The More Things Change - A Novel by Jim Murdoch


Jim Valentine is a relatively ordinary man in a relatively ordinary rut. Solitary and unfulfilled, he moves though his life without hardly making a ripple. Then, one day, he meets an interesting old man in the park and everything changes… or maybe it all just stays the same.

I wanted to give over some special time to reading Jim Murdoch’s novel ‘The More Things Change’ so I read it as I walked to and from work every day. People I passed regularly remarked on how I did this without running into lamp posts or falling down manholes. It’s all about peripheral vision, I think. 

It made for a heightened experience, I think, reading the book while moving through streets and parks, passing business people, dogs, and children as I went. The book concerns itself with questions of life and existence and interaction and it was an added dimension to be out in the world and moving through it as these question were addressed. 

Jim Murdoch is a consummate writer. He knows exactly what he is doing and he does it with great insight, wit, and skill. The corollary is also true. He knows exactly what he is not doing. He is not writing a bodice-ripper nor a page-turner nor a thriller nor a mass audience satisfier. He is a writer with a poetic and an intellectual heart and he has themes which he wishes to probe and to agitate. His book has characters and story and development and resolution – all those things one looks for in a book – but they are not the priority. The priority is exploration, thought and the development of ideas.

At first glance, then, the book may present as a weighty tone. Not in actual bulk but rather in a certain delay in story development while thoughts and theme are being explored. First glances can be misleading though because Jim is a writer with a colossal inner database of cultural references, all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous, and this makes for a journey between the covers that is both a funny and constantly enlightening one.

Jim and I have things in common. We are both writers who will never stop no matter how little feedback the world chooses to give us. We have writing in our blood and we must do it, in some form or another, to keep that blood flowing.

We are also quite different animals too, in our way. In trying to think of a comparison, I came up with a pond. If the world was a pond, then Jim might  be a Pike in that world. Strong and imposing, digging deep into the bottom mud and poking hard among the bullrushes to find its fodder. As for me, I think I would be a pond skimmer, fast and precariously-balanced, never stopping to inspect anything too hard for fear of slipping though that surface tension on which I so depend so heavily. 

The pond skimmer is probably not the best creature to interrogate the ways of the pike. Jim digs deeper than I dig and his tendency to borrow deeply into the mud sometimes makes me a bit nervous and tempted to skim quickly on to the next available water lily. And the water lilies in Jim’s novel are sometimes more widely spaced than the poor pond skimmer can comfortably handle. 

To be less obtuse, the novel takes its time from development to development and this can require some acclimatisation in this world of never-ending sound bites and gifs. But, after one realises that getting there is much more than half the fun, only then can one start to more fully appreciate what Jim is doing here. He is actually much more like a cat than a pike, a Cat-Pike. He toys with his reader – his dinner – in a most mischievous and calculating way. He pulls himself out of the narrative then pulls himself back in, then he acknowledges that he has done this, then he does it again. Jim knits a deep pile rug for us then gleefully pulls it out from under our feet.

What I’m trying to say is that Jim’s writing is not always entirely easy but it is always entirely worth it. 

Do not think that he pursues a thought as far as he does because he is self-indulgent or in need of editing. One need only look to Jim’s amazing body of poetry work to see that he could literally write the book on being concise and succinct. There are no mistakes here. Jim writes as he chooses to write and he knows exactly what he is about. 

The book left me sad. I think that is a personal reaction from someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time concerning himself with other people. I am someone who sometimes seems to find my own self vanishing in my outward-gazing habits. I know this is not a good thing but, through conditioning and life-experience, it is just how I roll and it is difficult to change. This book seems to be more about the ‘self’. The ‘other people’ in the book seems to me to be quite peripheral and even disposable in the most literal sense of the world. Jim’s closest companion seems lovely and quite perfect but that person comes and goes and hardly ever seems to exist in that person’s own right. The most powerful character in the book seems kind and understanding and benevolent and yet also seems capable of acts of wanton destruction on a whim. To say more would be to spoil the twists and turns of the story.

Again, I know that all of this is no accident. Jim is a student of Beckett and, here, he almost seems to ‘out-Beckett Beckett’ in terms of casting a cold eye on life and death. (Yes, I know who that is). The overall result, for me, was not uplifting, nor was it meant to be.

Jesus,’ the reader of this review might say, ‘you’re not going to sell too many books for him, are you?’ and no, I’m not. But Jim and I know better than that. We know, all too well, that I could write here that Jim’s novel is a hot bed of sexual intrigue, murder, car chases and political chicanery and I still wouldn’t sell a single book for him. This blog of mine will never persuade anyone to buy anything and Jim and I both know that. All that I can do here is to react to the work I have read and to pay it the compliment of exercising my brain around what I have seen and heard and felt there. 

