Review of Morrissey’s debut novel List of the Lost
So we go inside and we gravely read the stones/ All those people all those lives/ Where are they now?/ With the loves and hates/ And passions just like mine/ They were born/ And then they lived and then they died/ Seems so unfair/ And I want to cry. These words, written by Morrissey when he was still with his norms-smashing band The Smiths (Cemetery Gates from The Queen Is Dead), aptly summarise the theme, tone and languor of Morrissey’s debut novel List of the Lost. Though it took the iconic singer (a personal idol of mine) over half a century to turn his pen to the novel form, the novel feels as though it could have been written back in the heydays of the 1980’s. It is certainly a surreal experience reading a novel of a lyricist whose words had been your constant companion for most of your post-adolescent life. Approaching it is like approaching a sacred relic that might just turn out to be a forgery. Reading it was a nerve-wrecking week.
List of the Lost is set in a leafy suburb of Boston in the year 1975. The quintessential Englishman, long ago self-exiled to the land of stars and stripes, Morrissey surprised fans and readers alike by setting his debut in America. But from the very first page Morrissey’s love-hate relationship with America makes it clear that it provides him with the cynical, bitter ambiance the novel needed. Cynical and bitter the novel surely is. (Morrissey’s relationship with his native Blighty is more hate-hate. On a televised interview he once replied that the thing he misses most about England is the grey slate of the sky.)
The novel centres around four relay track athletes training for a national, televised raced that they were a shoe-in to win. Ezra, Harri, Nails and Justy are dearly-beloved jocks, have an easy way with college girls, and are revered as soon-to-be media darlings. Descriptions of these four main characters are the novel’s high-point. With a mixture of Wodehouse-esque wit, Wildean wit and Waugh-esque cynicism, Morrissey describes the characters via their thoughts and fears. This is a snapshot of Morrissey the lyricist. “The years pass as quickly as the sentence that describes their speed, yet you cannot believe it until you very suddenly look behind you and see a space once relied upon as being the future.” In these sentences and many others, the figure of Morrissey hangs heavy like a pall. This, I was surprised to find myself thinking, is the novel’s major, consistent weakness.
List of the Lost is another great song by Morrissey. It is an extension to his memoirs. It is a tooth-and-nails diatribe. But whatever it is: it is not a novel. Why is it that the characters’ life-story seems only secondary? They are merely vehicles for his randomly blabbed thoughts. I remember feeling the same way when reading, oddly, the Marquis de Sade. His characters were just over-sexualised marionettes, lifeless, serving only as the author’s mouthpiece. Morrissey’s characters are no different (flabbergasting sexual perversions aside).
In the first pages of the novel not much happens – though a great deal is said. “There are days of genuinely poor visibility when your sorry best is the most you can do, whereas a dry and radiant day expects more from you and is ready to catch you victimized by excuses.” An entertaining thing to hear Morrissey say in an interview. But in a novel, it means little and goes nowhere. Round and round around nowhere. But this is excusable. Novelists are allowed to be self-indulgent, aren’t they? These are their thoughts, their passions. But wait, as the Allies told Hitler only too belatedly: but there are limits.
The novel is structured like some evolutionary chart. Long pages of forced nothings. Then suddenly a mutation. A blip. A crest. An old hobo approaches Ezra in the woods and after a lengthy monologue (strings of the author shining clear) tries to sexually assault the jock, leading to secretly-kind-hearted Ezra punching the sickly old man and inadvertently killing him. The four decide to bury him and keep mum. It all happens too suddenly. And in the latter pages of the novel this event is seen, superstitiously, as being the font of all their later catastrophes. Why, how? After the life-altering incident, the foursome find themselves in Ledger’s Bar flatly lamenting 1970’s politics and religion.
Speaking of religion; it was surprising to hear more views on religion expressed by Morrissey than ever before. He sounds like a lapsed Catholic on his way to full-blown atheism. We’ve all been there. This is a rebellious stage and mid-50’s Morrissey still plays the rebellious contrarian suitably well. Upon discovering the body of a buried child murdered by an influential judge, Morrissey makes his characters decry: “Yes, man made in the image of that very God… who does not show divine mercy when it is needed most. Isn’t everything in God’s design? Even this? Why praise him for the miracle, yet remove him from the disaster?” Admittedly: amen.
