A plotless performance

HEARTBREAK is a tiresome, frustrating book. Though marketed as a novel it fails to provide anything in the way of sustained narrative and is instead little more than an exasperating miscellany of thinly-sketched characters and random, disconnected vignettes.

The publishers claim “the central character is not a person but an invisible metaphor”, but this does not disguise the fact that Heartbreak is a scattershot, plotless performance.

Raine is an Oxford academic best known for his poetry, something that shows through in his prose.

A book in which everyone is miserable and affected, Raine’s novel offers a case study of all the worst aspects of literary writing. The author’s knowing tone is never less than contemptuous. He proffers his book as something profound, an investigation of the human condition, but one would easily learn more about the topic from the best of popular fiction.

The author is also the editor of the nepotistic literary organ Areté, a publication which prides itself in lambasting those outside the clubhouse as superficial critics. In Heartbreak he goes so far as to reference, down to issue number and date of publication, pieces that have appeared in the journal.

Indeed, at times Heartbreak reads like an academic text, with digressions on Shakespeare, Wagner, Henry James and TS Eliot (Raine’s speciality and a topic on which he is far more readable then he ever is here). This could have been played for laughs, but the exactitude of the characters’ quotations are not only ill-considered, but self-defeating. Raine is unwilling to acknowledge that real people quote things incorrectly and it nudges already empty characters that much closer simply to being mouthpieces.

When not lecturing on literature, Raine is talking about sex. For the majority of the book, the notion of heartbreak amounts to little more than sexual incompatibility. A lecturer recounts his adulterous history, a cuckold pretends he saw nothing, a man seduces his daughter’s lover in order to spoil the affair, it goes on and on. Graphic erotic minutia is a constant fixation of the author. Body parts are always jiggling and swaying; intimacies are constantly recounted in truly ridiculous terms. ‘The arsehole’s café au lait’? Prof Raine, are we meant to take this seriously?

While one or two episodes are coherent enough to be considered short stories, the rest resemble little more than notes towards uncompleted tales, the contents of a scribbler’s journal, and at no point does anything cohere. More than once the reader is left wondering just how a book like this made it to publication. Contacts, most likely, but still…

Masquerading as something more than the sum of its parts, this book reminds one of what Raine himself has said about the prose of another poet, Geoffrey Hill: “I read about six of his collected essays and was none the wiser as to what they were about”. This can be asked of Heartbreak’s fragmented offerings: what, other than their own sense of exaggerated self-importance, are they all about? And does anybody care?

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