‘Flippant’ is a word forever associated in my mind with The Great Gatsby. As our year 7 substitute teacher valiantly catalogued the virtues of The Great Gatsby, she used the word ‘flippant’ one too many times. It was a small error, but one that we couldn’t forgive; it alienated the class from her and us from the book.
Flippant is the first word that also comes to mind with May We Be Forgiven. Although, that’s where the associations with Gatsby come to an end. The Scott Fitzgerald novel conveys big themes of class, mortality, isolation etcetera etcetera whereas May We Be Forgiven does none of this and ultimately for me, boils down lots of snide banter.
A lot of this book is dialogue. Almost everything, including the convoluted plot and the unlikeable characters, is conveyed through speech. But it’s not dialogue that is gracious; it’s sharp, admittedly often humorous, but mostly cruel and entirely unrealistic. Take this excerpt for example:
“I don’t mean to be rude, but your accent is unusual: where are you from?”
“I am Chinese Jew. Big adopted woman.”
“How old were you when you were adopted?”
“Twenty-three. Family came to get baby but did not like baby offered and so they take me instead. I am like a baby. I have no education. I know nothing. Good deal for all. We joke- I am big new baby – not so funny to me. I love being a Jew, nice holidays, good soup.” She pauses. “So how much donation you make?”
“Are you telling me I have to buy the Rabbi’s time?”
“The Jewish community needs many things, hard hit by pony scream”.
“Yes money up in smoke. How much you give?”
Who has ever had a conversation like that? Who has ever overheard a conservation like that? Let me answer that – no one. And the whole book is littered with preposterous conversations. I could recite more, but it gets tedious.
The plot is similarly untenable. At the start of the book is a murder; an unlikeable character George kills his wife for finding her in bed with his brother (cliche!). No one, including her children or her sister seem unduly perturbed by her death. The sister is sprung rummaging through the dead woman’s cupboards for a mink coat not long after the funeral. And strangely, the dead wife is the most likeable character in the book, for all that she’s in it.
I read this book the first time when it won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013. I seem to recall redemption and renewal and a generally positive ending. But if I have to swim through callous and unrealistic pages of dialogue to get there, this time round I’d really rather not. Even after all these years, I can only take so much flippancy.