This month, in a change to our normal Listener Book Club procedure, I conducted a conversation with three booksellers over Facebook about the merits of Alison Moore’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Lighthouse. For four women on a Thursday afternoon (without wine), we managed to have a very upbeat, jaunty conversation about this grim first novel. In the wake of Hilary Mantel’s second Man Booker win, we discussed the symbolism of the fabled Lighthouse, a book with a few bodies of its own to bring out…
The booksellers discussing The Lighthouse are:
Kiran Dass, of Unity Books, Auckland: Kiran is a journalist and reviewer who writes about books and music. She has been a Unity Books bookseller for seven years. Her main interests are literary fiction, music and film – and her favourite authors include craggy alcoholics who write about craggy alcoholics: Richard Yates, John Cheever and Edward St Aubyn. As well as cold, hard, knowing and unforgiving writers with emotional and psychological insight such as Anne Enright, Edna O’Brien and AM Homes.
Briar Lawry, of Auckland University Bookshop: Briar has been working in bookshops since she was 16. She has gone from Whitcoulls, to Borders (RIP), to Whitcoulls again and finally to her current home at the University Bookshop in January 2011. Her favourite authors are Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Emily Perkins, Eleanor Catton, JK Rowling, George RR Martin.
Jenna Todd, of Time Out Bookstore, Mt Eden, Auckland: Jenna’s been the manager of the Time Out for almost a year and looks after their 12 wonderful staff, the customers and a cat. Her favourite books are Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Regarding the pain of others by Susan Sontag, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
We began our conversation on the day before the Booker was announced and I put forward a series of questions as starting points: Is it a page turner? What did you think of the lead characters, did you relate to them? Like them? Abhor them? And what of the mother/lover/wife crossovers?
Jenna: Well, for starters – it’s definitely easy to get into. Simple language, short chapters. But immediately I feel like I’ve read this book about five times already in the past year – The Sense of an Ending, Ancient Light, Foreign Bodies, Harold Fry - all give a familiar feeling of reflection and memory. Futh is ignorant, narcissistic and I would imagine spending time with him would not be that great, but I don’t mind reading about him. (I’m up to page 80!)
Kiran: Futh is an astute observer but he himself doesn’t make an impression on anybody. Even when he throws bread to some paddling ducks, they don’t notice it and “the bits of bread are carried away by the current”. And despite trying really hard, Carl can’t remember what Futh looks like.
Jenna: Oh yes and Angela can’t remember him at all from school.
Megan: Yes, you’re right, Kiran; Moore is always reminding us how forgettable Futh is. I also agree he is not a man who I would want to spend time with. At times, however, I felt he was always a cipher-like character. But I don’t want to dwell on that too much, with Jenna on page 80! There’s a sense of history repeating: Futh is as boring as his father.
Kiran: Did anyone else notice the verbatim repetition of certain scenes? Mildly irritating - I thought I was losing my mind - but interesting… Maybe I’ll hold off on my thoughts until Jenna has finished it.
Megan: Like the constant circling in on the fateful parental picnic?
Kiran: Yes, the family picnic scene where his mother always says to his father “Do you know how much you bore me?”
Jenna: Oh, I want to stop selling books and finish it now.
Kiran: I got sick of reading about his gnarly feet.
Jenna: Yes, the feet descriptions are very visual.
Megan: The grotesque was strong in this book. That rump in the hotel room after the man in the bar had been eating a boiled egg. I did feel this was a book where the women were horny and the men were dull.
Kiran: Ha, absolutely!
Megan: I think Moore has pulled this novel off (so to speak) but I was at times mildly irked by the overt flagging of his wife’s similarities to his mother. These felt like clichés to me, yet somehow Moore skirts around it all. I think it is because she keeps the pressure on what will happen, as much as what has happened…
Kiran: A lot of the metaphors and visual motifs and mother/lover elements were a bit heavy-handed. I mean ferpetessake; could you get more obvious than moths!?