I learned from the book that I don’t have to be made happy to be satisfied and I realise that a writing work must contain some considerable power to make me feel as down about things as it did. The book wrought in me a passing but quite real feeling of general hopelessness and despair and, although a review like that on the back cover won’t make you pick it up at the airport and take it on the plane with you, it might make you feel that here is a writer who looks deeply at the world and who can skilfully evoke some of the pain he sometimes sees there. 

You can get hold of this book and much more of Jim's writing at: 
http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/books.html#change and, for a full flavour of Jim and the work he does, please do visit his blog at http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.ie  It is a monumental work of commitment to writing which I believe may come to be recognised as such in times to come.

That was the end of what I wrote (apart from this). Jim's reply was so in-depth and good that I asked his permission to include it in the body of the post. So, if you want to know more (ie. something) about Jim's novel, read on...

This book took a long time to write, Ken, almost twenty years. It began as another ‘Truth’ novel, or at least one set in the same universe and I’d every intention of having him appear. In the end only Destiny gets the tiniest of cameos. Although published fourth The More Things Change was actually written before Milligan and Murphy which, as I recall, you called my “love letter to Beckett.” It wasn’t. It was me dealing with the residua following this book which really is a love letter to Beckett. Why do you think the protagonist’s named Valentine? It was a long time before the Randolph-and-Mortimer-type characters appeared—remember the $1 bet? from Trading Places—and I suppose that’s where I got the idea of casting Jim as Job. When Joe calls Lucien a “wild rover” what I’m referencing is Job 1:7 where Satan, when asked, says he’s been “roving about on the earth” but here’s the thing with Job, he starts the book as “the greatest of all the Orientals” and ends up right back on top: nothing changes. Jim starts off alone and with illusions and ends up alone with delusions. We never actually learn who wins the bet between Joe (Jehovah) Hoover and Lucien but it doesn’t really matter. So I can see perhaps why it might make you sad. It’s the whole “giving birth astride the grave” scenario “the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.”

After I got to the end of the opening section I hit a brick wall. Although I’d started out with one thing in mind I found I didn’t like the idea of repeating myself. And the book lay in a drawer, well, on a hard drive, for a good two years before I got the idea to jump twenty years into the future and ignore his rise to success and the subsequent collapse of his marriage; none of that interested me. Changing to a first person narration was what made all the difference and that’s where writing all those short stories—which is what I’d ended up doing in the interim—helped.

The structure’s meant to echo Beckett’s life. His early novels were written in the third person. In the trilogy he moved to a first person narrator and then it was on to the plays which is why the last section’s written the way it is. I didn’t set out to “out-Beckett Beckett” as you put it or even to imitate him especially (except in the funeral urn section which was based on the sucking stones text in Molloy) but I wanted a sense of Beckett to be there. Jim’s universe is built on what was important to him. In an early bio I once referred to myself as “the character Beckett never got round to writing” and that is what Jim is. Most people assume that Act II of Waiting for Godot takes place the next day and it probably does but they also get that if the acts went on forty years later the two of them would still be standing there waiting for Godot.

You’re quite right when you called the other people in the book “peripheral and even disposable” because they are. Jim’s dad only exists as and when needed. Only Abby is granted any depth. He can’t even remember his kids’ names in the end and two or three times in the book Jim struggles with names and that’s something Beckett did; the May/Amy thing is straight out of Footfalls, for example. Most of the characters in the novel take their names from Beckett but not Abby. She’s named after a character in Swamp Thing and there’re many nods in the chapter in which she first appears mostly notable the book The Anatomy Lesson which references the first storyline Alan Moore wrote, the one where he reinvented the character. When Len Wein (one of the names on Abby’s keyring) created the character he was a man who’d been turned into a monster. Moore turned all that on its head. He proposed that Swamp Thing only thought he was a man; in reality Alec Holland had died and Swampy only housed his consciousness. No one will make the connection but it’s an important clue for those who do. Londahl, by the way, is an anagram of Holland.

I could go on. I want to go on. I will go on! I wanted to write a treasure trove of a novel, a novel you could read over and over again and still discover new things. Christ knows how many times I’ve seen Airplane! and every time I’d catch something I missed on previous viewings. My copy has almost 1500 footnotes because there’s no way I was going to remember all the clever stuff. But the clever stuff came later. I wrote the novel from start to finish and nothing changed from the first draft to the last, nothing essential. It was only once the story was done that I started tweaking it, grafting in interesting things and the more I did that the more I realised there was a whole other level to the book that I’d not seen before, other levels in fact. They were there; they just needed highlighting.