One of the most disappointing individual scenes, axiomatic of the whole, was for me at the point when the foursome (actually now down to a threesome) decide to pull out of the race, and find themselves once more at Ledger’s Bar. After yet another Coronation Street-level dramatic incident, they find their attentions diverted to the television and an interview with Muhammad Ali (“A showbusiness show-off combining the expected lack of respect and the full stage-show dramatics with the illusory importance of what would be, in fact, no more than a glorified shoving match.” This followed by the inexcusable line: “how easy to kill, how queasy to kiss.”). This inexplicably leads into a four-page (yes I counted) diatribe against Ronal Reagan and conservative America. But what about the novel? It feels as though the titular ‘List’ is nothing more than a list of targets to be ranted at. And if you’ve followed Morrissey’s career and interviews closely, the targets are not new: from Margaret ‘Hatchet’ to the Queen to the meat industry.
Morrissey has long made a name for himself as being The Pope of Mope – but this is a title poorly deserved, as Morrissey had been a maestro at the all-too-English art of tongue-in-cheek morose humour. Lines like “I am the son and heir/ of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”, “I was looking for a job and then I found a job/ and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, “I was wasting my life/ always thinking about myself/ someone on their deathbed said/ there are other sorrows too” are laugh-out-loud funny and deep-in-thought contemplative. And I grew up fighting a matadorean struggle to laud Morrissey as the funniest lyricist since Noel Coward. But then, with this novel, I find myself in a bleak bleak world with very little humour.
One tragedy follows another. They accumulate in the main character, Ezra’s, mind, as if the entire world was designed to hammer in all the nails of his coffin. When the macabre tragedies do happen – the death of one of the foursome in an overdose after he finds his mother dead on the kitchen floor, or the appearance of a she-ghost that reveals her son’s sexual abuse and eventual murder – very little is said and not much is pondered. It creates the effect of making death and tragedy the only norm we know in life. As if tragedy is to be expected and thus is too common a happenstance to waste time pondering. Expect consolation and you will be disappointed. The reader feels as though he is left with very little closure. In real life, when some tragic accident overtakes our life we ask ‘why did it happen?’ But all of us know not to expect a genuine response. But asking a novelist why did some character or other have to die is not an unreasonable question to posit. Yet, from Morrissey, we similarly get no reply. And this novel set in affluent suburban America feels more bleak than a novel set in a concentration camp. (I’m thinking specifically of Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest – at least there is humour there!)
Which isn’t to say Morrissey can’t be poignant. Far from it. His observations and ruminations on death and the inevitability of it do make you pause and re-read and question. “If I had the gift of adequate words I would harshly tell you that nothing has happened to Harri that does not await the rest of us. Your time will come. Or would you rather curl up and die today? Your end is not yet, and that. I’m afraid, is all that life is about, so stop thinking about how things ought to be and… just look around you.” I wonder if that is a piece of meta-fiction to say ‘If I had the gift of adequate words’…? Also, incidentally, why say ‘I would harshly tell you’? Shouldn’t the harshly be left out and be left to the readers to imply? But you get the feeling that Morrissey wanted it written and written it was. I never thought Morrissey would turn out to be an authoritarian novelist.
It would perhaps be premature and rushed to advise Morrissey – and the illicit temptation will arise– to stick to what he does best. The novel is successfully disappointing but there are snippets of grandeur snaking through the ineptness. Morrissey certainly has the gift of the gab and a knack for a finely turned phrase but he needs more self-restrain. The kind of self-restrain perhaps not needed in songwriting which is such a brief and explosive outburst of passion. Novels are more laborious labyrinths. And it is not surprising that Morrissey’s Autobiography was so well-received and his novel flatteringly deceptive. Morrissey, undoubtedly, is brimming with passion, sardonic wit, contrarian dinosaur-fuel, and those work well in a memoir where readers tune in to listen to a particular figure-head expound his thoughts. But the novel is a more selfless form. Creating fiction is in itself is a selfless act because you force yourself to conceive of something others will enjoy. Telling a story is a communal act done for others. It cannot be exclusively self-indulgent. People might ask: what of James Joyce’s Ulysses? Self-indulgent it might be, but Ulysses can be forgiven its indulgences because it is a novel that inspires. Inspires what? It depends what the reader is looking for: writing, travelling, drinking, reading Shakespeare, going on a brawl. List of the Lost is too pitying to be inspiring. It is like a stubborn child that thinks everything everyone does is done to him.
It was said by Stephen Fry of one of Morrissey’s greatest idols, Oscar Wilde, that Wilde was the kind of genius that made you feel you yourself could be a genius. Reading his works was like the author giving you a personal pep-talk. Oscar Wilde, for all his creative output, only ever wrote one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I do hope that Morrissey writes more novels but not until he learns a lesson from his hero and humbles himself before his own talent. Morrissey the novelist may not be a lost cause but his novel certainly won’t be on many awards list.