At this point the booksellers had to break away from our online conversation to go and sell more books. The audacity. We resumed our discussion two days later…
Megan: Did it get better for you, Jenna? What did you think?
Jenna: It did get better – it’s a very well written, beautifully sparse book. Like The Sense of an Ending, it is perfectly sized and doesn’t need to be any longer or shorter.
Kiran: That sparseness reminded me of Albert Camus and Michel Houellebec. Just as existential, too.
Megan: And did you like Futh?
Jenna: He’s very frustrating. As I said, I wouldn’t like to hang out with him, but his character was revealed in a very compelling way. The characterisation of his feet, however, was too much.
Kiran: Futh doesn’t really like himself. You know how we talked about the ducks not noticing him and Carl forgetting his name and face? What about that scene where Futh is imagining the buzzer and pigeonhole in his new flat and how he thinks his name will be missing or that it will have someone else’s name instead. I agree about the feet.
Megan: This is a book tinged with self-hatred.
Jenna: Yes, I agree. And it totally stems from his mother, who says “What about him?”
Megan: I felt he was portrayed as so abject that it was almost like you wanted him to be harmed in some way.
Jenna: I imagine there are so many people like him, though, just trying to get by, wanting to be noticed by someone, but not knowing how to do it. Ester doesn’t even recognise him one week later.
Kiran: I didn’t wish harm on him. He was more a pale slip of a figure than a loathsome person.
Jenna: I kind of wanted an awkward sex scene.
Kiran: Yeah, I expected an awkward fumbling-under-the-sheets sort of sex scene, too.
Briar: I certainly agree with the pale slip of a person description, we barely even had a description to associate him with, save for extraneous details like his thinning scalp and blistered feet.
Jenna: Oh and the flaky skin!
Kiran: Bloody socks and sandals, man. By default I wouldn’t like a guy (or anybody) who would wear socks with sandals.
Megan: I kinda felt Futh was the passive to Ester’s dominatrix aggressor.
Kiran: Ester wasn’t that much of a dominatrix, though.
Megan: She is given a ribald dominant sexuality, and she is constantly canvassing clientele from the bar…
Kiran: However, what about her mutton-dressed-as-mutton scene? Quite submissive. The bit where she has bare legs and she sees Bernard looking at them and she feels “flattered” but as he walks past he snarls at her to put some hosiery on. Absolutely crushing.
Megan: Futh is victimised a lot throughout the text, even down to when he sits on a seat in the sun, and it’s like his legs are being fried on a griddle.
Jenna: Ester wanted to be needed just as much as Futh. They are both so lonely.
Megan: Is loneliness a theme of the book?
Briar: Definitely. I felt that Ester, too, had self-hatred elements, or at least an inability to accept how age has affected her – her mutton dressed as lamb moments were both hilarious and very sad.
Jenna: Described so well – veiny legs!
Megan: What was your favourite scene in the book? Or the most memorable scene?
Jenna: I really liked it when Ester put their lighthouses side by side on the dresser. It tied the narratives up well. And I loved when he tried to catch the bus.
Kiran: Well, the scene that made me laugh was when he tries to talk to the girl in the bar and he has the lighthouse in his pocket, which he is rubbing and she sees it and freaks out.
Megan: How did you all respond to the symbolism, was it just right, or too perfect?
Kiran: The symbolism was heavy handed: Moths, sexual Venus flytraps, the phallic lighthouse.
Jenna: I think the use of the lighthouse was well overused. I got the point that he liked to hold it, and it reminded him of his mother.
Megan: I enjoyed and was surprised by how the lighthouse object was given more freight with each passing scene. For instance, I did not expect Ester to have her own relationship with the lighthouse perfume bottle. I thought she was just a bored thief at first…
Jenna: Yes! That was great – and such a disappointing story, as it showed how awful Bernard was. I liked the repetition of how it the lighthouse broke in Futh’s hand.
Briar: I think the symbolism was a little much, but the lighthouse at least was not too overbearing. It made for a not too unrealistic connection between Futh and Ester, but also has the whole “beacons for the lost” element…
Kiran: One of the things I was most interested in was the sense of smell. Futh was an industrial chemist who concocts artificial smells yet I think all he really wanted was the authentic experience.
