How Soon Is Then?

Mayflies: A Novel By Andrew O’hagan. Toronto: McClelLand & Stewart. 288 pages. $23.

The cover of Mayflies: A Novel

THE MOST STRIKING FEATURE OF THE NEW WORK BY ANDREW O’HAGAN is the hole in the middle of it. Mayflies’ first half is set in 1986, its second in 2017 and 2018, and in between there is a blank you would need a bigger novel than Mayflies to fill in. The narrator, Jimmy Collins, goes to sleep at age eighteen, having spent the night dancing his author into run-on sentences at a warehouse party in Manchester. In the next chapter, he’s near fifty. It’s one version of a hangover. Now a writer rather like Andrew O’Hagan, Jimmy sees the traces of his teenagehood all around him, musing to himself upon the “strange afterlife” of “being eighteen.” We muse upon it too. Nor is it all that strange. It’s easy to live in the past when you’ve edited out adulthood.

But Mayflies, a novel of youth and death and nothing in between, isn’t nostalgic just in its architecture. For it is a book that is under the spell of pop music—and, in particular, under the spell of Morrissey. When it comes to Morrissey and nostalgia, nobody has put it better than O’Hagan himself, in one of his 141 (and counting) essays for the London Review of Books:

That is the essence of Morrissey: his brand of loneliness and longing and hopelessness (all the stuff he sings about) is that of a person who finds it natural to have relationships with the unreachable—that’s to say, with images and works rather than people. . . . Pop music is nostalgic in its bones—it is part of Morrissey’s gift always to have known this—and fans who adhere to its magic are in love with something that was passing as soon as it was made.

In the essay, O’Hagan, always a conspicuous first-person presence in his nonfiction (Norman Mailer is a hero), mentions the time he saw the Smiths in Manchester in 1986, when, along with New Order and the Fall, the band performed at the city’s G-Mex complex. It was the last night of the Festival of the Tenth Summer, an exhibition of postpunk: Saturday, July 19. “Morrissey came onstage waving a banner bearing the words ‘The Queen Is Dead,’” O’Hagan writes, “and every person present seemed simultaneously to lose all native sense of proportion.”

In Mayflies, the main characters are a part of this audience, and a part of them never entirely leaves. The Saturday night in Manchester, the climax of the novel’s first half, will become, in its second, the key to all its nostalgia, as Morrissey returns from the past to wave the banner again. In these events, the main characters will come to feel, there was something unreachable that they are still reaching after, something they continue to live through thirty years after the fact. Something, in the parlance of psychologists, they are still processing. There are other parlances. “If youth is a crime scene,” as Jimmy puts it, “then the evidence from that night is everywhere.” These are subtle ideas, complicated ideas, maybe not universally agreeable ideas, and they are not always made easier to grasp by what O’Hagan describes, accurately, as “the British custom of turning everything into a drinking experience.” Mayflies is the rare, and possibly unique, novel to have evoked comparisons to both Proust and Irvine Welsh.

Kerry Smith, The Smiths - First Record, 2020, gouache and liner notes on board, 12 x 12".
Kerry Smith, The Smiths – First Record, 2020, gouache and liner notes on board, 12 x 12″. Courtesy the artist and Cerbera Gallery, Kansas City

AS IN THE CLASSIC NOVELS OF MALE FRIENDSHIP, the narrator of Mayflies isn’t the hero but his hype man—a lesser figure offering his humble take on the comet that passed him by. “When people asked why he was so often the best man at weddings,” Jimmy thinks early on, “it was clear they hadn’t known Tully Dawson in his prime.” The first half of Mayflies, delivering us to the G-Mex stage, will offer a primer in Tully’s prime. It begins in the summer of 1986 in Ayrshire, the region to the west of Glasgow where O’Hagan grew up and where the bulk of his six novels are set. Tully, a twenty-year-old lathe turner, lives with his parents in council housing (basically, the projects). He is an epitome of male youth, a kind of postpunk Rupert Brooke. In Mayflies’ opening pages, he isn’t so much described as mythologized: “He was in a band, obviously.” He has “innate charisma,” the “leader thing,” “the kind of looks that appeal to all sexes,” “famous good looks”—the celebrity comp is Albert Finney. Fitting enough: it was Finney who played Arthur Seaton, that most iconic of lathe turners, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz’s 1960 film of Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel. Indeed, Tully likes to quote from the Reisz film, which he has seen all too many times, and to ape the Angry Young Man archetype the great English actor made famous. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

In this novel, the quotations come conveniently italicized, a way of including you in the game even if you miss the reference. But it has the unhelpful side effect of masking just how arch (or not) the quoters are being. That sounds trivial; in Mayflies, it isn’t. “It’s been a life of quotations,” Tully will reflect later on. Mayflies is a book of quotations. Its main characters communicate in a pidgin of them. Shortly before they leave for the weekend in Manchester, Tully drops in on Jimmy at his summer job at the Jobcentre (itself a self-referential gig; Jimmy’s job is to help the jobless to find one):

It’s a dog’s life, if you ask me,” he said, quoting from one of our films, “but I have a deep desire, much deeper than you can imagine, to play goal attack for the Irvine netball team. Any vacancies?”

