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Book review: <i>The State of Michael</i> by Merle Esson

If this was a meal, it would be a reheated roast dinner eaten alone in a dirty bedsit as late afternoon sunlight peeks through a slate-grey sky.


A reasonably garish abstract close-up thing in orange and yellow. I initially read it as the bottom half of a smiling lip, an impression which proved impossible to shake despite it being patently incorrect. I should note here that the publishers are a trendy bunch called Citron Press, purporting to support a new form of publishing (Martin Amis is a sponsor, according to their blurb) – this is all well and good but their zesty little logos are sprinkled throughout, and, while attractive, do contrast a bit oddly with the un-gleeful (if occasionally tart) prose.


Michael is a forty-something bookshop owner who lives in a nondescript UK town with a dwindling handful of old friends and an increasing number of borderline-contemptuous casual acquaintances. He exists in a state of (what at least I found to be) intelligent semi-denial about his approaching death, general worthlessness, and lack of any connection to a homeland, having abandoned his mother on her deathbed after she brought him to England from Yugoslavia when his father died.
He rides from party to flat to pub to his predictably stringless female companion Fenella’s rented cottage. He sees an old man just before the old man commits suicide. He is haunted by the old man, and a vague collection of ghosts, in his waking dreams. He meets a young Yugoslavian refugee, now a babysitter for wealthy friends’ spoilt children. He sleeps with her, which works out better than you (and he) would think, in the end.

The good

Esson definitely has a voice, and her voice defines the character, and the character defines the mood (as the title suggests). We spend the entire book inside the head of an intelligent and very deliberately drawn individual, who rarely fails to ring true both within the book’s world and without, in our memories. The lovely person who lent this to me claims she found Michael to be a duplicate of a particularly obnoxious acquaintance; I found him occasionally empathetic but I can see what she means – he is a solid enough creation that one automatically begins to draw in his few sketchier qualities (appearance, for instance) with real-life memories of one’s own.

This drew me in, but it’s a little hard to say why. Thematically there’s some interesting things happening – the suicide of the old man is handled quite deftly, for instance – a lesser writer would have gotten out the fear-of-mortality stick and started twatting us roughly about the head and shoulders, but Esson is content to let Michael dig his own grave (har!) – by refusing to admit his own fears, which have more (I thought) to do with a total lack of anything even approaching a mark left upon the world from his four decades and simply repeating his worthless mantra of stasis, he denies any possibility of redemption, be it internal or external. The footprint on a book cover left by the suicide fascinates him not out of any Poe-ish fixation but because even this ancient shut-in has left an imprint, be it by his very final frustration with life.

This has human-sized ambitions (it’s as much a character drawing as a story, like a lot of more literary writing) but it achieves them admirably.
The last chapter of the book is a blessed release, in fact the last sentence of the book, just four words long, is an absolute corker. That’s at least as hard as a fantastic first line, if you ask me.

The bad

The external dialogue occasionally verges on stilted – I kept being returned to the Englishness of the setting, which is perhaps deliberate, but a little unadventurous.

I must admit, too, that for the first three pages of the book, even though I’d been told that the main character was male, I assumed the internal monologue was coming from the head of a female character. Mainly one forgets this, but while Michael’s thoughts and actions are never less than convincingly male, it is inescapable that female modes of thought and paths of thinking occasionally leak through. Mind you, heaven only knows what female authors this attuned and clever must make of the video-shop cut-outs who pass for women in a lot of male writers’ work.
It’s grim. Every other page is dusted with the time-serving ennui of middle-class existence, the figurative distance generated habitually by our narrator from even his nearest and dearest, and the gaping literal distance, both in time and space, from any home he’d recognise. This is entirely intentional, I’m sure, but it does leave one a little cold. I suppose it’s a testament to the author’s talent that somebody so unengaging manages to entertain sufficiently to show us anything at all, and if that makes me shallow then nyer.

If this was…

a meal, it would be a reheated roast dinner eaten alone in a dirty bedsit as late afternoon sunlight peeks through a slate-grey sky.

What I learnt

That if you try super hard and watch the pennies, you too can end up being fifty with the same old couple of friends, no money, no love, a job you hate and nothing to live for except the entertainment of continually reassuring yourself that this is exactly what you wanted. Or to put it another way, if you want nothing, you’ll get it, in buckets.

In short

Title: The State of Michael
Author: Merle Esson
Publisher: Citron Press
ISBN: 1904529003
Year published: 2002
Pages: 248

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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