I had a religious upbringing as you know but one thing I wasn’t taught was everything’s predestined. In that respect there is no Grand Plan. From a fictional point of view, however, it’s far more interesting if there is a grand plan. And now science is suggesting free will is an illusion and we’re all living in a computer simulation controlled by an evil genius. I love all that stuff and even though I gave up Science at school as quickly as I could it does keep worming its way into my writing. I’m not sure I reference The Matrix anywhere in the novel—it came out in 1999 when I was busy writing short stories—but its spirit is there although Jim is no Neo; Christlike he’s not be but he is godlike and as soon as I realised his initials J.H.Va. were similar to Joe then there was another strand to develop. All writers are gods even fictional ones.

It’s odd the book made you miserable when it has a happy ending. Jim’s dream’s fulfilled and I don’t mean the wife or the success—those were red herrings—I mean his real dream. Writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers (unless you’re Jessica Fletcher) and how many of us yearn to be in the story. Well, that’s what Jim gets. Whether that was something the original Jim wanted we’ll never know for sure.

You’re right though any summary of this book will just put readers off. And yet here’s the thing: books like this do sell; there is a market for them. The most recent example I can think of is Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. It’s a miserable book full of miserable characters and yet it’s absolutely compelling. Who’s buying these books? It can’t just be me. One has to wonder how Beckett would fare if he tried to find an agent with The Unnamable today. Would they see it as the work of genius it truly is or would they give up reading the manuscript by the second page? That is assuming they didn’t give up after reading the summary.

So I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this. I know it’s good. I’m pretty damn sure it’s the best thing I’ll ever write but no one’s going to read it in its current format. When I first published Living with the Truth back in 2008 I had intended to use the reviews I got as evidence to present to an agent: see, SEE, I can write. But that never happened. Almost ten years on the publishing world’s changed and it’s even harder now but clearly not impossible. As evidenced by A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I did toy with the idea of sending the book to Galley Beggar Press but I imagine every literary novelist out there’s been banging on their door so maybe wait until the fuss’s died down.

In the meantime I just wanted to say thanks for reading the book and for writing this. It does make a difference. I don’t care how sure any one of us is of our own worth/talent/genius it doesn’t hurt to get the odd pat on the back.


You're welcome, mate. 

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Thursday night was great. I got to chat to my friend Sally Rooney in a Linenhall Arts Centre that was packed full of warm, welcoming people. I’ve known Sally and her family for many years and it all felt more like a nice catch-up than an interview. I really enjoyed myself. Sally’s first novel ‘Conversations With Friends’ was launched last week. You may know this already because there have been articles and interviews in most of the main newspapers about it and Sally’s been all over the national airwaves, discussing it, and will continue to be for some time to come. 

So, having mentioned the wonderful evening and the massive attention the book is getting, I’d like to spend the rest of this post on the book itself.

I suppose I can’t know exactly for sure how I would have reacted to the book if I had not known Sally. I can be pretty sure, though. As a book lover, I believe I would have loved this book even if I’d never heard her name. It’s beautifully written, you see. Sally has been writing all her life and so this first novel comes with a sophisticated yet natural style which is already fully formed and highly engaging. 

The writing is sharp and spare but never to the extent that it alienates the reader. The central character, Frances, comes very real off the page. Perhaps this is partly on account of the unforgiving mirror she often holds up to herself. 

Sally brings her natural intelligence and erudition to her writing but those qualities alone would not be enough to make this book. Sally brings a third ‘X Factor’ which younger people than me might tend to call ‘The Feels’. The four central characters in the book are all smart and bright and metropolitan in their way but they all have their doubts, their petty moments, too. They all make their mistakes. 

I won’t give you a run down of the story. It’s there between the covers of the book. I always think it’s best to wade in knowing as little as possible. See how you go.

In certain ways, the book evoked 'Catcher in the Rye' for me. Sally has read her Salinger and, knowing her as I do, I know her fondest regard is for the writing which lies beyond ‘Catcher'. ‘Franny and Zooey’ is a work that I am now resolved to get stuck into, having heard of how highly she regards it.  I was also reminded of Brett Easton Ellis in the cleanness of the prose and dialogue and, rather conversely, of Jane Austen in the way human truths are probed with wit and insight within a relatively close knit social situation. 

