Behind the Scenes at the Museum [1995]

It occurs to me that I never did the promised review of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

So, it’s been described as anti-family, post-modern, and a bunch of other words. I came to the conclusion recently that university lecturing is all about using big words to explain the hordes of little words that you read on your own. So, what’s the book all about?

Well, it purports to be the life history from conception to the age of 40 of a north-english woman named Ruby Lennox. What it actually is is a very detailed look at the first 16 years, with an even more detailed look at pivotal moments of family history over the preceding two generations.

The claim for post-modernity comes from it’s odd narrative style. It is written in a nominally first person mode, but the narrative voice knows a great deal that the character it purports to represent could not possibly know: starting with her own conception. It’s not realist, despite it’s gory dissection of the bourgeoise and working classes, and their lives. How’s that for pretentious blather? The text isn’t exactly stream-of-consciousness either, because of it’s quasi-omniscience and because, frankly, it’s too coherent. To my mind, the Virginia Woolf streaming consciousness must be beyond the comprehension of anyone who’se not a zen master smoking weed. So, it’s not your traditional narrative, and not a modern text either. Ergo post-modern. QED. Post-modern is, of course, an almost uselessly vague handle because nobody’s really prepared yet to come out and say what it means. I’m not either, and so I’ll move on.

It is not attacking the nature of the family, or pushing feminism, in an explicit way. It’s not as blunt as something like Angela Carter’s the Magic Toyshop or anything by that harridan Mansfield. It’s got a bleak take on both matters, but I think that it’s as much an attack on our society as a whole as those specific institutions, and moreover, it’s an indictment of people rather than social institutions. It is the people’s meanness, and short-sightedness which introduces the negativity; and really, even the worst characters seem to have incompetence rather than evilness. To that extent, it’s anti-people. Anti-happiness too, as I can’t recall a single happy moment unsullied by the shadow of larger scale disasters.

So, it’s bleak, and the elliptic style is a kind of deceptive first person. Promising information, delivering something you need to heavily interpret. Well, what is there to like? Why bother reading it? The short answer is: it’s interesting. The lives depicted are full of quirks, interesting facets, and a kind of helpless human pain which begs you to feel true pathos. In other words, if you’re going to get depressed, it might as well be in an interesting way.

Thing is though, on balance, the style is innovative, and unknotting the intricacies of the tale is interesting, and the characters are sympathetic, there are other novels, many novels, which do these kinds of things much better. Novels which won’t try to overwhelm you with their bleak perspective, and whose characters aren’t universally worthless. None spring to mind, but my point’s valid I’m sure.

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