In 2012 Granta published a short story by Keith Ridgway called “The Spectacular.” Its narrator, Clive Drayton, is—as Ridgway has acknowledged—a literary novelist not unlike himself. “The books I write are well reviewed,” Clive tells us. “Nobody buys them.” He therefore decides to abandon his unprofitable high-mindedness and, by writing “simply, easily, clearly,” produce a fast-paced thriller unashamedly designed to “entertain the fuckers” (or “readers,” as they’re sometimes known). In the end, Clive’s would-be best seller goes unwritten. Yet his initial dilemma raises—presumably deliberately—a central question about Ridgway’s fiction: Is it too uncompromising for its own good?
Around the same time, Ridgway told an interviewer that he’s “very conscious of the tension between the desire for coherent stories and the facts and experiences of living, which are almost entirely fragmentary.” But by then this was a tension he was already seeking to resolve by ignoring that pesky human desire for coherent stories altogether and flying the flag for a now possibly unfashionable genre: the difficult novel.1 As a result, you generally know where you are with his more recent fiction: in a state of some puzzlement.
For lovers of his work, such puzzlement appears to be part of his appeal. His publisher has declared that “Keith bamboozles you”—a verb also used by Ian Rankin when choosing Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child as his favorite book of 2012. For Ridgway agnostics, however, there remains the possibility that his lack of commercial success isn’t solely due to the philistinism of today’s readers with their lowbrow wish to know what’s going on. A Shock, Ridgway’s first novel in nine years (“I just lost interest in writing” was his laconic explanation), seems unlikely to cause either group to radically revise its opinion.
Ridgway was born in Dublin, where his 1998 debut novel, The Long Falling, is largely set (hence its simile “as grey as sky” for a shade of paint). By any standards, not merely Ridgway’s later ones, it’s a coherent story—and quite a dramatic one. Grace Quinn is an Englishwoman ill at ease in rural Ireland, where she lives with her violent husband. Until, that is, she murders him. She then goes to Dublin to stay with her gay son, Martin. Of course, try as she touchingly might, Grace isn’t much at home amid the city’s gay scene either, and Ridgway writes of the growing awkwardness between mother and son with a psychological realism that combines the funny, the sharp-eyed, and the tender. Once the police close in, the novel also becomes properly suspenseful.
Looking back on The Long Falling in 2012, Ridgway was impressed by how the “naive little creature” that was his younger self had written from a middle-aged woman’s perspective and included “lots of gay sex.” Nonetheless, he had one major reservation—chiefly, it seems, to do with the book’s narrative coherence: “I felt…it wasn’t true…that it was faked. Forced. Contrived.”
In the same interview, he was more unambiguously scathing—and, I would argue, even more unfair—about The Parts (2003), which interweaves the lives of six very different Dubliners to what most of us might regard as brilliant effect. Ridgway writes about all six with equal assurance, whether a rich invalid, a rent boy, or a drunken radio presenter. As the interweaving intensifies, so does the depiction of Dublin during the “Celtic Tiger” boom years. And so, too, does the plot-driven excitement, which wouldn’t have been out of place in the type of fast-paced thriller that Clive Drayton had in mind.
The result, in my view, is Ridgway’s most satisfying novel. But not in Ridgway’s. The Parts, he said, “is almost entirely fake. It’s a terrible book.” Indeed, “it so shocked me that I had written it that I completely stopped what I was doing and tried to start again.” For that reason, Animals (2006) “feels to me now like my proper first novel,” when “I stopped trying to write novels and just wrote.” And with that, the bamboozling began, as he bade farewell to contrived coherence and lit out for the more authentically puzzling and fragmentary.
Animals opens with the unnamed narrator wondering for five pages if he should poke a dead mouse he finds on a London street—and, if so, with what. (Spoiler alert: he does, with a pen.) He then spends eight more pages staring at it. Over lunch, his architect friend Michael tells him about a four-story office block that’s “haunted” by the three-story building it has replaced. (“The first manifestation…was the inability of the lifts to reach the top floor.”) During an afternoon swim in his local pool, he reflects on how he and his partner have been having very similar dreams, the details of which take another fourteen pages, despite his knowing—as Ridgway must too—that nobody likes hearing about other people’s dreams. At which point the pool’s ceiling falls in.
And from there the oddness never lets up. In one scene, the narrator is threatened by feral animals in a park at night, describing them with terrifying vividness before adding, “None of this is true.” In another, a famously glamorous actor, Catherine Anderson, invites him to her house, where he happens across boxes of films, labeled by date, of her defecating in split-screen: the first camera on her face, the second aimed upward from inside the toilet.
