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Difficult People

The all-too-human novels of Gwendoline Riley

First Love by Gwendoline Riley. New York Review Books, 176 pages.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. New York Review Books, 208 pages.

It’s difficult being a difficult person. You can never do it in peace. There are always strings attached, or mean reminders about how difficult you are, or a punishment saved for later. Your loved ones might try to gossip with you, be your co-conspirator, or they might stare out of the window, leave their body while they wait for you to stop talking. They may not even be there; they’re scared of you, your moods, your reactions. You’re never really free from that.

Difficult people are a staple in Gwendoline Riley’s novels First Love and My Phantoms, published in the United States this month by New York Review Books. Two narrators, Neve and Bridget (though they might well be the same woman), are both in strange caretaker-like arrangements: Neve with her husband Edwyn, and Bridget with her mother Helen. Neve and Edwyn were married “against both of our instincts” shortly before First Love begins; their early relationship is built on morning kisses and cuddles and squeaky pet names like “little cabbage” but, as Neve notes, “there have been other names, of course.” Helen, Bridget’s mother in My Phantoms, came of age in the ’60s, with an extremely antagonistic relationship to social rules and expectations; she feels constantly attacked by these rules but eagerly or begrudgingly follows them and still uses this coerced compliance in her narrative of herself (“that was just how it was, Bridge”). What unites Edwyn and Helen is their need for attention and validation, not constantly but on their own terms; they must have their way but only in the right way. They don’t like to be argued with, but they don’t like to be pacified, either.

Little happens by way of plot in these novels, which are documents of months or years of miscommunication and attempted communication; of reaching for a feeling toward a lover or a parent that may not be there; of going through the motions of being a wife or daughter. The act of connecting with or relating to family, in Riley’s stories, often involves saying the wrong thing, getting the wrong response. Her young women narrators grit their teeth and smile; as revenge, their charges continuously push their luck. Riley has described her books as an effort to get at the “mystery of life,” at the “sheer eeriness” of other people, and indeed there is something eerie and completely unknowable about her protagonists: creative or literary women living somewhere in Glasgow or London or France, far from their childhood homes in Manchester; women who routinely leave their lives behind and go somewhere else to start again. They spend most of their time alone, cooking or reading or writing, sheltered in homes that they are obviously desperate to call their own.

They must have their way but only in the right way. They don’t like to be argued with, but they don’t like to be pacified, either.

Escaping their origins and building an independent, insular life drives much of these characters’ present-day actions, a form of self-protectiveness that comes from their childhood experiences, which usually fall somewhere along the spectrum of painful, alienating, or abusive. In the case of Neve and Bridget, both have tendencies toward extreme isolation as well as emotional babysitting; any intimacy they have with their husband and mother, respectively, is a product of this contradiction. Neve marries Edwyn after years of living alone, and she states more than once that she has never lived with anyone before and doesn’t know how to do it. Bridget allows her mother to see her once a year, on her birthday, and untruthfully tells her that she doesn’t have a spare room to ward off any further visits.

There is a strange sense that the two women are simultaneously devoted to and repulsed by Edwyn and Helen, who seem to be if not happy, then quite at home in their feelings of not being wanted. They thrive in their bad luck; they collect rejections. “Her isolation could only further endorse her self-image. She was the fairy-tale misfit,” Bridget writes about her mother, who enjoys telling her daughter how “awful” her lifestyle has become since she left her second husband and started living off kettle chips and Bombay mix. Edwyn sometimes spits at Neve defensively, “I know you loathe anyone who didn’t grow up in filth, on benefits”; once, she recalls, he jumped out of bed when she tried to kiss him, raging that sex was “just one more thing that women want from you . . . how do I get out of this? How?” He insists Neve is trying to “annihilate” him.

Both Neve’s and Bridget’s fathers are dead or soon dead when Riley’s novels take place, but they cast shadows over their daughters’ and ex-wives’ lives: the original difficult people. To her father’s abuse and tantrums, Neve got in the habit of smiling, “just as you might encourage a baby . . . to get it to behave,” and Bridget learned to “fade out of the moment.” Helen and Edwyn have their own foundational demons—the difficult ex-husband; chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia—and their mistrust and defensiveness play out in similar ways. They know they’re being cared for, that their bad behavior is being treated as something to tiptoe around. “You need to go back to your friends in Manchester. This isn’t for you, down here,” Edwyn snarls at his wife when she comments on how quiet their London street is. “Am I not allowed to say anything?” Helen sighs when Bridget responds to some story of hers about a minor social anxiety with a brisk prescription for change. She really couldn’t trust me, could she? Either to take her at her word or not to, Bridget thinks.

