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When Words Fail

In Gwendoline Riley’s novels, conversation only makes people feel more alone.

Photo: Nadav Kander. Hair and Makeup by Rachel Singer Clark.
Photo: Nadav Kander. Hair and Makeup by Rachel Singer Clark.

On a very hot afternoon in London, the writer Gwendoline Riley and I visited the Tate Modern. As we walked into the vast entrance hall, which usually holds large art installations but on this day held nothing, Riley gestured around. “What’s this one called?” she asked. I explained in the bright voice of a primary-school teacher that the room is called the Turbine Hall. She looked at me, baffled. “Yes, I know it’s the Turbine Hall,” she said. “I was making a joke because it’s empty.”

I laughed and cringed. Of course she knew it was the Turbine Hall; of course it was a joke. This kind of social misfire with two parties communicating totally, almost heroically, at cross-purposes is a prominent feature of Riley’s work. She writes very clever, very devastating novels that capture the excruciating separateness that can define our most intimate relationships. They are full of awkward, perfunctory dinners with family members, pointless rehashed arguments with lovers, and stunted catch-ups with old friends long outgrown. Improbably, they are also laugh-out-loud funny.

The writer, who grew up in northwestern England, published her first novel, Cold Water, 20 years ago when she was 22. Since then, she has published five others, often to critical praise but muted commercial success; it’s only with her latest two, First Love and My Phantoms — now set to be released in the U.S. by New York Review Books — that she has begun to reach a wider readership. In both of these, subtly distressed female narrators who share certain biographical similarities with Riley look back over their personal histories of disquieting interactions. In First Love, a writer in a troubled but loving relationship with an older man interrogates how her life has evolved and stabilized since her breakdown over a previous affair. In My Phantoms, a mother’s death prompts her daughter to reflect on her mother’s life and their strained relationship.

This can make Riley’s work sound of a piece with other recent novels that use plainly autobiographical material and eschew plot — novels in which the intricacies of using a web browser can stretch for pages. But her books stand apart. Riley has a spy’s attention to detail and a great and terrible power to re-create tics, pretensions, and the painfully recognizable human tendency to wallow in delusion. Her first-person narrators are crafted as blinkered and unself-aware. She renders other characters eerily realistic through their habits of speech alone. The mother in My Phantoms, Hen Grant, keeps a diary stuffed with hollow gallery visits and film festivals she’s not interested in, all to maintain her false sense of herself as busy and vivacious. In one scene, Hen invites a man she met on holiday to her daughter’s flat for dinner:

“And would you like a drink?” my mother said, as Dave handed her his coat and smiled at us. “Or a … radish, or … You want it, we got it,” she said, in her Italian restaurant owner voice. “We gotta the radishes, we gotta the nuts!” she said.

Riley’s friend Houman Barekat, a critic, describes her writing as “filmic,” with a focus on scene setting. “She has this incredible ear for a bit of telling detail,” he said. “She’ll tell you an anecdote about some interesting social interaction and she’ll just pick out a particular kind of phrasing that a person had used, that had stuck in her mind, and you find yourself thinking, Okay, I can see that this is the person who wrote those books.”

“I love writing dialogue. It’s something I could write a lot of,” Riley told me. “I have to really pare it back. It’s hard because you want to show a conversation that’s repetitive and frustrating and going round and around itself, but I’m not in the business of alienating the reader by making them endure a lot of that.”

When I told her I found the books hilarious, she said, “Okay, I’ve got this terrible thing when someone says that: I scowl and say, ‘They’re not supposed to be funny.’ And if someone says, ‘Oh God, it was so hurtful,’ I say, ‘It was supposed to be funny.’ ” I asked how it is that every person I know who has read First Love and My Phantoms claims to see their own parents in the characters. Shrugging, she said, “It’s the whole argument about being specific to be universal, I suppose.”

Riley was born in London in 1979, grew up on the Wirral Peninsula near Liverpool, and moved to Manchester to study English literature when she was 18. She always knew she would be a writer. “I was fascinated by the idea of being able to evoke things,” she said. Four years later, she published Cold Water, which charts the ill-fated romances of Carmel McKisco, a 20-year-old barmaid in Manchester who is estranged from her family and spends her time reading and daydreaming about escape. Cold Water earned Riley a Betty Trask Award — a major prize for debut novelists — and good reviews. “She was a sort of rock star in those days in a very small way,” said Luke Brown, a novelist and editor who befriended Riley when they were both in their 20s. “She looked glamorous. She was so young, and she had these cheekbones.” But her early success didn’t lead to literary superstardom. She worked on and off at a bar, Manchester’s Night & Day Café, until she was 30. She published two more novels in her 20s, Sick Notes and Joshua Spassky, then another, Opposed Positions, in her early 30s. She was once dropped by her publisher for lackluster sales, an experience she calls “very frightening.”

Even as she was celebrated by the literary world during her early career, she felt separate from it. “It’s strange to know people who have been diligently writing their book reviews all this while, when I was in a very different netherworld for a long time,” she said. She now lives in West London with her husband, the poet and former deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement Alan Jenkins. They first met at a book event when she was 24 and he was 48 but didn’t start dating until years later. She is almost girlish about their relationship: “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me, if I can be sentimental.”

Because Riley’s protagonists tend to roughly share her biography, readers may assume the books are about her. “Evidently, they’re not historical novels. But it’s strange to me when someone who’s never met me and doesn’t know me confidently pronounces that,” she said. “I’m not going to whinge about it. But people don’t actually know anything about my life.” She laughed and added, “Until now.”

As we walked around the Tate galleries, she made a joke out of being observed by me, performing an over-the-top response to the first room of paintings: “Well, this is all great. Who are these people? I like it!” When we went into a less crowded room, she remarked that the art must be awful. She positioned herself as guarded about her personal life — “You’d have to torture it out of me, to be honest” — but was affable and sharp, constantly making offhand references to cultural artifacts that I began mentally noting to look up later: work by the director Terence Davies; a scene from Lolita; a book by Józef Czapski; the film 5x2, by François Ozon. We headed to the rooftop café, where I asked if she wanted a coffee. She suggested wine instead. “I like a drink as much as the next novelist of my generation,” she said, “and previous generations, I think.” We sat under the blazing sun with two large glasses of rosé.

Riley doesn’t use social media or publish many essays. She has written a handful of book reviews for the TLS but says the idea of doing so didn’t occur to her until later in her career. Mostly, she just writes her books. “She’s such a brave artist,” said Brown. “Her books are not autobiographical novels, but you can tell from some of the details that she risked being penniless. She devoted herself to being an artist in a way that I’ve never had the courage to do.” First Love contains a passage in which the narrator, a writer, considers how her financial precarity has affected her sense of freedom: “Or did it hardly matter, in fact? If I could just dissolve myself, as I always had, in time, in art, when I felt loss or lack. I learned about that when I was little. The other world.”

At one point in our conversation, I made the mistake of calling writing a skill set. “I’m just reeling from your use of that word,” Riley said. “It’s art! Come on! I’m off. I’m leaving.” She repeated the words to herself in a whisper: “Skill setskill set?” She also rejected the idea that writing is therapeutic. (She’s had lots of actual therapy and jokes that it was “on the NHS, so it must have been bad.”) Working on her books is nonetheless a refuge. In My Phantoms, the protagonist is not a novelist but an academic, and Riley said she now feels the book conveys a sense of “terror” at the idea of a life without writing. “Thinking about people who don’t have that recourse where, however bad it gets, at least you can write about it. What if you can’t turn it into an account in that way?” she said. “Too frightening to think about, really.”

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