Patrick McGrath, review of Mistaken by Neil Jordan, in The Guardian (15 Jan. 2011)

Patrick McGrath finds Dublin is gothic territory in Neil Jordan’s novel

[ Bibliographical note: available online]

We are in gothic territory here all right. The theme of the double, or doppelganger, is a staple of the genre. It’s usual with these doublings, or fissurings, to find the moral dimension emphasised. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray draws much of its considerable dramatic energy from the wickedness of the beautiful young hero’s nocturnal activities, while Dorian’s image, representing his soul, rots and ages foully in the attic of his fashionable London home. Mr Hyde, in Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, similarly takes his sordid pleasures in London’s East End by night, while by day Dr Jekyll, his better half, worries over his bubbling test tubes and his own spiritual decline.

A more unsettling expression of the doppelganger idea is to be found in Henry James’s very spooky story “The Jolly Corner”. A wealthy American aesthete returns to New York after many years in Europe, where he’s dedicated himself to the refinement of his sensibilities. In a house on Fifth Avenue, owned by his family, he is haunted. The demon haunting him is his alter ego. It is the man he would have been, had he given his life over to commerce rather than culture. There is something very peculiar about the man’s hand ...

In Mistaken, Kevin and Gerald suffer more conventional forms of reprisal for violating nature with their doubleness. After years of being seduced, beaten up or chased out of shops by mistake, they drift apart. When Gerald, by now a successful writer, and a husband and father, has a steamy affair with a woman called Loretta, who lives in Manhattan at the nonexistent intersection of 65th Street and Sixth Avenue, the two men’s lives come together again. Gerald needs a favour. Kevin is amenable. He flies to New York. He heads for 65th and Sixth ...

The problem with Mistaken is a doom-laden cloud of insinuation that hovers over the story and saps its vitality. From the start, much is made of Kevin having grown up next door to Bram Stoker’s house. As Kevin often has to explain to others, Stoker wrote Dracula. Kevin makes frequent reference to “my vampire”, but it’s never really clear who or what that vampire is, apart from possibly a paedophile in a black beret who makes a brief appearance before being frightened off by Kevin’s mum. Or maybe the term is being used as Mary Shelley used it in Frankenstein, as a synonym of soul, as when the doctor regards the Creature “in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave”.

It’s irritating that the novel is addressed throughout to “you” – that is, to Gerald’s daughter. This young woman, first encountered in a graveyard, drifts around the periphery of the plot and is almost never referred to by name: less a character than a pronoun. Her allusive significance never really becomes clear, particularly since rational explanations for all the real mysteries emerge close to the end. In terms of its manipulation of gothic tropes, Mistaken fails to arouse the deep unease and sudden, horrified recognition we require of the genre.

It’s far more successful, however, in its depiction of Dublin characters and places. Kevin’s mother, as the pair of them go off to swim from various Dublin beaches, emerges as a distinctive and likable figure. Several times we see her divest herself of a one-piece swimsuit in public, standing up, behind a towel, without impropriety, and then behind that same towel getting dressed, a sartorial feat last practised in Europe in the late summer of 1965.

Kevin’s father, a bookie, with his nightly journeys down to Gaffney’s for “just the one”, is tenderly and believably drawn. Also in the house is a lodger called Tommy who moves in on Kevin’s mother when Dad shifts his attention to the English racecourses. These familial scenes are deftly, warmly done, and here the novel breathes with life.

But then there’s a room in the house that’s filled with clocks, and it seems to be there only to provide vague gloomy suggestions about time or mortality that, like the vampire and various other oblique dark notions, don’t justify the space they get on the page.

It’s a pity about this. There’s a good slim Dublin novel trying to claw its way out of this book. The pages often feel clogged. Effects are strained after rather than happened upon. The best energies of the novel are smothered by gothic innuendo, where clarity and brevity would have served it better.

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