Similarly, Helen and Edwyn are masters in the art of wielding power by emphasizing their powerlessness. Edwyn snaps at Neve for crying over her dead father (“did you imagine he was going to live for ever?”), and when she asks him to drop the subject, he bursts out, “I know I’m just an irritant to you . . . when I do speak you want me to shut up, and when I don’t you wonder why I’m not talking to you. If only I’d kept my father’s Luger, I could have just blown my fucking brains out.” When I’m upset he panics, Neve observes silently. Behaving like a villain turns out to be a clever way to make the other person into one.

Bridget and Neve tend to respond to this aggression with an echo-like remove, which can be felt through their narration, making it hard for the reader to truly get in their heads. The result is that their difficult people, with less emotional control, often feel like the real protagonists of Riley’s books: their presence looms over everything that happens or doesn’t happen, every comment that’s said or unsaid, every act of withdrawal or reaching out. The novels don’t just convey the feeling of living with them, but also, in a sense, the feeling of being them, of making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Neve and Bridget are frighteningly calculating in their behavior, but only to counter the wildness of their husband and mother.

Of course, it’s horrible when someone you love—or are bound to, or afraid of, or jealous of—feels sorry for you. Helen and Edwyn love complaining, but they always run the risk of receiving that vacant, patient smile in return. That’s when they really have something to complain about. But to punish their tormenting babysitters, they behave in a way that makes it impossible not to feel sorry for them. What a mess. At a panel discussion, Riley described Helen as feeling “marooned”; she “wanted attention,” Riley explained, but “couldn’t bear scrutiny.” Helen insists on telling her daughter stories of being rejected, then gets annoyed when Bridget tries to be pragmatic. But the novel does not necessarily encourage us to share Bridget’s exasperation: Riley does not create difficult people simply to have others fix them or deal with them, but to explore the natural, human tensions of not understanding what it is you want, or wanting conflicting things. 

If being routinely overlooked and ignored is simply the state of your existence, Riley seems to suggest, then maybe all you can do is become—and reinforce—the worst that those closest to you already believe: that you are undesirable, difficult, a set of chores presented in human form. Helen recounts people refusing to acknowledge her or remember her name or include her in conversations, people closing group circles to subtly box her out, with a strange kind of delight, because she enjoys giving the performance of telling an “awful” story. It’s as though she has an inside joke going with an invisible member of her audience, a joke she was in on all along. This is much more tragic than anyone in the story is capable of articulating or responding to, but there are certainly less dignified ways of reacting to the fact of being unloved. Not everyone can respond to such a reality with the fight left in them to make other people’s lives hard.

Edwyn and Helen put up their fight in familiar ways; they refuse to cooperate, to be cheered up, to give back. “If my questions were more than a feed, or if I pressed a point, then my mother quickly got upset,” Bridget realized as a child, having made an early habit of trying to trick her mother into a good mood, of trying to “put a penny in the right slot” as she later put it. But Helen would “clam up, as if she’d detected she was being duped, or being lured into a trap. ‘What’s it to you?’ she used to say, or, ‘Why are you so fascinated?’ Sometimes she’d just put her arms over her head and stay still, as if, as in the playground game, she understood that being a statue put her beyond reach.”

I can understand this: nothing makes you feel unwanted quite like someone being nice to you in the wrong way. Difficult people have a radar for when others are walking on eggshells around us, a radar for the spite of others, because we have so much of it ourselves. It’s audacious to presume that difficult people can be cheered up with “bright friendliness.” I dare you, we might answer in return, I dare you to try and make me likable, to you and to myself, if you think you can. I have been this difficult person, goading my husband or my mother into admitting that they’re angry with me when they’re being too nice, then succeeding in getting them actually angry. What else can you do? It’s scary to think that someone you not only love but desperately need might be losing respect for you or might not need you back in the same way. Especially when you’re incapable of becoming a more likable person. That would, in a sense, be an obliteration. Perhaps it’s best to get ahead.

