Adam Thirlwell's latest novel - The Escape
Whether he’s writing novels about cricket fans or Londoners, Adam Thirlwell finds filth in every corner. Yasmin Sulaiman asks him about his latest anti-hero
There’s a scene at the end of Adam Thirlwell’s The Escape in which its British Jewish protagonist Raphael Haffner attempts to explain the concept of a draw in cricket to an American friend. This idea acts as a neat allegory of the book’s plot, in which 78-year-old Haffner looks back on his life from the comfort of an Alpine spa town as he attempts to recover an inheritance from his recently deceased ex-wife. Indeed, by the end of The Escape – whose pace accurately recreates the languid to-and-fro of a test match – we’re not quite sure whether Haffner has succeeded or failed in his task, but he certainly seems to have achieved some form of satisfaction.
According to self-confessed cricket fan Thirlwell – who was on Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list in 2003 – sport is a great way to reveal character. ‘How you approach your marriage may be exactly the same as how you might approach batting,’ he claims. But it’s not just his attitude to cricket that exposes Haffner to be an indecisive, underachieving hero; his sex drive plays a large part too. As with Thirlwell’s acclaimed debut Politics, the book’s plot is punctuated by brash sexual encounters. ‘Sex seems to me a very good way of literally exposing people,’ he says. ‘On one level, I think the sex in this book is much less explicit than it was in Politics but I also think there’s a comedy that I like exploring in these scenes.’
That’s certainly clear with the opening episode, in which the ageing Haffner watches a young couple having sex in a hotel room from the shrunken comfort of a cupboard; later on, the girl from said couple masturbates in front of him while Haffner’s own lover hides in his en-suite bathroom. The baseness of Haffner’s actions often amusingly contrasts with the many literary and cultural allusions that pepper the book. That comic first chapter, for instance, is called ‘Haffner Unbound’, and similar eclectic references ranging from Tacitus to Tupac are woven into the narrative. Yet Thirlwell doesn’t subscribe to the view that his books might be too steeped in these often erudite allusions. ‘I think people live a lot of their lives through films, music and books and these are just ways that people often think about themselves. In Politics, the allusions were more deliberately zany; here, they’re just part of the narrative, stuff that’s been left behind from Haffner’s life.’
And although it’s been six years since Thirlwell first came into the limelight following his recognition by Granta, the author still feels the pressure of the literary world. ‘It’s certainly increased the attention that people have put on the books and that’s really been a compliment because it’s nicer to have attention than not. Equally, after Politics came out, I did feel very unsure of what to do next or how to carry on.’ But in the end, Thirlwell’s attitude to his literary profile shows a diplomacy that’s not uncharacteristic of a cricket fan trying to deal with his team’s latest test match draw. ‘It’s a good thing and a bad thing,’ he says, ‘but overall it’s a good thing.’
The Escape is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 6 Aug.