Reviewed: List of the Lost, by Morrissey, 128 pp.
You know, there’s more – but not much more – to this book, Morrissey’s first novel, than a rehashing of the life of the singer or an annex to the stories-upon-stories of tales of back-scrubbing, thorn-stricken boys that have long served as the subjects of his songs.
More, but not much more, and even whilst venturing this judgment, I must say that I concur with The Observer’s Ed Cuming, September 2015 having by all accounts spawned a monster of which “the publishers should be ashamed” in the shape of this fledging foray into fiction. Not by a long stretch has Morrissey earned the literary love for which he hubristically longed in baby-stepping straight into Penguin Fiction paperback, and if you’re wondering why, then – in a review as well-composed and amusing as List of the Lost is not, one that begins by warning would-be readers not to read the novel – The Guardian’s Michael Hann can tell you why. Like Dibbs, the poor Bostonian youth who replaces Harri, the first lost lad of a gang of four American relay team members to die at the hands of the ghost of a troubled Joe, confusedly killed by another of their number, Ezra, at the outset of the novel, Morrissey somersaults “with pitching motion into a ferocious belly-flop tumble of a sprawled pratfall,” dashing the hopes of his team and his fans, “the baton flung somewhere towards hell, damnation and Cleveland.” If this seemingly unloveable, miniscule monster (at 128 pages) of a novel seems a little strange, well, that’s because it is, but there is something of value within it that, dear reader, I know you would like if only you could see. As such, further spoilers and (I can’t help quoting him) nods to songs abound as I invite those already appreciative of the Mancunian’s mastery of the indie pop song to join me in assessing the significance of the terribly awkward mess Moz has made (these things take time, but time is against him now) of a very different medium, the novel.
Ezra, Nails, Harri and Justy are not such protagonists as one expects to find in this (or, indeed, any) novel, largely because they are at least initially painted as utterly and justifiably self-assured. Vivid and in their prime, these boys “have no hidden disappointments, for they equally bear the gift of hip-to-ankle idolized speed, their bodies calmly narcissistic ass-to-the-grass instruments comingled to become, as they now knew they were, America’s most sovereignly feared college relay team.” They know who they are, they know where they’re going, and they know where they belong; they also know that they belong, and they’re not going to let anyone get in the way of them – not for the first time – getting want they what. “Companions in pleasure and passionate in sentiments,” God knows that they’re successful, and that “their success depends upon [a] … solvent fixity of openness and sharing” such as many a Morrissey character – and most of us – can only ever dream of, in painful perpetuity. Moreover, these boys are so healthily independent of society’s codes and strictures that, though loving sunny days, they are able to let juvenile influences sway and “put the fun in funeral.” At one point three of them meet at “the cemetery gates” (but of course); then, “rejuvenated, and with a ferocious tear” they boldly bolt “through the gates and through main-street traffic lanes, woo-hooing their illegalities and delighted stupidities of funeral fun.” Finally, and whilst also remaining “the living picture of the desired physique,” these boys who have more worth than any other earthly thing know full well how to enjoy an alcoholic afternoon together. Even as four (boys) become three and one (drink) becomes four, drunken leg touches drunken leg, “which is all very nice,” and they know just how to joke about it, since “erotic at times, yes, but safely unsaid,” they have been able to find “a love for each other that prospered without the sexual, or found prosperity precisely because the sexual did not make propositions.” Indeed, and as many a reader has noted, one of the boys – Ezra – also shares a highly sensual love life with the woman of his dreams, Eliza (“the similarity of their names! … that e and that z!”), whose love for Ezra – “a love that could last longer than life” – passes its “final test” with flying colors. This is convenient, since just moments after Eliza’s love asserts its timelessness by passing said test, Ezra – silly boy – becomes the last lost lad to go under the sod.
Now, as one might expect (and all the more so in a universe presided over by Morrissey), the members of this convivial cohort soon become objects of considerable envy and unrequited lust. Chief among the lustful haters is Mr. Rimms, a much more recognizable Morrissey type. Aging ungracefully and jealous of youth, “Sir” Rimms coaches the running team, doing the military two-step down the nape of boys’ necks and thwacking if-not-knees-then-spirits on playing field practices since 1962 (or thereabouts, this novel being set in the ’70s).
“Funeral pace,” Rims chews, feigning disinterest. “I could’ve walked in the time you took to run.” This isn’t true, of course, but such sorry-butt putdowns are thought to sharpen self-respect.
For at least one of these boys, Nails, the barbarism begins at home, “scarred as he was by his scrappy social background of unrelenting parental disapproval, of the untouchable question of religion’s fatal grasp, of hate and hurt persistently bruising a harmless heart.” Meanwhile, back at school, the dean of the faculty finds it all too “easy to pervert and corrupt” and abuse these children “whilst occupying the most trusted and endowed chair of academic ranks.”
