What matters is not being dead.
The protagonist is nameless, faceless, an enigma, identified by one letter. His story is repetitive, a series of romantic liaisons that finally come full circle. His character is repugnant, utterly amoral, finally doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The style is heavily experimental, a series of tone poems in prose format. The book is strange, interesting, frustrating and deeply flawed.
This book tracks our hero (in name only) through his wayward, dissipated life, from utter amorality to a final grudging realization of a moral compass even if he can never quite bring himself to hew toward it. In its own way, it’s a bleak book.
Berger’s style is at times distancing, at times accessible. He speaks in the guise of a narrator, someone explicitly writing the story of our hero. Whether this means he speaks for himself is anyone’s guess. What it does mean is that through the reading of this book we can never stop being aware of the perceptual nature of the work. And when Berger brings G to the moment of a love scene and then stops and simply muses on the utter impossibility of writing a love scene that isn’t risible, it’s a moment of pure literature that succeeds marvelously. When he then proceeds to write a love scene in language absolutely exquisite, it’s another miracle. When he then turns to crudity and profanities, it’s a shock. Whether any of this is really literature is left up to the reader to decide.
This book is as much the narrator’s story as it is G’s. The narrator struggles to find a way to bring G’s life to the page with honesty and truth, all the while realizing that honesty and truth are impossible in literature. He tries to bring up themes, tries to connect the present and the past, tries to make G heroic. He finally fails; perhaps this is what Berger intended, perhaps not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what Berger intended. Perhaps the narrator is nothing. But whether he meant for this frailty to be so evident or not, it is, and, finally, it is the story of the narrator and his artistic frustrations that keep one reading. Whether the narrator is Berger or not, the narrator is infinitely more fascinating and intricate a character than G himself is.
There are certainly moments where things simply don’t work; an atrocity G witnesses in childhood is brought back again and again and I’m at a loss to explain how it ever connects to anything. But most often, there are moments of raw circularity and the musings on the impossible task of writing ring true for me, as they must for any writer. How to express a life on paper? It’s a question every writer wrestles with; Berger has done so openly and in his own novel. It’s a wonderful technique and it’s in those moments that the book really takes flight.
The story of G is ultimately unsatisfying, ultimately the story of a man who never achieves anything for the proper reasons, who seems to indulge in sex rather than enjoy it, who dies as pointlessly as he has lived. If intentional, the book is a success; if not, well, what do intentions matter anyway? G. isn’t quite sure; Berger isn’t either.
3 out of 5 stars.