A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35:-
Allison & Busby pb, 252pp, £9.99
reviewed by Peter Tennant
This latest novel by Paul Magrs is not as wacky and off the wall as the back cover blurb seeks to suggest. Fu Manchu definitely does not chase a screaming Virginia Woolf through the streets of Bloomsbury; that’s just a conceit of one of the characters. On the other hand Iris Murdoch does show up in an internet chatroom to discuss sex, literature and life-after-death.
The novel begins with Robin, like Magrs himself a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at UEA. Robin goofs off in an internet chatroom, where he is known to his admiring female fans as the masterful Funkymonkey, but then a woman turns up using the handle Iris Murdoch and challenges his status as Alpha Male. Dismissive at first, Robin falls under her spell and starts to wonder if this actually is the deceased novelist, given a voice in this dimension through some quirk of the space-time continuum.
From here the novel moves on in a manner reminiscent of La Ronde, with each subsequent chapter told from the perspective of a different character, all of them somehow connected to Robin, and at the centre of this activity is the unknown and essentially unknowable figure of Marion, with her tragic death in a car accident as the stone dropped into a small pond and sending ripples spreading ever outward. Glenda, Robin’s wife, is quitting her job at a well known chain store and workmate Marion is killed while speeding to Glenda’s leaving do. Waiting for her is husband Tony, and Glenda is obliged to take this broken man under her wing. Then there’s Darren, a colleague of Robin’s at UEA, who is driving home with John, the man he loves but who sadly is not gay, and the two of them are witnesses to the aftermath of the accident. Kim is Marion’s workmate and rival for Glenda’s old job, and she is also one of the women who pays cyber court to Funkymonkey. Kim’s mother Elsa is studying at UEA under Darren and fellow worker Geoff has romantic intentions towards her. Then there’s Clare, Marion’s estranged daughter returning to the family home, resentful of stepfather Tony and finding an ally in Kim. The ripples spread ever outward, lines of connectivity interlacing, until in the final chapter most of the characters meet up in the aisles of a supermarket and old Elsa sorts out what’s what and who’s who, with the biggest mystery the identity of the elderly lady in a faded cardie seated at the supermarket checkout? No, it couldn’t be Iris Murdoch, could it?
What conclusions are we to draw from all this? That it’s a small world certainly, and individual lives overlap and interact in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Disaster and the possibility of disaster seem to be a given. Marion’s car crash hangs over everything. Several of the characters are suffering from serious, possibly terminal, illnesses. Darren and John share a love of disaster movies and discuss them with a relish. And none of the characters, with the possible exception of Murdoch who is dead, seem happy with their lives, not because they are suffering in any real way but through some perceived lack, something other than themselves which they think they need to make them whole.
Aisles, all things considered, is a somewhat ramshackle construction. There’s no grand strategy visible, no master plan looming out of the storm of words and really not much in the way of a resolution despite old Elsa’s best efforts. Instead we get fucked up lives and real people, we get wit and wisdom and warmth, we get long and elaborate conversations about the nature of love, the purpose of literature, the pros and cons of the internet, musings about the afterlife, nostalgia for the good old days which were never as good as they seem, and yes, we get disaster movies. We get the doctrine of shit happens but good things happen too, and in the end just maybe they balance out, so what’s the use of fretting over any of it? We get all of that and all of it is worth hearing, because Magrs knows how to tell a tale and how to keep his audience engaged with what he is saying and appreciative of his efforts in tackling these themes. He is the teacher who can do. He may not have any answers to the big questions, but you couldn’t ask for a more entertaining and affable writer to kick start the discussion.
This is the first book I have read by Magrs, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to be the last.