“It was both strange, and dreadful,” Neve thinks in First Love, “to feel that I was managing him, in a way. . . . I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like—I don’t know—throwing some sausages at a guard dog.” She is not oblivious to how bleak this picture is: “This was someone I was supposed to be close to. And wouldn’t he be horrified if he knew that was how I saw it? His scorn would finish us both,” she thinks, though oftentimes, it sounds like he does know it, and it is already finishing them both. Indeed, one day, Edwyn says he can’t take it anymore. “I’m sick of having to rush because you finish in five minutes and then sit there filled with fury. At having to sit with me, spend time with me,” he seethes. “You’re boiling over with anger and resentment, I can feel it.”

That’s the funny thing: the less your loved ones show of their emotions, the more you’re convinced that there’s something hidden. Riley has said that in My Phantoms, Bridget has “conjured” up a version of Helen that is far more threatening to her solitude than Helen really is, and maybe this is what happens to difficult people. They become almost gods: they need to be pacified but not interacted with directly. You can’t make eye contact with the sun. Their reactions and their moods can’t be dealt with head on, on their own ground.

If connection and intimacy are impossible—Helen is beyond solace, according to her daughter—it’s hard to imagine what can be done to salvage these interactions. Talking about My Phantoms, Riley has noted that “the word ‘nothing’ comes up several times in the opening lines,” that “there’s lots of nos, there’s something negative, something missing.” This rings true, because the efforts of Bridget and Neve, patient and enduring though they may be, seem hollow. Something is missing if your daughter’s or your wife’s gestures of tenderness are an attempt to “distract you” as though you were a dog, or to extract pleasantness out of you as though you were a lottery machine—and, at the same time, they can’t bear the thought of you entering their apartment, or going to stay with you while you recover from an accident. Neve and Bridget are, in a sense, just as incapable as Edwyn and Helen of coming out of themselves, of not living in their heads. For all their attempts to manage their loved ones, they are perhaps too wildly self-protective themselves, of their time and their personal space, to form much meaningful connection. Certainly, it’s rare to see either of them with a friend they haven’t abandoned or been abandoned by. In Riley’s stories, loneliness and alienation make everyone into difficult people, in their own very different ways.

They are difficult because love is difficult and makes difficult people out of those who try it.

Difficult characters have been a sticky subject for readers, writers, and critics of contemporary fiction over the last several years. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis?” Claire Messud famously asked in 2013 when an interviewer commented that her characters were not exactly likable. “The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

When I was studying writing a few years later, I, too, was warned of the “temptation” to present myself or my characters as likable or “relatable,” and encouraged to resist it. The really honest character, it was implied, is not afraid to be ugly for the sake of telling the truth; or rather, they tell some truth at the cost of being ugly. But the arguments of the past decade about the dangers of obscuring unappealing personalities—from Roxane Gay’s 2014 Bad Feminist, which declared that unlikeable characters were “the most human,” to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s viral 2015 speech, in which she encouraged young women writers to “forget about likeability”—have by now become overexposed. They’ve given rise to caricatures of difficult people in novels by authors like Halle Butler and Ottessa Moshfegh, a series of characters whose difficulty seems much more self-conscious, less an attempt to break free of social constraints than a kind of mockery of this attempt and an ironic picture of the self-centeredness it often involves.

Despite the fact that First Love and My Phantoms are often stifling, ugly, and unpleasant, the reader doesn’t get the sense that this unpleasantness, or the unlikability of the characters, is a performance. Rather, Riley’s characters seem to be helplessly struggling with their own difficulty, something they are stuck with in spite of wanting to be different. They are difficult because love is difficult and makes difficult people out of those who try it; they are difficult precisely because they are alive (Messud’s standard) and because they are human (Gay’s standard).

And while Riley’s narrators may have given up on intimacy with their family, they haven’t given up on communicating honestly and clearly with the reader—they are not overly earnest, but they are serious about what they’re trying to figure out. This is not the brutal honesty of smugly unlikeable characters who seem to already know how to be, but a quiet, sincere, desperate kind of honesty. The narrators of Riley’s other novels are similarly merciless toward the people in their lives and themselves, but they are dedicated documenters, too. Perhaps this is why the experience of reading her feels at once suffocating and like coming up for air.