It takes nerve to write a novel about “what life is actually like”, about conflicting and confused motivations and the wonderful illogicality of our inner lives. Fortunately, Tim Parks has the self-discipline to hold back from total stream of consciousness and the skill to pull it off. Thomas’s digressions are sheer joy if you’re interested in linguistic drift, the messy reality of bodies, the gulf between religion and rationality, the process of dying, family or infidelity.
It also takes nerve to write about using the toilet and the language we use to distance ourselves from bodily fluids. Having opted to try anal massage for the first time at the physiotherapy conference, Thomas suffers from urinary frequency, a particular problem when he’s travelling so much, although it does give him the opportunity to compare different toilets, including the one in his mother’s house which is twinned with one in Bangladesh (a great idea which I’ve only ever seen in the UK in toilets attached to churches). As Thomas says, “Reams … could be written about how people behave in public lavatories. Reams no-one would ever want to read.” (p127)
I was a little confused about the intended relationship between this novel and Tim Parks’ previous one, Thomas and Mary, published last year. There’s a significant overlap between character and circumstances (especially in Thomas’s indecisiveness and his family of origin) but also several differences (for example, number of children and location of his girlfriend, Elsa – and presumably many more that I wasn’t reading closely enough to pick up), but no mention of this in the blurb or publicity materials. It’s interesting that I felt Thomas and Mary to be unfinished; In Extremis is to me the better novel and – although not quite a sequel – does seem to tidy things up. (Interesting for me as, when readers first asked if I’d consider a sequel to my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, I was adamant I wouldn’t, but have recently become curious about my character over a decade on (though published in 2015, the novel is set in 2004) – a non-sequel like In Extremis might be a good way to write it.)
Thomas and Mary has a stronger “shrink”, however, but only because the Thomas in In Extremis doesn’t show his therapist in action. I was convinced by his tendency to have her in mind; for example, ruminating on taking a taxi to the hospice despite his general stinginess (p71-2):
It would be fun discussing the detail with my shrink. The tip, I mean … Let’s give a stupidly large tip, against the grain, against the boy who is his mother’s thrifty son.
I was also moved by his memory of the shock of being understood at their first meeting (p83):
Whenever I think I have made the wrong decisions, I go back to that watershed, that tear-shed, in the shrink’s drab office, the moment when our eyes first met and I understood I had an ally.
I was also impressed with her take on pornography as “a wilful denial of the need for love” (p253). Nevertheless, I was concerned for this alternative Thomas having yet again, albeit in another city, found himself an unconventional therapist who not only smokes in sessions but urges him to “phone me, if it all gets too much” (p258).
In Extremis is a humorous philosophical novel about what makes us who we are. No aspect of mind or body is off limits, making Tim Parks the undoubted winner of the non-existent Annethology Award for Fictional Toilets. Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy.
It so happens that my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, inflicts a UTI on my narrator and my two most recently published short stories chime with this novel’s themes. "Blood" is about the mess of bodies, while "I Want Doesn't Get" is about sibling rivalry over the management of a mother’s remains. If you follow the weekly Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, you might be interested to know that I developed both of these stories from a raw ninety-nine-word version. So it’s only right and proper that I pair this review with the latest challenge …
In Extremis can be read as a novel about the pursuit of a guiding light. Thomas’ mother has found hers in Christianity; he’s less sure about his. Perhaps it’s in family, friends or his lover; perhaps he needs to find it within himself. His therapist can accompany him in his search but, appropriately, she can shine her light only on the way he’s come. So the topic for this week’s 99-word story? A beacon of course!
The white light drew me, summoned me, invited me, called me to dissolve where pain was unknown. The blue light flashed, on off, on off. Although much colder, it wanted me too. If my body could divide into a white side and a blue side, I could rest in peace. If I could float in the white till I was mended, I could give myself to the blue. But there was no going back from the white light. I had to decide.
Another light, sharp, beams into my eye. “Got a response here!” I’d been chosen for the blue.
It wasn’t until I’d written this that I remembered my first fiction publication over ten years ago. George and Pat For Ever, which appeared in the now defunct Pen Pusher and later republished by Fiction on the Web, explores similar territory.