Sex, Farce & Futility

The Escape

by Adam Thirlwell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 322 pp., $25.00
Eamon McCabe
Adam Thirlwell, London, 2009

Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction, so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.
—Gustave Flaubert, quoted in Adam Thirlwell, The Delighted States

Though differing radically in subject matter, scope, and ambition, Adam Thirlwell’s first three books—the blithely narrated novels Politics (2003) and The Escape (2010) and the non- fiction miscellany The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes (2007)—so resemble one another in style, structure, vocabulary, and tone and so clearly share an identical narrative voice that it would be difficult to distinguish not only between the three books by this wittily observant young author but whether the genre of any given passage is fiction or nonfiction:

The person who coined the word “surrealism” was Guillaume Apollinaire. Guillaume was a French poet at the start of the twentieth century. He coined it in a programme note for the ballet Parade…. Six weeks later, he used the word again, in a programme note to his own play, The Breasts of Tiresias. This was his definition of a surrealist: “When a man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.”

I am not sure this definition gets us very far.


The ephemeral is not the same thing as the irreducibly private, the comprehensively gnomic. It is, instead, a category which everyone can recognise as intrinsic to the everyday and universal. And therefore many details can still fulfil their basic function, even if they are not understood—like people’s names, or brand names….

The brand name is simply an accelerated example of a common phenomenon: that all details, eventually, will be out of date. But their substance is universal. Without them, no account of real life can hope to outlive rust and larvae—and become, precariously, immortal.

The Delighted States

The loves of the gods were various. The loves of Jupiter, for instance, were a festival of costume change, of metamorphosis. He mated with Aegina as a flame, Asteria as an eagle, Persephone as a snake; with Leda he took the form of a swan, with Olympias a snake. To Semele he appeared as a blazing fire, to Io as a fog, to Danae as a shower of gold. When he first slept with Juno, his wife, he became a cuckoo. Alcmena and Callisto were won by his impersonations of humans. Yes, the loves of Jupiter were famous. They had heft.

The Escape

The second passage is from a discussion in The Delighted States of a work of short fiction by Denis Diderot with a glancing allusion—“rust and larvae”—to a remark of…

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