Ultimately, then, this is that same Morrissey Universe wherein boys are stabbed, money is grabbed, and the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine; where the streets are crammed with aging men eager to get their hands on the mammary glands of young boys; where hidden corners of campus are crammed with the bespattered remains of the boys that belligerent ghouls like Dean Isaac succeed at luring back to – then devouring within – their scholarly rooms; where gasping, dying (but somehow still alive), Harri eventually succumbs to the products of a tough who peddles drugs; where Nails and Justy go to an old house on just the right night to have hatchets (OK, “Don Perignon bottles”) taken to their ears (OK, “tapped into their brains”); where ten-ton trucks, double-decker buses, and less elaborate automobiles self-propel themselves “into the passenger side” of young lovers’ cars, at first merely ensuring that the leather on said side runs smooth from thereon out, but ultimately also propelling the survivor to likewise throw his skinny body down to the rocks below; where the passing of time and all of it’s hideous crimes leaves empty lives waiting to be filled; where if one does meet (as one could, though one probably won’t) somebody who really loves one, then one is sure to spoil it all by getting confused and killing a “schizo hobo,” who will then proceed to kill off all the members of one’s relay team from beyond the grave; where, ultimately, “this murderous planet of criminal nations is a joy to leave behind”; where the denied and dispossessed (of which there are so many) walk home alone, wondering how quickly they might find an early death if they jumped on the top of the parachutes; where some one falls in love, then someone’s beaten up, and the senses being dulled are OURS; where in the midst of life we are in death, etcetera!
“To read a book is to let a root sink down,” Morrissey declares on this book’s back cover. Unfortunately, the general reflections most likely to root themselves in the reader’s mind upon casually reading this novel are not the hard-won human riches of its protagonist Ezra (of which more momentarily) but rather the pronouncements of the “dehumanized” wretch who first fails to grope, then later manages to haunt, terrorize, and destroy Ezra and the rest of the gang from beyond the grave. “Trapped in his history – the history that created him,” all this girl-afraid, “pitiful vision of life’s loneliness” has to say about death is that “no one dies any differently than anyone else. It’s all the same passage.” On a very abstract level, this is true, and it is a judgment echoed by the envious Mr. Rims, who states when Harri dies that “He’s not gone anywhere that we aren’t going ourselves. There’s nothing unique about his journey.” Why, one wonders, is List of the Lost allowing such generalizations as this (and all of those above) to take root at the same time as quietly dramatizing two lovers’ gradual discovery (just in time, before their deaths) that people do live differently, and that that’s what matters?
If List of the Lost is “the reality of what is true battling against what is permitted to be true,” as Morrissey purports it is, then what is The Truth that it teaches? As we have seen, it opens with an unabashed celebration of the “erotic reality” of these relay runners, yet it then proceeds to provide ample demonstration that the boys are not, in fact, the “deltoid deities who have no inhibitions in bodies fully occupied and enjoyed” that they are “well known” to be in the “imagination” of the crowd. Meanwhile, in an isolated gem of a moment, the narrator casually imparts a passing, but important, truth about the personal experience of Mr. Rims, who is so jealous of that erotic reality because he “once grabbed life and then let it go, having no idea that there would be no second chances.” Behind his hatred of the boys, then, there lies a murderous desire – or a human need – to be loved. Given the novelist’s awareness of the unreality of the original image of the boys and the damaging impact of that image on jealous on-lookers, it is strange that Morrissey’s narrator seems determined to permit that original image as true. Likewise, given the certitude with which Ezra and Eliza come to conclude that “sports results” are an absurd thing to be worried about when “two billion loving animals are being butchered … [and denied] a compassion alien to the human spirit,” it is strange that the narrator ultimately permits (or indeed, again, actively supplements) Rims, Justy, and Nails’ totally un-empathetic responses to Dibbs’ aforementioned “belly-flop tumble of a sprawled pratfall”: “today we have new meaning for the word tragedy,” glosses Rims; “when exactly did you die?” jabs Justy; “I will bury you,” says Nals, and “save all of my hatred for your funeral.” All of this is permitted to pass as an adequate judgment of the significance of the sport team’s failure with no corrective from Ezra (who is present, but silent) or from the narrator’s higher consciousness. You should know that time’s tide will smoother you, this novel seems determined to communicate to its readers and characters (who see bad things happen in other people’s lives, then experience bad things in theirs); this too is permitted to pass as truth despite the fact that certain characters achieve (and, indeed, come to perceive the significance of the fact that they have come to achieve) a “voluntary affection amongst [lovers and] friends that survives time.”