Yet while Ridgway undeniably succeeds in casting off coherent realism, Animals hangs together more closely than it might appear. Thinking back on the mouse (as he regularly does), the narrator feels that, for all its “elaborate menace” it supplied him with “a kind of breakthrough. As if…some veil had lifted from the world…and that I had acquired a kind of wisdom.” Characteristically, he has “no idea” what this wisdom is, but the notion that animals represent the elemental world lying beneath the human one recurs throughout the novel.
After that sighting (or nonsighting) of the feral creatures, for instance, there’s a passage that now has a distinctly Covid tinge:
We believe…that the world is ours…but…we have forgotten what the world is, we have forgotten the terror and the threat, we think we are solid, but we could be flung to the ground in a second, by any one of a million sudden things.
Understanding the book this way also explains why even “Catherine Anderson’s…anus is a pinched glimpse of truth”:
All we see is this layer that we have thrown over the world, like a carpet put down on a floor. And all that Catherine Anderson is trying to do with her hidden cameras and her filmed shitting, is to rip up the carpet…and see what’s underneath.2
There is, however, a twist. Ridgway’s newfound commitment to bamboozlement means that understanding the book this way (or any other) might well involve misunderstanding it—because Animals firmly suggests that “understanding” is itself just another carpet we throw over the world, “a conspiracy of convenience…as invented as the wristwatch.”
Fortunately, then, hubristic understanding is not something likely to afflict many readers of his next novel. Not only does Hawthorn and Child take the narrative fragmentation still further—filling its pages with Chekhov guns that go defiantly unfired—but it also does away with any obvious thematic links. In the first chapter, the two eponymous London policemen investigate an apparently random shooting. For sixty pages—when Ridgway isn’t telling us about Hawthorn’s dreams—they follow up clues in the approved manner, leading the more naive reader to expect that at some stage we’ll find out what happened. In fact, the shooting is never mentioned again, and instead Ridgway gives us seven more discrete chapters, some featuring other Hawthorn and Child cases (unsolved, naturally), others in which they’re barely glimpsed in the background.
One or two are surprisingly straightforward. A tale of teenage love, in particular, provides a slightly frustrating reminder of how good Ridgway remains at old-school psychological realism. In most, his policy of “just writing” means we get a mixture of the intriguing and the flat-out baffling. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he’s said of the novel with apparent satisfaction—perhaps agreeing with the publisher character who narrates an especially mystifying chapter that “knowing things…kills them.”3 Ridgway has said that he enjoys “crime fiction a great deal”—but only the first two thirds of each book. The last third generally “ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes…a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess.”
Yet even leaving aside that a kind of tidying of life’s mess—neurotic or otherwise—might be a fairly serviceable definition of art, Hawthorn and Child raises another problem with Ridgway’s later novels: for all his efforts, they often feel a lot less like “our experienced world” than his earlier novels do. There’s clearly a case to be made for trying to render life as it is before the contrivances of fiction get to it. But if a fragmented novel’s fragments are too self-consciously weird (a religious sect, say, that imagines Jesus during the years not covered in the Gospels “fucking the strongest of women”), there’s little sense of life as it is. Instead, the supposed lack of contrivance seems itself contrived.
Hawthorn and Child picked up admiring reviews, with Zadie Smith joining Ian Rankin among Ridgway’s celebrity fans. Wider success, though, duly failed to follow, except for the always equivocal designation of “cult novel.” And after that he took his seemingly relaxed break from fiction (“I was completely content with the idea that I would not write again”) until the sudden arrival of the suitably named A Shock.
Like its predecessor, the book comprises chapters that could be read as short stories. This time, however, there’s more overlap, as all the characters live in the same South London neighborhood, some know one another, and most drink in a pub called the Arms. The novel also continues the progress from the rather chilly modernism of Animals to a greater sense of warmth. (“I really do love the characters in this book,” Ridgway has said.) And while his fans needn’t worry that it can be easily parsed, the same increased warmth extends to the reader.
Or at least it does in the first half of the book—because, as it turns out, A Shock is pretty much a microcosm of Ridgway’s career, with the battle between his narrative strengths and his antinarrative anxieties ultimately won by the anxieties. What makes their victory especially vexing in this case is that the strengths put up such a good fight that for a while Ridgway looks to have at last found a way to maintain an equilibrium between the two factions.