“Let me have a look, sir.” I started flicking through the cards in my box. The film-reference game was going into full flight. “You’re not much good at netball, are you, Jo?” I said. (A Taste of Honey.)

No, I’m bad on purpose.” (The same.)

“But hold on,” I said. “There’s a sporting life opportunity here. Head of Keep-uppy at a school in Cowdenbeath.”

It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken.” (Saturday Night.)

At the end of that scene, Jimmy quits the job; a novel of working-class youths, Mayflies is unusual for depicting next to nothing of work itself.

Instead, movies (“kitchen-sink classics”), music (punk), and even the occasional book (The Great Gatsby is a touchstone) are what Tully and Jimmy have in common. In other ways, their friendship, already established when the novel begins, is unlikely. Jimmy’s English teacher observes that she’s never before met anyone who actually enjoys Edith Sitwell. “You’re a weirdo,” she tells him, affectionately. “And weirdos have to get out.” Under her tutelage, he has won a place at the University of Strathclyde (O’Hagan’s alma mater) starting in the fall. For now, he remains a Sitwell enthusiast in a region of Scotland known for coal mining. In an early, pre-Jobcentre scene, Jimmy goes for an interview in a “Portakabin, or if I’m being more honest, a kennel.” He notices what’s on the wall: “calendars of topless women.” Then the interviewer notices what’s in his pocket: Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Such is the slapstick fate of the bookish provincial. It isn’t the only scene in this novel with the feel of autofiction.

Where Jimmy and Tully differ most is in their fathers. Jimmy’s, long gone, can bother him no more. Tully’s, by contrast, is very much still around. Nicknamed Woodbine, he’s a Bad Dad of a classic kind, a man suffocating on his own sense of integrity. When Jimmy comes by for dinner one night, Woodbine mocks him for his plan to study Russian. “‘You and your foreign travel . . . Moscow. Glasgow. Manchester.’ He turned to me and pointed with his lighted fag. ‘The moon! It’s all a con.’” One reason Woodbine is so hard to bear is that, like most disagreeable people, he has a point. There is something a little pathetic about aspiration, and people who don’t aspire to much never tire of noting it.

Buying tickets to a music festival might not seem an event of great dramatic significance, but for Tully, like punk itself, it’s an act of resistance, and an assertion of the right to self-invention. In his mind, as it is interpreted by Jimmy, the desire not to become his father has become conflated with the desire to become famous, the desire to become famous with the need for their trip to Manchester “to be glorious”:

I knew he loved his own band but I hadn’t recognized the level of hope he had invested in it. He wanted the cover of the NME and a Peel session and a tour of Britain and a Bedford van. At that time, there was no other version of tomorrow that appealed to him. That July, it’s the hope and the humour I remember first, but then the shudder, the sense of catastrophic consequences if his father’s life was to become his.

We note the shudder. In short, expectations are high. These expectations fall on O’Hagan: the literary character can have only as much fun as his author can describe.

AND, OF COURSE, THE MANCHESTER SCENES ARE VERY FUN. Accompanied by their friends Limbo, Tibbs, Hogg, and Clogs, Jimmy and Tully go to bars, they go to gigs, they meet girls; they drink and rub speed on their gums. With determination, they get shit-faced. Getting shit-faced—is there a book in it? I doubt I am the only writer living in Brooklyn to have asked.

Occasionally, amid the debauchery, O’Hagan’s prose finds a different register; the drunken teen is whooshed upward into the sky of memory to gaze down on himself from the sadness of fifty: “Tully set up two cups in front of us. I can still see them: the two cups full of Limbo’s wine now sitting forever on the table.” The sentiment is almost Nabokovian. Albeit not the scenery. Never less than an eloquent and witty writer, O’Hagan makes for a slightly incongruous guide to the world of punk. His literary manners are too refined for his writing to be, like punk itself, truly provocative. It’s not that there aren’t jokes, or that the jokes don’t work. Though, sometimes, for the non-Scottish reader, it is even confusing why they work. “If you’re going to drive a Capri you might as well grow a moustache and call yourself Gavin.” The name Gavin means nothing to me, and yet still I find this to be hilarious. One could almost make a general rule of it: the less sense it makes, the better O’Hagan’s writing is. “He didn’t own much, but he owned the room” is as clear as daylight and as vacuous. Compare this with the wonderful simile O’Hagan coins for when Jimmy and Tully, out smoking a cigarette on the steps of the Britannia Hotel, cross paths with the Smiths: “It was like a branch of philosophy crash-landing in front of you.” What exactly that means I’ll never know. But, speaking as a writer, I sure wish that I had come up with it.