I try never to judge a book by its cover but, in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the reason why I loved my copy of the book more than I loved everyone else’s on the launch night. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of the British hard cover edition with the painting ‘Sharon and Vivien’ by Alan Katz depicted on the front. The Irish edition has a photograph representing the two central characters on a blanket in the park on a summer’s day. Both editions are beautifully produced to the highest standards but I found myself consistently drawn to my own copy rather than the Irish version.

This point is not about book covers but rather it is about heightened reality and I only figured this out in the last day or two. Perhaps Sally’s greatest achievement is to create a subtly heightened reality in her novel. A place where everything seems real but which is actually half a degree higher than real. 

For all the elements of harsh reality and pain in the book, there seems to me to be an overriding romantic ‘air’ which permeate the pages. At the end of the novel, the famous bookshop and the park and Dublin at Christmas time all seem to meld together to evoke an almost Woody Allen-like warmth for the metropolitan existence. There is almost an echo of ‘An Affair to Remember’ as Philip and Frances move across the winter city towards a predestined rendezvous. I think that's why I tended to migrate towards the 'heightened' cover rather than the 'real' one. For me, it reflects more readily the discreet fiction of the story. 

I’m not trying to ‘solve’ the book or even try to wax clever about it. If anything, I’m just trying to show how I became involved in it. I smirked at it and I winced at it and shook my head in wonderment at it and I closed its covers in shock and then opened them again soon after. 

‘Conversations With Friends’ is, to my mind, a very good book indeed and I recommend it to you. 

The Blind Man and the Little Girl

It’s something I think I mentioned before. The stories of the world slip past us for the want of a tidy ending or a catchy moral. Things happen almost every day that are a little bit remarkable and worth setting down but they slip through our minds because there is no hook or piece of bubble gum on the end to make them stick there. 

I increasingly think that stories without conclusions have an important part to play in the memorabilia of our lives. We treasure old photographs but, quite often, they offer no narrative, no punchline, no neat summary. They capture a moment and they stop there. For us this is often more than enough.  The snap shot becomes a thing of nostalgia and truth and often great value. 

Why can it not be that way for our stories too?

Yesterday, I ventured out of the office and down to the post box on the corner. Post is quite a rare thing these days, for me at least. Most things go as email and attachments and such. Yesterday’s post could have gone the same way. For some reason, I felt like a bit of printing and signing and enveloping and stamping. No idea why.

On the way to the post box, I spotted a blind man some distance up ahead waiting to cross over the street to my side. I  did a quick assessment of whether I could be of any value to him and just as quickly decided that I couldn’t. I knew him from around the place and he was pretty nifty with his long white cane. He didn’t need me and any intervention on my part would have been more around me feeling good than him being assisted.

Let him alone then.

As I came on up the street, he got the green on his pedestrian crossing light and rapidly came across. He then started working his way up the edge of the shopfronts, tapping and brushing his way along. As he approached me, he also approached a point where a building kicked outward into the pavement. He came towards it at a pace and I again debated intervening. But, no, the tip of the white cane found the jutting-out-part of the stone, a neat correction was made, and on he went. A tall rangy middle aged man, making his way. 

At the post box, I checked that everything was right with my envelopes and posted them into the green pillar box. On my way back, I almost caught up with the blind man again. He was turning into the alleyway where my office is. As he turned, a father gently held up his daughter’s progress with the palm of his hand. The girl was about seven or eight and she watched with active interest as the blind man made his way past them and on up the alley.

As the girl looked questioningly at her Dad, I heard him quietly say, “The man is blind, darling, so we don’t want to get in his way, right?”

The blind man had progressed a little further up the alleyway but he obviously heard the words because he stopped suddenly. He didn’t say anything, he just stood there until the man and his daughter caught up with him. I had almost caught up too. The guy knew when father and daughter were beside him. 

“Would you like to try my cane?” he said. 

The little girl was understandably hesitant. It might not even have been entirely clear to her that she was being spoken to. If the father had not been so relaxed and open to the interaction, it probably would not have happened. But it did. 

Slowly, so slowly, the little girl reached and took the end of the cane. Both men smiled. 

“I can’t see. That's why I have to feel for things with my cane,” he said. Then he said, “You have to close you eyes.”

Quickly, trusting now, the little girl did just that.

“Then try to find your daddy with the end of the cane.”

Quickly, almost instinctively, the dad took a step back to increase the challenge a little. The girl swept the can around and almost immediately connected it to her dad’s knee.

“There he is!” she shouted and everyone, myself included, smiled.

Then I went back to work.