Jayne Joso, ‘Soothing Music for Stray Cats’.

A common thread in my work seems to be an interest in debating what constitutes the right place and space in which to feel at ease, be it psychological, geographical, architectural… In Soothing Music for Stray Cats the main character dreams of finding better ways of negotiating his sense of the disconnectedness of modern life alongside the loss of a friend through suicide. This he attempts to do as he wanders the streets of London finding himself lost at times, at odds with the environment, the urbanity, and at times quite literally with the ground beneath his feet. I wanted to write about someone who managed to walk away from a life that was leaving them feeling empty.

Published by the Welsh imprint Alcemi, 2009

cover Soothing MusicI came to this novel – and the writer who was new to me, which is always a potentially exciting development – via this piece in 3:am.

Mark Kerr attends the funeral of his old school friend Jim, who’d failed to resist the siren call of the open window on the 20th floor of a tower block, and jumped. Mark consequently feels guilty that he wasn’t a better friend to him.

The rest of the novel portrays what it is that impels and prevents us from responding to that call, while acknowledging that we all hear it. That’s the strength of this novel. It’s a fitfully moving dramatisation of a young, mixed-up man’s attempt to make some kind of sense out of the deracinated mess of his life.

It’s also a solid psychogeophrapical account of the big city, with its throbbing trains in subterranean tunnels, brutal architecture and feral or privileged inhabitants, who subsist like rats and lords in the same locales.

Here’s Mark meeting the yuppie guy who’s advertised for a flat-sitter:

While I waited for him to answer I lit up again and wondered how come he was living in a flat and not a house, the guy was loaded, that much I do remember. He was born loaded. Those were his defaults: born loaded, and being a dick; often, and this is unfortunate, but it’s true to say, the two go hand-in-hand, the result being that the bastard winds up with an easy life and is termed, scientifically, as being: an easylife – and a ‘Class A’ tosser. I’d barely inhaled when the door shot open and Ron greeted me with this hearty hug as though in the past we’d been really close mates, and I suppose I should have felt pleased…

And so on. Chatty, engaging, but just a little too bigoted; the blend of low and high registers doesn’t quite somehow ring true. Yes, Ron is a tosser, but Mark is far too pleased with his superior status: his taste in music, his vaguely new-age politics and world view. He doesn’t really have any convictions; he’s a reactionary, a political naïve. My problem with this narrator is Mark thinks he’s cool. Not easy to pull this off in a novel. Joso makes a valiant effort, and very nearly succeeds. She’s good on tossers, that’s for sure. And street rats and depressed samurai student cricketers.

The title comes from a jazz album by Edgar Jones. ‘Nice one’, as Mark’s narrator suggests.

He’s found himself living in an unnamed northern town with a girl he calls Doris, a waif he’d taken pity on and now finds himself saddled with, and doing a dead-end job he hates, in a town he dislikes. Sound familiar? Jayne Joso taps with sporadic sensitivity into the ennui and existential angst of modern urban life in this novel.

It’s a touching love-story, too: he’s attracted to Jim’s sister, but lacks the capacity to express his feelings. He writes passionate love-postcards to her that he doesn’t send.

Redeeming features abound, and these give the novel its uplifting, heartening element: there are the ‘Three Musketeers’: a trio of street kids whom Mark befriends, and they rapidly shift from thieving, vandalising urban rats to supportive, vulnerable, equally distraught victims of the modern world’s crappiness. They redeem each other through kindness, cricket and zen.

The semi-literate narrator has an unusual penchant for (post-)modernist literature: references to Mrs Dalloway and Calvino abound. So how come his narrative voice is so limited?

Which brings me to …. the Japanese student, with his zen/samurai philosophy, another potential suicide. He’s a living exemplum of the old problem: why not end life that’s devoid of meaning? As Camus says, it’s the only logical alternative.

This is a charming, rather fey novel with a heart. I felt deeply moved at the end.

But I’d also have to say I have profound reservations about the demotic narrative voice, with its ‘me grandad’, ‘nice one’, ‘sorted’  street slang; ok, ‘a prize bleedin’ wanker’ is a justifiable way to describe such a person, but this is a dangerous approach – it appears at times too limited. Yes, I understand that’s how Mark would think and talk, but this rather patrician, over-literary reader finds this style too irritatingly colloquial. I love Huckleberry Finn, which employs the illiterate register through the filter of the senscient writer, in my view, more successfully, so  I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels written in a slangy voice; but I found the repeated tics of Mark’s repertoire a little tiresome – that and his industrial capacity for cigarettes: ‘then I Iit up’ is his refrain.

Don’t do this at home, kids.

An interesting novel, then. A voice to watch.