Character likeability is one of the more dubious standards by which to judge a work of serious fiction. Who wants to read a novel full of nice people? Literature thrives on scoundrels and reprobates, so it’s no strike against Nick Laird’s sharply written second novel that not one of its main characters would make good dinner company. And yet, wishing a character ill for the length of a 250-page book, as I did the misanthrope protagonist at the center of Glover’s Mistake, leaves one in a rather chilly mood.
Laird is a poet and fiction writer originally from Northern Ireland, whose first novel, Utterly Monkey, a buddy caper set in London, won raves from critics. The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani likened it to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which was good enough for me—but three years on, I confess I can’t recall much about Utterly Monkey, except that it was fast and funny, a very enjoyable way to pass a few hours. Glover’s Mistake leaves a stronger impression, both because Laird writes with such imaginative flair, but also because his vision of human envy, jealousy and contempt is so hard to shake.
Laird happens to be Mr. Zadie Smith, a fact that wouldn’t be worth mentioning except… well, here’s a book about creative envy.
Maybe you know someone like David Pinner. Pudgy, balding, single, a mid-30s frustrated writer-turned-teacher who expresses his generalized disappointment via an anonymous blog called (amusingly) The Damp Review. Online he’s a grump and a cynic; movies, art shows, and restaurants typically meet with his enthusiastic disapproval.
Happiness isn’t really David’s bag, but at the novel’s start, he’s reached a kind of contented equilibrium. His students find his grouchiness amusing, and he has a pleasant-enough arrangement in his London flat with a 23-year-old, good-looking, Bible-reading bartender of a roommate, James Glover. Enter Ruth Marks, an American artist in her mid-40s who was once David’s teacher. She’s come to London on an artist residency and for a retrospective of her work.
David is smitten—though he’s constantly, oddly, fixating on her physical shortcomings: bare toes “misshapen as pebbles,” thinning hair, a “toothy, unattractive giggle.” What draws him, it seems, is her fame, the contact high he gets from her wealthy patron and slick art dealer, from seeing her sell a piece for £1 million. Plus, she’s kind to him, which makes him feel less lonely: “She gifted him with the rare belief that he was special.”
Alas, after a dinner at David’s flat, it is young roommate James who has caught Ruth’s eye. David is crushed when she confides this to him, a state Laird describes with typical élan: “He felt cold, distant from himself: The real David was a many-legged scuttling thing, climbing up inside his body and now peering out with sad despair through the windows of his eyes.”
Over the course of a convincingly dreary London winter, a love triangle forms, with David in the role of underminer and saboteur. His tactics are petty—backbiting, betraying confidences, stoking jealousies—but you don’t particularly pity Ruth and James their mistreatment. Neither seems concerned with David’s all-too-obvious hurt feelings. Plus, Ruth has a self-important streak and James can’t contain a youthful possessiveness. By the end, I couldn’t help but feel they all deserved each another.
Laird’s book culminates in the cynical notion that ruining two people’s happiness is akin to creating a work of art, that David’s long-held creative frustrations melt away as he drives a wedge between James and Ruth. There’s no comeuppance in store, no final balancing of accounts. All of which leaves the reader of Glover’s Mistake, vividly drawn and well-paced as the novel is, with a bitter aftertaste.
Oh, and Laird happens to be Mr. Zadie Smith. This is a fact that wouldn’t be worth mentioning (he’s a talent in his own right, etc.) except… well, here’s a book about creative envy, about a man standing in the shadow of a (much) more successful artist, both drawn to and resentful of her fame. Late in the book, David writes a harsh critique of Ruth’s work on The Damp Review: “His first response on encountering almost every piece was that he could have made it easily himself.” Eek. One presumes such sentiment gets scant play around the Laird-Smith dinner table.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.