In the opening chapter, “The Party,” an unnamed gay male couple visit an unnamed widow in the terraced house next door to let her know they’re having a party on Saturday. The woman seems to them (and us) an identikit lonely old lady, but after they’ve left, a subtly shifting series of pronouns reveals that she’d once been part of a lesbian couple until her much-loved partner transitioned into an equally beloved man. On the Saturday night, still mourning “two ghosts with the one face,” she fantasizes that a bored girl from the party might come round and ask to hear her story. She then sees a dent in her kitchen wall and wonders if she could make a crack big enough to eavesdrop on the fun next door. Before long, she’s pulled off so much plaster that she can squeeze into the gap between the two properties, where a convenient hole enables her to watch what’s going on. Now completely trapped, she is spotted by a girl very like the one in her fantasy. “But wait. Wait until I tell you,” the chapter ends. “This story I have.”
“The Party” appeared as a short story in The New Yorker, but it also works perfectly as an overture here. The succeeding chapters introduce us to several people who will later be at the party, while also amplifying the notions of being trapped, holes that afford a glimpse of a different world, and the need to tell stories.
Meanwhile, of course, Ridgway doesn’t seamlessly move on to the woman telling hers. Like most of the chapters, the second begins with a pronoun referring to someone we haven’t met before—although we soon discover that this “he” is Gary, who’s drinking in the Arms with his old schoolfriend Stan. Here, it’s the “childhood loyalty that had outlived their friendship” which is both the trap and the story they tell themselves, until they drift apart for reasons that they, and we, only half comprehend. Yet unlike in Hawthorn and Child, the absence of a tidy resolution seems less of a literary device (or even part of a literary manifesto) and more as if Ridgway were achieving his aim of conveying the uncertainties inherent in life as it is.
The same applies to “The Sweat,” the most “difficult” chapter so far, but one in which the difficulty feels like a natural (possibly the only) way to express what’s happening, and does so without leaving us perplexed as to what actually has. Its initial “he” turns out—nine pages later—to be Tommy, who is tripping on various drugs as he delivers pills to an older gay man named Frank. The first few pages reflect Tommy’s state of mind—which is to say they’re all over the place as time slows down and his thoughts slip. Luckily, Frank proves a kindly sort, who shares his own extensive drug collection while the two catch up on gossip and languidly play with each other’s genitals. There are moments of druggy paranoia and of the ambivalence about gay hedonism that occasionally surfaces in Ridgway’s work. Nevertheless, this is a funny, warm chapter in which his love for his characters is particularly evident.
It does finish with a wildly rambling three-page sentence spoken by Tommy, but this comes across less as Ridgway self-consciously seeking to bamboozle than as a comically accurate representation of someone high who has suddenly grasped the meaning of life. And maybe he has—because Tommy’s epic sentence is the nearest thing in the novel to an author’s message. Happiness, Tommy (eventually) argues, is like the experience cavers have when, after being trapped in a tunnel with the Earth pressing from all sides, they suddenly burst into “a huge and beautiful cavern…with a beautiful shock.”
Sure enough, it’s precisely this sort of shock for which most of the characters are yearning, including the immured widow in the first chapter, who at one point murmurs to herself, “Take off your life like trousers”: words from Anne Sexton’s aptly titled poem “The Wall,” which also contains the lines “We are all earthworms…. We live beneath the ground.”
“The Joke,” another deft blend of the ordinary and the strange, features Stan’s partner, Maria. Over coffee a coworker, Anna, shares with Maria the story of her husband, a historian who, after suffering brain damage, died laughing when a comedian friend told him a joke. Only later does Maria learn from another colleague that none of this is true. “Why did you lie to me?” she texts Anna. “I just like to entertain,” Anna replies. Maria ends up undecided as to whether she should forgive the lie but pretty sure that everything in life is “made up” anyway. In this she has an ally in Ridgway, who has written that he believes “everything is fiction. Absolutely everything.”
And as if to prove it, the subsequent chapter returns to the Arms, where Anna is with a man known variously as Stoker, Yves, Yan, and Yanko (i.e., somebody with at least three fictional identities). The two exchange stories purely for the fun of it, trying to work out how best to make them sound true.
But it’s at this halfway mark, I’d suggest, that Ridgway’s antinarrative impulses begin their march to victory. From here on, A Shock no longer feels like the book that will finally reconcile his early coherence and later fragmentation, won’t strain too hard for its strangeness, and will have enough regard for its readers not to leave us feeling at times trapped in a tunnel longing for a sudden bursting into light. Instead, we seem to be back in the presence of a writer who sees it as his primary task to challenge both us and the customary satisfactions of fiction—largely by banishing them in favor of literary tricksiness, a principled indifference to the reader’s desire for understanding, and lots of “just writing.”