Briar: Something both Futh and Ester themselves are in need of, perhaps?
Jenna: What an interesting job. I wish it was discussed a little more, but I guess he didn’t have many people to chat to about it.
Briar: I thought so, too – an interesting job that seemed at odds with the less than intriguing (for the most part) Futh.
Megan: It is a very visceral novel, with lots of scents and smells to be had… camphor, anyone? Does anyone know what camphor smells like?
Jenna: I don’t think I have smelt it.
Kiran: I like how Moore uses smell as a device. The smell of oranges, coffee, violets and camphor and cooking apples all signify certain narratives and tie it all in together. Both Ester and his mother had oranges and coffee…
Megan: Yes, true, the oranges were used to tie the wife and his mother together.
Kiran: One of my favourite or I guess most illustrative scenes is when Futh closes his eyes and consciously notes all the smells around him, the smell of the outdoors so that he will be able to return to it later in his mind. He refers to it as an oasis.
Jenna: Everything had a musty feel to it.
Briar: There were an awful lot of oranges in there, weren’t there? I thought, if we’re talking about heavy handedness, there was a bit much put upon the whole Angela-Angela connection, but that being said it could obviously be Futh superimposing thoughts of his mother, who is so long gone, on his wife.
Megan: I did think it got a bit too neat at the end. I wasn’t sure I needed Ester to have had the complicated first relationship with Bernard’s brother.
Kiran: That was a little bit The Young and the Restless, really.
Jenna: Though I guess that explained her awkward relationship with [Ester’s mother-in-law] Ida well. I liked it when Ida shoved the pin in Ester’s hair. I would have done it, too.
Megan: I think Moore makes it work, but the mother/wife crossover was laid on thick.
Kiran: Yeah, Futh just wanted someone to make him a little bedtime snack.”I’m not your mother” – probably the only dialogue we ever heard from his wife.
Megan: I think Futh was constantly painted as pathetic. In that sense he seemed ripe for abuse. It was all a bit Little Britain at times.
Jenna: A plate of meat, anyone?
Briar: Ugh, I’ve never heard a B&B meal sound so unappetising!
Jenna: What about when Ester put the meat in that poor traveller’s mouth?
Kiran: Yuck, that was gross. I imagined her long fingernails painted shimmery mauve and brown, leathery hands.
Megan: You know, some blogger I read said he thought The Lighthouse was hilarious and asked if it was a comedy? Is it?
Jenna: Definitely, this pale British character is very familiar.
Briar: I think it is hard to pin down genre-wise – thank goodness for the catchall “Literature” section – but until the very end it could have read as a comedy almost, albeit a depressing one. The end was almost absurdist.
Megan: It was a pretty deft turn of events to get Futh back into the closet.
Kiran: Yeah, it definitely has comic flourishes. That’s why it sort of reminds me of Houellebecq. Quietly sinister but hilarious at times, too. It’s a psychodrama.
Megan: I half wondered if it was Bernard or Ester walking towards him with the smell of camphor…you know how Ester used to put it on the pillow. I liked that – as it showed her love for Bernard still.
Kiran: I love how he was somehow still holding the knickers when he was hiding in the bathroom. So bloody Frank Spencer!
Megan: Also – can everyone tell me – was the guy pulverised by Bernard on the bed another man or Futh? I was speed reading by that point; I became obsessed with knowing the end.
Jenna: I think another guy.
Kiran: Wow, I thought it was Bernard. Unless Ester’s Venus flytrap made a mess of him….
Megan: Anyone here own a Venus flytrap? We are all women, after all…
Jenna: No, but it brings back great memories of The Little Shop of Horrors.
Megan: What does this book say about men and women?
Kiran: It’s just about people not relating to each other, isn’t it?
Briar: I think as mentioned a couple of days ago it certainly paints women more sexual to a far greater extent than men.
Jenna: Definitely. What about Gloria? She was a piece of work. So touchy.
