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Tim Lott, Under the Same Stars – TLS

26/04/2012

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”, Lao Tzu thought. By which measure the two middle-aged brothers in Tim Lott’s sixth novel begin as very bad travellers indeed. Carson, the Americanised older sibling – implacably upbeat, wedded to comfort, a creature of “mindless satisfaction” – has mapped out their American road trip in a way that leaves nothing to chance, while the neurotic Salinger, a Londoner loathing all things American, agrees to the journey only because he is fixed on getting to the root of his depression, and plans to needle Carson into admitting responsibility for it. His affront at being in the dark, at the “sensation of not knowing” what makes him downcast, worsens when he discovers among his mother’s possessions a fading Polaroid of a battered child.

The purpose of the brothers’ trip is to find their father. Out of their lives for some thirty years, Henry named his sons after the American poets of sadness and absence, then, in an act of unalloyed selfishness, deserted them for the country he felt could best aggrandise his loneliness. Having repeated the rejection by following in his fathers’ footsteps, Carson now hopes the brothers can become reacquainted, bridging the Atlantic-sized gap in their relationship. But beyond the usual sibling rivalry and sniping, the memory contest over how things really were (“You must remember”), Salinger’s rage is so strong that it requires a more commensurate target. So Lott performs a sleight of hand: Carson’s character – religious, reactionary, repressed – is melded with America’s.

The country’s failures, noted by Salinger at every turn in the road (the superdome where Katrina victims were left to rot, the Louisiana State Penitentiary putting prisoners on display in rodeo spectacles, the grassy knoll in Dallas where a man sells his memories as part of “disaster tourism”), all these signs of cruelty and abandonment reverberate with Salinger’s sense of familial betrayal. It’s a strategy that lends the novel a continuous edge of ambiguity, one that exists alongside the polarising differences between Salinger and Carson, England and America, and prevents them from descending into cliché.

New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, 3.8.2005

Lott has made no secret of the fact that his contemporary Cain and Abel story (riffing off Steinbeck) is a personal one. A road trip with his brother produced 150,000 words of a memoir – a form he used for his first book about his mother’s suicide. Inevitably, critics have wondered about the work that might have been. But Lott’s choice has allowed him to replace the memoir’s constraining sincerity with the irony of the novel.

Under the Same Stars invokes the fight with religion and certainty that Milan Kundera and others argue is the form’s essential trait. Salinger’s scepticism, his disgust at Carson’s religio-Darwinian ideas (Katrina was “nature’s test of commitment”, “the weak moved on”), his refusal of its mangled justice (“revenge is a kind of grace”) and absolving belief (after killing a dog he hits on the road Carson explains this was God’s will) reveals the great gulf between the brothers. But it also opens up the novel’s conversation, creating a robust dialogism in which their at-odds sense of the world is tested one against the other.

There is debate, too, about how art works and what it can do. Salinger is an artist, not a grand one – he is most successful at greeting cards – but aware of his shortcomings and thinking about the search for “arête” or quality, and the artist’s fear of being cowardly or unoriginal. En route he sketches his brother, and Carson finding himself well-captured, repeats the old accusation that Salinger is “stealing [his] soul”, that his work rests on exploitation. Lott rejects this, pointing out that we all “edit ourselves” and suggesting that what art or writing does in response is to scrutinize what’s visible (“the slight blueness of Carson’s stubble, the tiny nick on his cheek”), and to wonder what candour might look like (“He tried to imagine the expression that Carson would wear if he was unguarded”). “Think of it as me giving you back your soul” Salinger tells Carson, meaning that art’s presumption is not theft but restoration, and that what this novel is doing is returning his brother in full, putting back what “self-censoring” has omitted.

Courageously, Lott gives full reign to the idea of writing as retribution or consolation: the revelation of who the bashed kid in the photograph is plays dangerously close to both notions, but these, too, are cast aside as falsely simplifying. Salinger’s father, his brother and their adopted country are all shown to be more complex, though perhaps no less tyrannous, and he finally understands there will be no expiation or solving answer: he must travel through the flux as best he can. “Damage was nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody had it. Artists were there to share it.”

 This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Country  Man’ on 27.04.2012.

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