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Vesna Main’s latest novel, Good Day?, is a masterpiece of understatement and inquiry into intimacy, fidelity, memory, and the business of fiction itself; a novel within a novel, told entirely in dialogue between husband and wife. All we know of the couple is that the wife is a writer, her husband is an academic. They’ve been married for twenty-four years, and have two grown-up children, rather, in fact, like Richard and Anna, the protagonists of the wife’s novel.
The exchanges take the form of the husband’s commentary on the novel his wife is writing which focusses on Richard’s revelation that he has been visiting prostitutes for the last eight years. Right from the beginning, the gender lines are clearly drawn. The husband sympathises with Richard, complaining Anna is “controlling”. The wife claims Richard gets what he deserves. As the story progresses, conversation meanders from the fictional marriage to the husband and wife’s own relationship, fragilities are exposed, the boundaries between fiction and reality begin to dissolve.
– So Anna’s not me? [The wife says.]
– More or less she is.
– Are you Richard?
– You’re building him out of me.
Despite the husband’s misgivings, the wife cannibalises their marriage to flesh out characters and furnish them with backstory: Richard is given her husband’s job and boss, two grown-up children hover in the wings, a scene from the wife’s previous love affair is exhumed, and intimate details of their first meeting are lifted hook, line and sinker and inserted into the novel. Truth and fiction blur the role of reader and writer in a never ending hall of mirrors until the reader can no longer sure which novel they are reading, only that their presence is vital as a moral arbitrator, voyeur and literary critic.
– Who are you writing for? [Richard asks.]
– An intelligent active reader, someone who is prepared to make an effort. [Anna replies.]
It is both story and commentary on the literary process; the surveillance and compartmentalisation of our modern lives. There are the clever self-referential texts to the wife plagiarising Vesna Main’s work, Richard has his own alter ego called Alan Roberts, a prostitute called Tanya is mistaken for a student. Anonymity is an aspiration; allowing characters to act out fantasies without taking responsibility. Surveillance is ever present in the form of the couple’s friends and children; a reminder that the ultimate goal of any surveillance society is not only to remind us of the watchful eye, but to inculcate self-censorship into its citizens.
– People who know us will recognise it is as you and they’ll assume the story is ours.
– People who know us will be able to see this is fiction. [The wife replies.]
The sole use of dialogue as narrative structure reduces the plot to its essential elements without compromising or diminishing the story in any way. In fact, stripping away descriptions, settings and narrative summary, allows the voices to burn more brilliantly in the darkness, and starts to make other novels look a little bloated by comparison.
Good Day?’s meta structure raises serious questions about fiction and ethics: how much of fiction is really fact? Who do joint memories belong to? How much of a writer’s life can be brought into the work without compromising those they love? And, through the other end of the telescope, it asks what effect fiction has on our own lives. At one point in the novel, the wife says: “This story makes me question our own life, our own marriage.”
In Good Day?, Main has created a clever, and thought-provoking story which engages as it delights. Its deceptively simple prose slices through layers of thematic enquiry to address contemporary concerns over identity, gender and representation. For all this, it’s an easy and compelling read, as tense as a thriller, twisting and turning, right down to its last postscript.
Main, whose work includes a collection of short stories, claims to admire the work of Kafka, Sebald and Beckett. The influences are clear in Good Day?, the sparse minimalistic prose, diversionary, experimental, all wrapped up in a luminous dialogue.
Good Day? is out now from Salt.