Friday, 1 October 2010

Why Is Everyone So In Love With This Book?

I hate reviewing things. If you're not a trained and paid journalist then it comes across as a pretentious exercise. Nonetheless, I was writing an e-mail to someone who lent me David Nicholls' One Day and a brief exchange of thoughts became something denser and it got me thinking just how a book- not a movie or album- can become a significant cultural force. Most people I know don't read books but there are certain novels that really manage to extend their reach. One Day is most definitely that rarity: not just a novel but a story that readers' become possessive about.

I thought One Day was very well written and special in its narrative style. It is a modern epic about life and love. By epic I don't just mean it's a story spanning three decades, I mean that it's hugely emotionally epic. It runs the gauntlet of emotional representations; from the dizzying heights to the soul destroying defeats encountered in young adulthood. David Nicholls has an absolute understanding of his leading characters- Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morely. They are characters he has thought through entirely. You never get the sense he's trying to figure out his characters in the actual writing process; he knows them and he's aware of the exact trajectory of their lives. In that sense he's an author who has an impeccable understanding of the human condition and the individualistic failure of real people.

This brings me on to the fact that although the writing is masterful, I don't think One Day is quite a masterpiece. I have major misgivings about the story. I think the innovative trick of structurally focusing on St. Swithin's Day over 20 years to tell the story is an interesting narrative device, but merely a device. The idea may have been to use 15th July as a metaphorical light that glows intensely for 24 hours, the peripheries of this metaphorical light give shine on events of the previous 12 months. These giant ellipsis take a lot of getting used to and the author shoehorns too many implausible events into his strict time frame, which means you do at times struggle to suspend disbelief. I am also a critical of his depictions of Dexter and Emma. I feel that authors as clever as Nicholls should avoid cultural clich├ęs such as people working in the media being personally and socially destructive while those in teaching being grounded and only marginally flawed. I am also of the belief that the story would have better resonance if it had been edited a little more judiciously. There are episodes that are tiresome and dragged out. I also thought the first 100 pages read like an episode of Friends. It's after this point the novel gets really good and remains really good till the last 50 pages which seemed less interesting than what had come before. I think the whole Dexter grieving thing became annoying and self-indulgent, though I'm willing to accept this may have been intentional. I also found both Dexter and Emma to be characters that are relatable and recognisable, but hard to admire. Once gain this may have been intentional. Still, having gone through this immensely immersive journey I think there is something inherently universal about the themes at play. Ultimately, it's a book about identifiable people and I suppose that makes this a story we can all relate to. Although I'm not entirely convinced by David Nicholls' take on love, he presents an image of fraught/ complex bonds that is hugely compelling. I guess there are many ways of loving someone and the love between these guys is so pure that it gets contaminated by their own emotional/ class/ intellectual repressions.

On the flipside, this is a novel packaged to be a bestseller. Nicholls is a fantastic storyteller and is giving the reader what they want. The emotional psychology of his characters is very matter-of-factly spelt out meaning it's not so much the reader who has to use their own emotional intelligence to try and figure where Emma and Dexter are emotively at. It's a novel that doesn't require work on the part of the reader other than to read what's written and empathise. There's hardly any moment where I was second-guessing if a character meant what they thought. I have found that the modern British way to sell stories is to make them rampantly safe and middle-class. I find this regressive as there was a time not long ago when writers like Alan Sillitoe and David Storey were writing great books about the emotional complexities of working people. They wrote stories that were seemingly parochial but travelled well internationally. That's not the case now as contemporary publishing in England has gotten as bad as the film and music industries in that everyone is looking for a safe bet. Sorry to say it, but One Day is a publisher's dream as it's a major safe bet, albeit a safe bet that's a good read.

I prefer the medium of cinema over any other. I realise that any producer worth their salt will jump on One Day because it's a very well told story with great characters and interesting situations. That's why Nina Jacobson optioned it immediately. The movie only finished shooting last week. Focus Features will release it this time next year and these are the first publicity stills released from the production. I know many British people don't like the casting of Anne Hathaway but I think she'll be brilliant. I'd hate to see Gemma Arterton or 'Ikea' Knightley play Emma Morely. None of those actresses can play believable 'everyday' characters whereas Anne Hathaway carries all her movies like an iron rod. I hope they keep Emma Morely's Yorkshire origins in tact because the North/ South divide is a major theme in the book. Then again after seeing Josh Hartnett's cringe-inducing rendition of a Yorkshire man in Blow-Dry I won't blame them if they decide to water down the character's provincialism. I'm more concerned about Lone Scherfig directing the film because I think she's dull and overrated. I thought An Education was a pretty looking film with some solid acting, but little else. I also hope they don't turn this into a high-concept romantic comedy and make a huge thing of the "One Day, Over Three Decades: Two People Find Love". One Day isn't corny but I feel a movie adaptation unintentionally may be.

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