to our own times. Clara teaches in a comprehensive, where global revolution is further from her mind than her single daily cigarette and her mild crush on the headmaster. Serge, unknown to his parents, has abandoned his Cambridge maths PhD to work as a quant in a London investment bank, where he moons alternately over complex algorithms and a gorgeous but ruthless Ukrainian analyst called Maroushka.

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Their stories play out against the background of the noughties crash. Serge, trading for himself on the sly, gets in over his head. Clara becomes involved with the family of one of her pupils. Doro – who has built the second half of her life around caring for her third child Oolie-Anna, who has Down’s syndrome – is now struggling with Oolie-Anna’s growing independence. Minds wander back to the days of the commune, skeletons peep out of closets, and guilty consciences turn to the hamsters and rabbits that met sticky ends all those years ago, whether squeezed by a childish hand or ripped to bits by foxes.

Lewycka is a writer of great warmth and considerable comic and observational gifts. One running joke concerns childish mishearings, and I shall take to my grave the idea that bourgeois family structures confine women to “the Domestos fear”. Amid the clowning, too, are some beautiful cadences: “This beautiful young high-flying free-floating no-baggage global elite, whose title is wealth, whose passport is brains, whose only nation is money.” She’s not always at full stretch here, though: the story sprawls and in places she seems to strain for effect. Jocular acronyms proliferate – Serge’s bank is called FATCA; the club of elderly allotment holders is GAGA; and a socialist splinter-group is called PISSF. This makes for a slight grinding of gears. Lewycka’s comic register – the pull towards caricature and quirkiness – goes slightly against the grain of her more serious themes: disaster feels more likely to come as a pratfall than a human catastrophe. But this is not to dismiss either her comedy or her seriousness. You can find the same grinding of gears in Dickens.

The intricate network of coincidences that pattern the novel’s comedy do double service too: they unshowily suggest the inescapable connectedness of everything not only in family life, but in the economic life that is the novel’s background and burden. The companies Serge is short selling are tied in with the lives of his family back in Doncaster; the allotments whose redevelopment Doro opposes may become the sheltered housing in which Oolie-Anna is to live. Clara’s pupil Jason turns out to have family connections with the old commune; and the hateful, pimply spiv Trevor – ground-level avatar of the predator capitalism that haunts the book – seems to be connected to the long-ago disaster that brought the commune to an end.

Some loose threads are knotted and others allowed to fray. Theory – the Fibonacci retracement equations Serge uses to model markets and Marcus’s earnest parsing of Frankfurt School pieties – is subverted by lived experience: bent markets and failed idealisms. Post-crash collusion between the City and Downing Street has its burlesque shadows in crooked local councillors in bed with venal Doncaster rip-off merchants.

Walking through town, Doro casts a wan eye on what Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” means at street level: “Everything that has underpinned her life for the last twenty years has been turned upside down in this last month. The allotment, her paradise and sanctuary, is about to be destroyed. Even the city where she lives seems to be disintegrating around her. ‘SPECIAL OFFER!’ ‘£1 GREAT VALUE!’ ‘EVERYTHING MUST GO!’ scream the banners.”

So the longed-for crisis of capitalism hasn’t quite ushered in the new age that Doro and Marcus hoped for. But life goes on, bashed and squished by market forces, as it always has. Shame about those rabbits, mind you. Yet as this book knows, every economy has its rabbits and its foxes.

Sam Leith is author of ‘You Talkin’ To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’ (Profile)

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