THE SMITHS SCENE ENDS with Tully on top of the band’s car, humping it. Or as O’Hagan puts it, with somewhat more dignity: “And when we are gone from the world, there will still be spores of delight, somewhere in the universe, recalling the moment Tully Dawson ran down the steps of the Britannia Hotel and spread himself over the bonnet of the Smiths’ posh vehicle, his face pressed with contorted affection against the windscreen.” Presumably, the spores are still out there when, at the start of section two, Jimmy gets a text (there’s now texting): Tully has esophageal cancer. The “greatest weekend in history” has given way to the “worst sentence in any language.” Says Tully, “I’ve got four months.”

It’s all as heartbreaking as it sounds. Yet as the treatment of teen drunkenness in Mayflies’ first half can at times be almost stately, so the tale of terminal illness in its second is not a little cheeky. “Dying is boring,” as Tully puts it to Jimmy. “If I don’t die soon then I might die of boredom.” It falls to Jimmy to keep him entertained, his “wingman” unto death. In practice, this translates to more banter. “I think every death should involve an airport. The clue’s in the name—Terminal 5.” It’s a comedy show at the gallows.

The two parts of this book about friendship are an odd couple in more ways than one. Cancer gets a bad rap among literary critics as a quick-fix narrative device, but here its effect is the opposite of neat. The major drama of the first half—would Tully turn out like Woodbine?—is in the second disposed of in less than a paragraph. Tully did not turn out like Woodbine. He read Jimmy’s books, went to college, became a teacher, acquired a loving long-term girlfriend. Subplots as morbid as they are zany fill the vacuum. When Jimmy and Tully meet up in Ayrshire to map a course for what remains of Tully’s life, the quotation reflex kicks in. Jimmy comes up with a line from Antony and Cleopatra: “Make death proud to take us.” “I like it,” says Tully. In fact, he likes it so much that he decides, in homage to the Bard, to commit assisted suicide via the Swiss organization Dignitas. It is Jimmy’s cheerless assignment to sort out the logistics. Has the writer just Shakespeare-quoted his friend into the grave?

Tully’s girlfriend, Anna, seems to think so. “You gave him that idea, Jimmy, of owning it. You, with your Shakespeare.” With her, Tully plans a wedding; with Jimmy, the particulars of his suicide. Each is its own big day, and as the pressures and the preparations mount, Eros and Thanatos start to merge. A man attempts to rent Tully a limousine:

“Why would I want to ride around Pollok in a fuckan bridal hearse? Talk about the opiate of the people. These pricks spend their lives selling junk to brainless neds who think they’re on Love Island. I’d sooner walk to the wedding or go on the bus. I’m only doing it for Anna. I’m not being drafted into some hellish Bing Crosby scenario just because these creepy bastards say so.” I was entertained all morning by that, and then he phoned back in the afternoon. “Sorry,” he said, “coming on all Nutso McNutjob with the limousine guy, but it was good to get it out there. I actually quite liked the idea of the Humvee with the condom machine and the vodka fountain. A man could snuff it quite happily in a vehicle like that.”

Tully laughs at sacred things, and Mayflies reveres him for it. It’s a hymn sung for a man who was brilliant because he was blasphemous, and as it proceeds toward its unbearable end, there are times when literary form starts to wobble. The elegiac mode gives way to the eulogy. Readers of British newspapers will know that Mayflies is the thinnest of fictions. O’Hagan really did have a high-cheekboned childhood friend who “spiked his hair with soap,” a lathe turner who looked like Albert Finney. And when, in 2018, Keith Martin, Mayflies’ dedicatee, died, age fifty-one, of esophageal cancer, O’Hagan was among the faithful at his bedside. By then, urged on by the dying man, he had already begun work on a book about him—“about us.” He had even gotten his buddy’s sign-off on the title. “They live for a day, don’t they?” Martin asked.

In fact, the mayfly’s time is even briefer than that—“in the whole but about Five hours,” as the Dutchman Jan Swammerdam put it. The author of a seventeenth-century monograph on the “ephemeron,” Swammerdam, a microscopist, tried to reveal in this basest of bugs the handiwork of God. In Switzerland, Jimmy will receive a copy of Swammerdam’s monograph, and it’s in Swammerdam’s spirit that O’Hagan’s novel is written. It, too, makes a kind of case for ephemeral things. It says that youth is more true than age, that Saturday night transcends Sunday morning. Quite openly, it says that who we are is less than who we were. “There are things you know at eighteen,” O’Hagan writes, “that you will never know again.” Still, you can always put on the Smiths, slip into quotation marks, and pretend.

James Camp is a writer living in Brooklyn.