Briar: Gloria was hilarious and tragic at the same time.
Jenna: Yeah, imagine having Gloria for a mum! It would be hard work.
Megan: What did you all think of the book’s alternating chapters and structure?
Briar: I’m always a fan of varying viewpoints, although it seems a little disconcerting in a book that’s already so short. But it does mean that Moore manages to cram a lot of thoughts and memories into 170ish pages.
Kiran: One thing I will say about Futh – much was made of how he was too “introspective and insufficiently aware”. I think it was just he wasn’t self-aware or aware of how he relates to others. He was actually very acutely aware and intensely perceptive – you know he would pick up visual clues all the time – his mother’s “going away dress”. He understood things and picked up on things most other people would miss.
Briar: I think that’s dead on – he wasn’t in his own little world, he’s just not properly engaged in the real world.
Jenna: One thing that really got my goat was how he expected meals. Like when he was imagining going to see Carl and his mother and was trying to catch the bus.
Briar: He did seem to be very expectant of these things for someone who seemingly didn’t have a very coddled upbringing.
Kiran: Yeah, that annoyed me too! And when he tried to forage for himself he ended up gashing his hand on blackberry thorns. Useless.
Jenna: Kenny! That was so sad when he threw the brick – that was when I felt the most sorry for Futh.
Kiran: Yeah, I felt for him then, too. So tangible.
Briar: Kenny was a nice counterpoint to Futh in being a very normal and somewhat more understandable (in a hormonal, awful parent kind of way) lower/middle-class teenager.
Kiran: Kenny conveniently checking his fly as he gets outside the house. Affairs don’t quite work like that…
Jenna: That affair was a little obvious.
Megan: There were a few neat coincidences at work.
Kiran: I was actually expecting Kenny to be gay when I first met him. Then I realised I was comparing them to Adrian Mole and his best friend Nigel.
Megan: What are the book and the author’s great strengths?
Kiran: The writing is refined. I think this is informed by her background as a short-story writer. Such economy. The ability to get ideas across simply. I like that it’s moody and chilly but tempered with a real wistfulness.
Jenna: The size – not too long and a lot fit into those 170 pages.
Briar: I felt that there was a very “real” sense about the whole way memories were treated in the book – long walks are exactly the kind of time that these things would be rising to the surface, rather than awkwardly shoehorning them in, so Moore certainly gave herself a good setting to get plenty of back story into a short book.
Jenna: Kiran wrote what I was trying to say extremely well.
Megan: Yes, it was a very contemplative novel. Did you expect the ending?
Briar: Not at all!
Kiran: This might make me sound daft, but I was expecting for Futh to see a port wine stain on Ester’s shoulder which would tell us she was his mother. I’m glad that wasn’t the case. That would have been too much.
Jenna: I had suspicions of some sort of crossover in the beginning.
Megan: Is there a parallel universe where Futh and Ester run away together and open a recycled perfumery?
Briar: And live in a lighthouse?
Megan: Where the plates of meat are always freshly Glad-Wrapped and Kenny is not invited.
Jenna: Ha ha! In my dreams!
Kiran: The Lighthouse Keeper;s Lunch. I bet Futh would like the sandwiches and roast chicken in the basket.
Briar: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch was constantly on my mind.
Kiran: Wasn’t that connection odd, too? What are the chances? I guess real life is like that, though – stranger than fiction.
Megan: What, the perfume connection between Futh and Ester? Their shared intrigue with the lighthouse in particular…
Kiran: Yes. I really want to smell that perfume.
Megan: I was delighted when you sent through the images of the real perfumes, Kiran.
Jenna: That was so great – it aided my reading of the second half. I wish there was a scratch’n'sniff.
Kiran: I wonder if that was Moore’s starting point? That she found an old vintage bottle and created a narrative around it. It’s so specific and central to the story. Looking at the bottles, they evoke the mood of the book for me, that wistful melancholy vein that runs through it.
Jenna: Yes – surely that was a starting point.
