Jack Baker introduces the work of the contemporary novelist Jonathan Buckley. His third novel, Ghost MacIndoe, is a moving account of a deceptively ordinary life, taking in a historical sweep from post-war austerity, through the energy of the 60s and 70s, to an indifferent modern society. This review is part of our series on lesser known but fascinating novels, the best book you’ve never read.
Jonathan Buckley is routinely omitted from discussions of contemporary fiction. He enjoys neither big-name celebrity nor avant-garde cachet (and may, of course, want neither). But, over the past fifteen years, Buckley has assembled a refined and distinctive body of work. Ghost MacIndoe, his third novel, is a moving, intricate account of a life constrained by passivity and indecision. Alexander MacIndoe is bright, handsome, and capable, but squanders these gifts, lacking the will and the courage to thrive. Or that is, at least, the judgement repeatedly visited upon him by parents and friends, strangers and lovers, to whom Alexander is variously a dreamer, a dilettante, or a caitiff who was never alive.
The novel takes in, year by year, the full sweep of Alexander’s life, from the post-war austerity of his childhood, through the energy and promise of the 60s and 70s, to his twilight in a society increasingly brash and indifferent. In the hands of a lesser writer, this historical range might portend the dreaded “social novel”, with large doses of sentiment and sanctimony to follow. Several episodes in Ghost MacIndoe are inflected with political significance – nuanced, understated, and all the more biting for being so – but they are at the service of the story, not at its centre. Alexander’s private emotional and intellectual life dominates the narrative, and the crucial spots of time in his experience are continually reinforced by the recurring phrase “he would remember”, as Buckley shows how a simple object, a casual gesture or turn of phrase, can blow a whole life off course. But Alexander does not while away the hours lost in mere reverie. He has a facility for the history that breathes life into his city, so that his reflections are charged with apparently random facts that shape his perception and allow intercourse with like minds:
The Rotunda was built by a syndicate headed by the man who built the Drury Lane Theatre, which became the Theatre Royal, he recited to himself. It was demolished in 1805, he went on, seeing the colour of that year in his mind, a tarnished silvery blue that was the colour of the smoke that rises from a match at the moment it ignites, a tone of blue he imagined as the colour of the walls of the Chinese pavilion that once had stood by the canal in Ranelagh gardens.
Here Buckley’s technique recalls W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, in which intricate historical details feature in the protagonist’s monologue as tokens of reliable certainly, masking private emotions that are themselves unnerving and intractable. But Sebald permits himself a definite luxury in tracing the life of a near-genius: one who can plausibly and lyrically articulate the novelist’s own intuitions. Though Alexander’s internal monologue is invested with a restrained and elegiac grace, his conversations are all too realistic, marred by hesitation, misprision, and opportunities missed. Buckley’s prose is not “experimental”: it does not desperately call attention to its own artifice. Rather, keen emotional effects are wrought through measured alterations of tone and mood. There is one false note, towards the close: “He wrote a cheque for one month’s rent and his deposit, and a week later he moved into Flat 3, where he was to live for the rest of his life.” Though the prosaic style mimics prosaic experience, the final clause makes too arch a demand upon the reader’s emotions, and we detect an omniscient a finger on the scales. It is a testament to the quality and restraint of Buckley’s prose that a minor lapse should be so striking.
“Ghost MacIndoe is a title freighted with judgement, implying a man who does not act but is acted upon, a mere footnote in other peoples’ lives”
The novel is not a one-man show. Alexander’s parents, whose attitudes to their son hover between gentle disappointment and loving acceptance, are finely drawn. His friends are various and also vividly realised. Some, more outgoing and outwardly conventional than Alexander, seem to collect him almost as a pet oddity, as if demonstrating pity relieved their own anxieties and shallowness. Others, apparent loners and eccentrics – those for whom the world contrives not to have time – find in Alexander a temperate compassion that allows their own occluded virtues gradually to emerge, confounding and refuting our initial assumptions. The most important figure in Alexander’s life is the orphan Megan Beckwith. Their intricate, evolving relationship might be read as triumph or tragedy – as the vindication or final condemnation of Alexander’s sensitive reserve. In one, poignant encounter, the narrative perspective shifts, for the first and only time, away from Alexander, and we see him through Megan’s eyes. The delicacy of his internal monologue is lost: she sees only his impassive and distant façade. If the novel has a lesson, it is in this scene.
Ghost MacIndoe is a title freighted with judgement, implying a man who does not act but is acted upon, a mere footnote in other peoples’ lives. But Alexander’s passivity is never simply condemned: it is one consequence of a sensitivity that also affords unlikely amities and aesthetic consolations, challenging us to admit the gulf between our public and private selves, and to question the ideals against which we measure our experience. Buckley’s remarkable achievement is to place a partial, peripheral life centre-stage, and to charge it with meaning.