It’s with a sinking of the heart, for example, that we agnostics realize that most of the stories Anna and “the man she is calling Yves” swap are variations on the book’s other chapters (such as a slightly different woman trapped in a slightly different wall): a somewhat clunkily meta means of confirming that all is fiction—including, unsurprisingly, fiction. It doesn’t help, either, that the next, and longest, chapter is a punishing reminder that the willfully boring is still boring.
David, a young gay man, moves into a new apartment. Now and again, there’s some sex to liven things up. There are also strong hints that David is not well. But for far too much of the time we get an endless series of sentences, mainly beginning with “he,” that detail all his activities, however dull:
He dresses in boxer shorts, a blue shirt, grey trousers, socks, black shoes. He goes back to the bathroom. He curses, then he comes back to the bedroom and combs his hair in front of the mirror there. He goes back to the bathroom. He comes back again with a bottle of hair gel. He squeezes a small drop in the palm of his left hand.
We’re also kept fully up to speed on how many flies are in any of David’s four rooms at any given time—although, in an unwelcome return to the willfully baffling, Ridgway occasionally refers to a hidden fifth room, without explaining what or where it might be. And, just to complete the revival of his less beguiling habits, the following chapter brings us a character named Pigeon whose dreams are related with due thoroughness.
The novel hits the back straight with “The Meeting,” in which Harry, the Arms’s publican, has news of a party being held by a local gay couple on Saturday night. Even so, the scene that most readers are likely to remember—and that might even act as a handy test of where you stand on Ridgway’s work—is the one in which his interest in the ambiguously revelatory power of mice reaches its apotheosis.
After Harry locks up and goes to bed,
downstairs a mouse called Troubadour Anx improved the scurry tunnel under the north wall…. Obscured by a crate of empty bottles was the entrance to the system of ramps both Troubadour Anx and her brother Altar Phen had designed and constructed over the past several weeks.
The next night, when the lights are mysteriously turned on and off, Harry heads downstairs to investigate and sees “a mouse bounce off his chest, and then another, and another, and [he] looked up, and saw that they were legion and untold, impossible, endless.” And these mice, it appears, are on a mission: “They seemed to present to him petitions and requests, and they seemed to him to know a different aspect of the world.” Eventually, Harry’s eyes are “squirmingly covered,” and he wonders “if the whole world was ending this way, drowned in mice, or if it was just The Arms, or just him…and he wondered then, and the mice wondered with him…what the difference was.”
True Ridgway believers will no doubt simply enjoy the vivid wildness of this image. Readers less sure about him may find themselves stuck with the troublesome business of striving for meaning. As we’ve seen, mice showing “a different aspect of the world” aren’t new in Ridgway’s fiction. But how are we supposed to take this scene? Literally? Symbolically? As another of Ridgway’s dreams? (After all, Harry is alive and well when the party takes place a few days later.) Or is this more of his “just writing”?
The final chapter returns us to the opening party, now seen from the inside, where we catch glimpses of Tommy, Maria, Stan, David, and Stoker/Yves/Yan/Yanko, who’s now calling himself Michael, acting like a stage Irishman and singing a song in the living room when Maria spots an eye glinting in the kitchen wall. The book finishes with two one-sentence paragraphs:
Perhaps it should have started this way.
Perhaps it does.
According to the publishers, this is “a knockout punch of an ending.” But for those of us still on our feet, more questions pose themselves—mostly about what the “it” refers to. The obvious answer is the book itself, but since A Shock did start that way, this doesn’t seem a particularly stunning twist.
“I am filled with uncertainty about everything that seems to happen in anything I write,” Ridgway has said. “It’s very difficult to get that on to the page without…boring the reader.” Unfortunately, the second half of A Shock rather confirms just how difficult it is. Moreover, Ridgway’s prizing of authorial uncertainty as a badge of authenticity now seems in some danger of leading him to a dead end. After all, using his abundant talents to butt up with such determination against the limitations of fiction has so far succeeded mainly in suggesting that some of those limitations are annoyingly real.
“‘We like difficult books,’ littérateurs used to claim; and this supposed preference turned into a rallying-cry for the cause of High Modernism. Perhaps we did indeed once like difficult books. But we don’t like them any more. Difficult novels are dead”—Martin Amis, Inside Story (2020). ↩
Perhaps similarly, Philip Larkin called defecation the daily “contact with nature.” ↩
In that chapter, the publisher luridly describes several murders he’s committed. He also informs us near the end that “I have never killed anyone in my life.” ↩