A review of Love and Death on Long Island - Gilbert Adair

A review and essay for this exceptional novella

Please note, this review contains plot spoilers!

This little novella stunned me with its fresh style and eloquence. It is a true masterpiece of wit, charm and style. I have never come across writing quite like this, though others liken it to Nabokov, who I am now enthused to sample. Adair tells us the story, through first-person narrative, of a rather pompous, conservative, cardigan-wearing, (and perhaps autistic, he himself suggests) middle-aged Englishman, Giles, “possessed of a culture and erudition far in advance of the generality” who finds himself “appearing to share the sexual tastes and fantasies of an American teenybopper.” The first hints at his pomposity are found in his language and statements, such as “…the subtle but indisputable nimbus of rarefaction that enhaloed my work.” He is, though, a complex character who also seems to have some insecurities – he unconsciously never writes in the first person singular in his work, and occasionally ridicules himself, all the time insisting that he is performing an “exquisitely refined parody”. This complexity makes him more realistic and multi-faceted, thus we can laugh at him, along with Adair. Through Giles, Adair gives us a “tale, amusing, also rather sad in its way, and well told”. Although slightly perturbed by the recent, seemingly homosexual development in his character, after accidentally viewing the wrong programme at the cinema one evening, and the resulting move away from his Classical and literary life into the world of American heartthrobs, Giles is by no means distressed by it; he seems rather to maintain a “calm and deliberate acceptance of what was to be.” It is this unexpected reaction which embellishes Giles’ character and certainly adds to a large part of the humour. Although he takes measures to hide his ensuing obsession and fantasies, such as purchasing motoring magazines along with the teen-movie articles only to almost immediately dispose of the unwanted item, a “charade” which had been played out for the sole benefit of the Indian newsagent, there is a sense of calmness and acceptance that runs through the novel and in the way he describes what is happening to him. Perhaps it comes from the leisurely constructed sentences or the elaborate vocabulary; however he does it, Adair manages to create a feeling that Giles is not really all that bothered. He sees that it is rather absurd, but does not see it as “wrong” or any particular comment on his character. However, Adair does make us aware of the absurdity of the situation from time to time such as when Giles looses consciousness upon finding out that Ronnie has been secretly engaged for many months. Whilst most of Giles’ reactions become believable and almost banal, we are sometimes sharply reminded of the incongruous nature of this story. These reminders serve to appeal to the reader’s humour and create the ironical tone of the whole piece.

What Adair manages so well is to present this pompous character without compelling us to dislike him. His extremely old-fashioned thinking becomes quite endearing and his disastrous infatuation is at once laughable whilst also strangely understandable. This obsessive nature of Giles’ interests is very gradually embellished. It starts as an unexpected spark of interest, but soon begins to disturb his sleep and affect his writing (in a positive way, interestingly). His actions gradually step up in pace and impetuosity as he takes himself to buy yet another American movie magazine which, he lets us know, he has become “addicted” to, and finds himself also purchasing gay pornography. Even Giles’ unruffled demeanour is affected when he finds himself at home masturbating to the said magazines. He is shocked and “hurled the filthy magazine from (his) sight.” Notably though, it is not the actual act (he banally informs us in an uncharacteristically short sentence “It had come to this”) that revolts him so much as the realization that no male-model could ever equal having Ronnie in person. He confirms that “It would always be a fraud, a low and disgusting confidence trick that I had tried to play against myself!” At this point he decides to go to America himself, a response which he treats as perfectly reasonable and inevitable. It is here that the whole thing takes on a new and more real tone. It is finally becoming more than just a fantasy and this is where the story explodes into absurdity. As he moves towards his conquest (represented by the shopping “chariots” in the supermarket) he begins to refer to Ronnie as “my lover” and vows to “never permit myself to return empty-handed” and, by the end of the book, he believes that he has achieved this. By writing Ronnie a letter, which we are never privy to – the only thing in the whole book which is not described in minute detail, Giles believes that he has “trapped” him, that he will forever possess his soul “because he (Ronnie) would not destroy it, it would end by utterly destroying him.” The bizarre thing is that we are left wondering whether this might just be true. Giles’ consistent sincerity throughout actually lends us to contemplating this reality, rather than pushing it aside as ridiculous, as we might expect ourselves to.

For me, this writing was a completely new working of the English language, a way of crafting the material to purely entertain, but to entertain with intelligence and subtlety. It was enormously enjoyable to absorb Adair’s unique style; his control of his medium is remarkable. He writes these almost unbelievably long sentences, which although you are aware could be expressed in so many less words you need no persuasion that it would be with unquestionably less style. I have before read paragraph-long sentences from other writers and found myself irritated, feeling that they were trying too hard to produce something they were not really capable of. However, Adair’s sentence-length is barely noticeable; the rich, lustrous paragraphs subtly leave the impression of grandeur and magnificence without confusing or boring (and this grandeur reflects the mind-set of the narrator). Adair utilises his flamboyant, lengthy language to juxtapose the occasional short sentence which is almost uproariously funny. His detail is astounding, but in a most unusual way. Many authors can write detailed descriptive passages which can be beautiful (or sometimes boring). Adair writes with detail, but not detailed description, rather detailed explanation. Giles explains to the reader everything he is doing in such great detail that it takes numerous pages for anything to actually happen, as there is so much explaining of it first. What’s so striking is that this is effective – it actually entertains and amuses. I would expect myself to find this irritating, or in the least boring but I found it here quite charming. What’s so amusing is that Giles’ arrogance is understandable and I would say that Giles (or Adair) is completely correct when he talks of his “near-morbid refinement of expression.” This perfectly sums up Adair’s style and talent as, at times I was so stunned by the writing that I had to just stop and put the book down!

Whilst Giles becomes “intoxicated” by his sudden ability to write, “I had never in the past known such a state of jubilation and grace”, which in fact stems from his new-found attraction, I find myself feeling completely intoxicated by his writing. The story amused me, charmed me, but most of all struck me with its delicacy.

Written by Triona Dobson