IT SAYS A GOOD deal about David Storey's Saville - winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Award - that one's first reaction is to get smart alecky with it and one's second reaction is expressed in a peculiar inability to put it down. It is a big and very vulnerable book, written in an odd, flat style that seems designed to hold the material resolutely at arm's length, much as Hemingway did in In Our Time and probably for much the same reason: that to come any closer would be to inflict a pain greater than the author and the protagonist, both, could bear.
It is easy, and perfectly correct as far as it goes, to view the plot as an amalgam - almost a gloss - of a segment of 20th-century English literature, combining elements of Sons and Lovers and How Green Was my Valley with the by-now-standard public school horror and proceeding onward with a strong flavoring of Sillitoe and echoes of Storey's own This Sporting Life and The Changing Room . Indeed, so obtrusive are these similarities (whether consciously incorporated or not), that at times they seem to lie like a dead hand on the novel's development; a tale of proletarian spiritual desolation labors under a double weight if it is not only totally devoid of active feeling but also twice-told.
To say that the book is the story of Colin Saville - the son of a penniless miner who escapes into a dreadful grammar school, knows love of a sort, and ends up as much of a tabula rasa as he began - is to box pretty effectively its limited compass. It is simply another way of saying that certain lives are (in Paul Theroux's phrase) nasty, British, and short. One has heard it all on the BBC, usually rendered in accents that make the speakers sound as though they are strangling on false teeth.
This is a serious problem, and it is quite real; as a genre writer, Storey is mining a vein long since exhausted. At the same time, slowly but with growing power, this very fact works in the book's favor, if favor is quite the word to use in such a desolate context. Colin Saville's dilemma reminds me of something an American social worker said recently. She said that her job consists of driving people crazy. She said that every day, somewhere out there in the slums, someone goes dangerously sane. They suddenly realize that the way they are being forced to live is absolutely nuts and everybody knows it and nobody is doing a damn thing to stop it and it cannot be borne for a minute longer. The social worker's task is to terminate this insight before it destroys its host or, worse, is communicated to others.
Similiarly, Colin Saville has been given the poisonous gift of self-awareness without the power to do the least thing to help himself, and it is merely one of the more awful circumstances of his existence that most aspects of his life have a threadbare novelistic quality. It is an insult fully as profound as if he were to have awakened in a comic book or a zoo, and it is made all the worse by the fact that he is going to have to put up with it; it is his lot.
His final reaction to his fate is to implode, to collapse back on his own hollow center, and even his "escape" to London at the end is no solution; it is a patently fictional resolution that makes a mockery of the act by rendering it unreal before it takes place. Like a chalice waiting to be filled, he bears his emptiness into the larger world, taking a chance that his own story will someday begin, going through the motions of hope.
The final effect of such a book is one of stun. The barrenness of its often overcontrolled prose, the deliberate preoccupation with the surface of things, the sense of life as pastiche, and the implication that one event is much like any other event and all are equally immutable and equally futile, impart to the writing something of the numbness that follows a blow or a fall or a death in the family. This is not a book that enlarges upon experience. Instead, it inflicts a diminution on the reader, the diminution of Colin Saville and all his people, none of whom can be said ever to have lived at all.