Mal Peet - Life: An Exploded Diagram

Mal Peet - Life: An Exploded Diagram

Postby CAP » Mon Apr 27, 2015 4:39 pm

I’m reviewing a couple of novels for a change. Not really my beat, as a glance down the WWR forum list will attest, but I need a break from fine art - and even movies. Unbelievably. I’m not quite ready to step back into the studio either, so I’m just writing stuff....

Anyway, first cab off the rank is Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet. Poor Mr Peet passed away in March so I feel a bit mean for not liking the book more but quite honestly I wouldn’t have read had it not been given to me with firm and fond recommendation and although it’s an easy read, it’s not finally a satisfying one. It’s a so-so coming-of-age novel published in 2011 set in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and draws arch context for a first love in Norfolk. Not being familiar with his work as a children’s story author and illustrator, I can’t say whether this is a favoured device or an attempt at greater sophistication, but it does not really add perspective to either topic. While Peet writes confidently, perhaps a little smugly, about political history, on a more personal or intimate level the thing creaks between cliché and lack of credibility.

It’s a story about a working-class lad from a council estate in North Norfolk winning a scholarship to a posh grammar school, by sixth form falling for the local squire’s daughter – bit of a goer, as it ‘appens - embarking upon a secret summer romance that climaxes with them caught in the accidental explosion of a wartime mine washed ashore on Happisburgh beach, that very day. Huh? Or in current parlance, WTF??? They literally survive consummation of their relationship, but are horribly injured and do not see or hear from one another for forty years, until the girl, Francoise – known as Frankie (not Fran or Frannie?) – phones the boy, Clem, by then working as an illustrator in New York, only hours before 9/11, as it ‘appens and his publisher’s office in the World Trade Towers, wouldn’t you know, but the call delays him from attending a meeting there at just the fatal hour... To which he and we can only conclude WTF???

I think it’s called straining or stretching after significance. If it’s not, it ought to be. The Late Mr Peet wants to grasp his world on immense, commanding terms but succeeds only in revealing a lack of depth or delicacy. The devil is in the detail. The story is firstly a love story and it is love and its close associate lust that call for some fresh and subtle insight here. Taking a mighty step backwards, putting things into a global perspective is not really getting the job done. It is just stepping away from the job, conceding something else entirely. And it’s not that the story lacks detail, so much as the detail is misplaced or mundane, not quite bringing matters to life or light. The story pivots around Clem’s meeting with Frankie while fruit picking and their subsequent friendship and this much is fine but there is then elaborate justification for why the friendship must remain secret. Given his status at the local grammar school, given his father’s highly regarded and well paid position in her father’s agricultural empire, there is nothing to suggest that their respective social standing is so incommensurate or inappropriate it cannot be pursued publicly. But then, given her seeming absence of a local social circle, Frankie seems less of an outgoing sixteen year old than a convenient fantasy for the scholarship boy at a priggish single-sex school. Frankie is more like the mysterious waitress in the movie If that public schoolboy Mick Travis fantasizes about.

Similarly, Clem may want to go straight to the intimate stuff, but in real life, this is not how romance works, even for teenagers. It is firstly about being seen together, going on dates, sharing. Token stuff. It is about trying on an image basically; peer pressure and pretence. Everyone knows that. Even when one partner is provocatively different; that is sort of part of the game. Rich and poor play it. Call it shopping around, tolerance. By the sixties there is enough social mobility to accept and regulate that. The sexual stuff, from my recollections (I’m a few years younger than Peet) was largely awkward kissing and groping, ardent declarations. The rest was masturbation fantasies. Come to think of it sometimes it was only masturbation fantasies. Going beyond that certainly was furtive and less common and probably resulted in more hand jobs than actual loss of virginity (this is before oral sex became de rigueur). And that was OK, satisfied a certain amount of curiosity, on both sides. Well for the first couple of hundred times anyway. No one wanted to put too much on the line while they were still on basically trainer wheels. But in Life: An Exploded Diagram we cut to the chase in a kind of social vacuum, actually a derelict farmhouse and it feels less like secondary school kids than solemn college students when Clem recites Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress to a struggling O levels student and even when she insists he draw her nude – well at least without her bra - this certainly feels convincing, but maybe from a few years later in ‘Clem’s’ life. But their relationship is really not going anywhere until they starting going out somewhere and this is fatally to Haysburgh beach, notorious for its uncleared mines at the time. Going public seems to be an explosive issue for the author.

The story draws heavily upon the author’s biography but rearranges things. His home town North Walsham is thinly disguised as ‘Borstead’, his grammar school ‘Newgate’, in reality the famous Paston School (alumni include Lord Nelson and Stephen Fry) later, Paston College, much of the surrounding geography remains factual, although Happisburgh becomes the more phonetic Haysburgh. Yes, I know the area. Actually Peet sets the story a few years earlier than his own adolescence in order to match the Cuban Missile Crisis but ingenious juggling does not really capture the excitement and enduring affection of first love. Was I wrong in wanting that? All the things we learn about our first partner, all the things we share, change us permanently, unexpectedly. For the better. We know each other better than anyone else because we can tell each other so much more and that makes knowing anyone else so much better. At least for a time. We learn what love is, but mostly upon losing it. We build something stupendous, but it is, mostly likely, a house of cards. We can apply the lessons elsewhere, with more care and conviction and hopefully success, but it can never be the same. We amend the template but that template was forged from our own innocence and dreams, impulsively shared, tenderly matched, wisely used. And the person we are will always owe that first love some small, irreplaceable step, a word, a touch, a look that is forever us, then. We never forget and never regret. An exploded diagram ought to tell us that much.
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