Morrissey knows and has shown that indie pop artists can achieve ample commercial and artistic success by simply singing their life: just walk right up to the microphone and name all the things that you love all the things that you loathe. In songs the artist can do this, leaving the work of integrating perceptions and forming a coherent picture of life to such listeners as feel inclined to do so. Not only does the narrator of Morrissey’s novel also fail to conduct or encourage such integrative work; he consistently interrupts the evolving narrative with unrelated abstract generalizations of “his” own (for the narrator is, of course, Morrissey): that “there is very little difference between religion and racism,” for example, since “both are the exact sane torrent of intolerance”; that the inhumane human race “have created the hell of the slaughterhouse, aflame and far more perverted in sickness than anything apparently designed by Satan”; that “every government loves a war”; that “title and unflappable wealth” are enough to protect the “necrophilic lust” of people like Dean Isaac “from moral investigaton.” With good reason, we do not expect the narrator to shift his focus so dramatically from the evolving narrative as to omnisciently assure us that many decades beyond the period during which the novel is set Laura Bush will “adopt the same gaseous and servile soap-opera affection when her own husband becomes America’s latest Ben Cartwright” as the narrator is (already tangentially) informing us Ronald Reagan’s “impish wife” once did during the era within which the novel does happen to be set; nor do we expect to be presented with generalizations such as that “the true origin of the word ‘hero’ does not carry connotations of either honor or virtue” or, indeed, that “generalizations shift word-definitions in order to suit whatever suits” at precisely the moment that Eliza is breathing her last breath and our hero is beginning to brace himself to breath his own.
We do not expect these things precisely because we expect a novelist to be at least as invested in the fates and the fortunes of his characters as we feel ourselves compelled to be. By contrast, Morrissey seems to care more about abstract and ungrounded generalizations regarding death, religion, and politics than about whether his characters live or die; why then, we naturally wonder, should we devote valuable time to this novel? If we choose to it should be because there is a great deal of dissonance between the narrator’s tendency to pontificate about principles, abstractions and laws of death and the lessons that Ezra seems (when we are permitted to observe him) to be learning from and about life. Perhaps most importantly, whereas Ezra concludes (in conversation with Eliza) that when deliberating “there isn’t time to consider implications or tolerance or holy scriptures or nineteenth-century laws,” the excessively imposing, omniscient narrator of this very heady book sits and prophesizes on philosophical subjects with (yes, perhaps the grit of a tattooed boy from Birkenhead, but also) the assumed infallibility of the worst kind of nineteenth-century novelist. It is no surprise, then, that the book’s back sleeve also warns us to “beware the novelist” with his “pompous, prophetic airs.”
The human being is “a pitiful creature eternally occupied with longing, longing, longing,” this prophetic novelist pompously proclaims. This is a voice that we have great reason to be wary of, least it distract us from the fact that the human being to whom List of the Lost directs most (though not enough) attention learns not to long, but to belong. Typical him, Morrissey chooses rather to have his narrator contrast humans unfavorably with (other) animals than to encourage readers to follow Ezra, an apparent exception to the rules, in exploring the significance of his apparent exceptionality. Humans are unlike (other) animals, the narrator generalizes, since they “require [among other things] novels … in order to substitute for the urgings of the loins – and, alarmingly, they accept those substitutes.” At present, Morrissey seems insufficiently cognizant of the extent to which he is already utilizing a medium, the novel, for which the pop song (which has different virtues) can be no substitute, to achieve a certain type of integration that he knows to be required if the value of such experiences as are richer than Rims’ and “the hobo’s” is to be recognized.
Were this heady novelist to strive a little harder to recognize and harness the virtues of his medium, he might yet make a distinct artistic and intellectual contribution to that of Morrissey The Story-telling Songwriter. Whereas the latter hesitates to venture a judgment regarding the issue of the relation between body and mind (“Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body, I dunno!”), Morrissey The Aspiring Novelist has drive and ambition enough to assert that the body is “a thing only, of which we all irrationally fear … how to control, how to control … that which controls us,” and that “it is certainly something to dwell within a body that fully and proudly shows whatever the person is.” Likewise, whereas the songwriter “cannot say” who is rich and who is poor, this aspiring novelist seems determined to demonstrate that the riches of the poor – a double-bed and a stalwart lover, for sure, but also friendship – are truly richer than the rich’s riches: “I was there, thought Ezra,” reflecting – at the end of his life – on such moments as have given meaning to it, “and I loved, and I welcomed with gratitude … and the love of my friends lived rent-free in my heart, and I ran on the track like a whole person – never asking for more than there was.” How he was able to feel at one with his body and as one with his lover and friends: these are the things that Ezra ultimately deems to have enriched his life. Perhaps only at two or three moments Ezra’s reflections on his particular life cohere with, substantiate, or are permitted to challenge Morrissey’s abstract declarations about Life and Death in general; these are the riches of an otherwise poor novel.
Simon Calder is a lecturer in English and Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and host of Back to the City: Minneapolis Music Conversation with the Calders on sianetradio.com, Saturdays 4pm CST.