Briar: I was surprised to find that it was a real perfume, and it certainly helped the experience of the novel feel more potent, that it could all really unfold. And Moore so strongly evoked the scent of violets; it was almost cloying some of the time, imagining it stinging in a wound and everything. I don’t even know if I’d want to smell it after this.
Megan: Cloying seems a potent word for this novel.
Jenna: The lighthouse I was initially imagining was extremely cheap and ugly looking.
Kiran: I love how Ester wanted the perfume as a gift from Bernard but was disappointed when he gave her the cheaper, wooden edition. Bad sign…
Briar: Indicative of the relationship to come!
Jenna: What about how the family asked for the bottle back?
Megan: God, Jenna, I had forgotten that, but that was a strong thread, the sense of a fatal error that was playing out in some sinister way through generations. There was a whole “bad luck” tangent, represented by Carl. I got a lot of satisfaction from Carl’s premonition that something terrible would happen to Futh, imagining him in a small dark space…
Kiran: I wince when I think about how the lighthouse bottle broke in Futh’s hand and the perfume seeped into the wound. Ouch!
Briar: Definitely, and I came to associate that wince with the perfume and the lighthouse every time it was mentioned.
Briar: If only Futh had stayed in Utrecht…
Megan: Sage words, Briar.
Briar: I felt like even the idea of the walking holiday was so very Futh, and at the same time the worst thing he could be doing, since all he did was mull over everything that had gone wrong, rather than moving on straight away.
Jenna: And he didn’t even break in his shoes!
Kiran: Yes. The walking holiday was a good example of how he is really into “health and efficiency” – planning escape routes. And notice how he was obsessed with manuals and guides? He even buys a self-rescue guide! What is a self-rescue guide!?
Megan: This is from the urban dictionary for Futh: “(Foo.th) A term used to describe a statement made by someone believable, to a group of gullible people that is a lie; false Truth.”
Kiran: Even his name is like a wisp or air, like, you’ll say it and people will ask you to repeat it.
Megan: Yes, it an unusual sound.
Briar: I was interested by the fact that he was Futh, and his father was Mr Futh. Has he always been known by his surname, or was that his given name and he had his mother’s surname? Another way in which he is stuck in his family’s back story.
Kiran: I loved the Muriel Spark passage at the beginning. Set the tone nicely.
Jenna: It feels like it’s written by a man.
Megan: Really, I felt it was written by a woman!
Kiran: I felt it was written by a woman, too.
Briar: Agreed, Megan, I felt like it was definitely written by a woman. I think maybe it was the lack of fear of sexualising the female characters.
Jenna: Ah. I feel she got inside the sad man very well, the horny women felt a little manly.
Megan: I think a male writer would torture his lead character differently…
Kiran: Me, too.
Jenna: Hmmm, good point!
Kiran: It might have been more sexual, too.
Megan: The book was sexual, just not for Futh. The knickers covered in dust beneath the bed…
Briar: Ester’s and silky, no less, that was a little telling, but not unexpected.
Kiran: I said more sexual.
Jenna: Actually, there probably would have been a Futh sex scene if a man had written it.
Megan: Is this book worth a read? Was it worth the shortlist?
Briar: Definitely worth the read – short and snappy. Worth the shortlist, I’m not sure, but I’m a bit behind on the latest and greatest releases.
Jenna: I think it’s worth a read. Though I always think a shorter book is worth a read because not as much time is involved.
Briar: I think that it would depend on length, too, actually. I didn’t lose out on anything by reading this, but short-story authors can fall apart over a longer novel.
Megan: Any departing lines or words of wisdom?
Kiran: Futh’s dad had a real bad experience with relationships so that sort of set Futh up, too. When Futh gets married, his father says it’s “the burial of a boy’s life”.
Megan: The burial of a boy’s life – excellent spotting.
Kiran: My favourite line is “there were still shipwrecks after the lighthouse was built…”
Briar: That there were…
The Lighthouse: a short book with a brutal plot and four female booksellers who say that size does count. In this case quite favourably.