Silence is incredibly difficult to portray in writing. Samuel Beckett was famously obsessed with the challenge, and went to enormous lengths to conceive of it. But perhaps it can be done more simply. In Spring, the latest novel from Canadian author David Szalay, dramatic silences dominate the text. They arise as in a film, filling the scene, characters unable to communicate what they need or want to express. And, as with a film, these moments prove both frustrating — how frequently and earnestly have I shouted at characters in a film to simply say what it is they mean! — and poignant.
At his best, Szalay masters this silence. Spring recounts an awkward winter romance between two Londoners — James, a one-time internet millionaire, and Katherine, a hotel manager recently separated from her husband. For both characters, their failures (the dissolution of a marriage for Katherine and the collapse of an immensely profitable internet business for James) have left them especially aware of the absences in their lives. Both are picking up now and rebuilding. For James, whose inner life is the focus of the novel’s first section, Katherine is an essential part of the puzzle:
He pulls the plug and the shaving-water noisily sinks away. No more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay. He wants somewhere okay to live. An okay job. One or two holidays a year. Perhaps a few modest luxuries. A middle-class life in other words. And a woman. Of course a woman. She is the indispensible ingredient for such a life. Without her it would have quite a sad, lonely look. Yes, without her, there would be something sad, something futile, about those few small luxuries.
Depressed and grieving, Katherine on the other hand is effectively mute for the first third of the novel. She is the reluctant partner, and her reticence is emphasized by James’ relentless pursuit as well as his inability to relate to or communicate with her. Even their first sexual encounter, which they themselves consider “a fiasco,” indicates the awkward breakdown of communication:
As soon as the door was shut he started to kiss her. Still standing in the hall, still urgently kissing her, he lifted her short skirt and pulled everything down as far as her mid-thighs. Still kissing him, she seemed to make a weak effort to stop him. Instead he pulled everything down, past her wavering knees, until she lifted first one foot and then the other to let him tug the things off. . .
“Please don’t come inside me,” she said.
Suddenly still, they lay there in silence for a few seconds. Then she said, “Did you come inside me?”
He was not even sure. He had been so preoccupied with other things. . . “I don’t know,” he said.
She laughed and sat up straight, pulling her skirt into place, “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. . .”
. . . She laughed again and said, “I can’t believe this.”
“Is that just normal for you?”
“No. . .”
She was shaking her head. “I never let anyone come inside me. I’ve only let one person do that. Someone I was totally in love with — you don’t know whether you came?” She sounded shocked, on the verge of tears.
James, in his own mind, responds to this scene in a manner both “straightforwardly mechanistic” and “shockingly sincere.” He agonizes over this incident, obsessing over it as if it were a mystery — Did she sound strange? Was she particularly aloof? It reveals his inability to connect, in a fundamental way, with Katherine.
Highlighting this disconnection, perhaps intentionally, is Szalay’s narrative focus on James. Reviewers have described Spring as “the forensic scrutiny of every aspect of a fledgling relationship, from both points of view.” In reality, though, the story belongs to James. In the second part, the novel follows the views of a number of characters, returning often to James but also to Katherine and other people from James’ life. The novel is arranged episodically, in scenes that build on and refer back to each other. Revisiting moments from different points of view, Szalay achieves a genuine multiplicity of perspective. But the center is always James and his life, a large portion of this is his relationship with Katherine.
The technique generally works well, but it is inconsistently executed and the book is unevenly balanced between the various sub-plots of James’ life and the quieter moments of his relationship with Katherine. In one chapter, for example, Szalay focuses on James’ business associate Simon, with whom he’s engineering an illegal, get-rich-quick horseracing scheme. The language of the scene stumbles awkwardly, however, between Simon’s inflected slang and the more typical grace of Szalay’s narrative prose:
He opens the yard door and standing shirtless under the lintel puts on the floodlight. Floodlight were right. The fockin yard is under water. With filthy weather like this down in Sussex, it’s a short odds-on shot, he thinks, that Fontwell will be off. He’ll still have to pay for the horse transport. He’ll still have to see to all the paperwork that sending five horses to the track involves. There’s an inspection scheduled for later, until then he just has to assume the fockin thing is on.
When the light struggles up the rain has stopped and the old farmhouse looks sullen in its hollow. The stand of nettles shivers in the wind. In the tackroom the neon lights are on. The lads and lasses are up and taking out the string.
One long chapter later in the novel recounts the history of James’ relationship with his friend and business partner Freddy, who is mentioned only in passing elsewhere in the book. The chapter itself is not inept. But this comes just as James and Katherine’s relationship is reaching its climax, long after the reader is willing to invest in another new character.
There is relatively little space dedicated to Katherine. She is presented in a pastiche of meaningful silences and womanly mystery. Her perspective is a rarity, even when she appears in scenes. She exists almost exclusively as James perceives of her. The reader knows, for example, that she is upset with James for ejaculating inside of her — but James does not understand, and Katherine’s feelings are shown only from the exterior. It feels like a lost opportunity for depth.
Szalay’s great achievement in Spring is his portrayal of the awkward, reticent, regretful, silent moments of human relationships. As Katherine and her estranged husband part ways, for example, Szalay is able to express the sense of loss and emptiness in his portrayal of the very silence between them:
So they went for a walk in Princes Street Gardens instead, and it was there that he said it. The station tannoy started to quack, the sound floating through the treetops, and when it was finished she heard the rain — it was so quiet that you had to stop and listen for it.
Moments like this make the reader wish Szalay’s story didn’t travel so far, that he didn’t feel the need to haphazardly add in plot-heavy stories, that he had instead allowed the quieter moments to speak for themselves. In these scenes, Spring is compelling, disturbing, and, in its best moments, evocative in its portrayal of James — frustrated, materialistic, and unable to connect, even as he shares moments of unexpected intimacy and earnestness in a developing but ultimately doomed relationship.
Katherine Evans Pritchard is a contributing editor and PhD candidate in American Studies at Boston University.