About midway through Read’s novel, John Strickland, the barrister-protagonist, asks one of the characters, “So what am I?” In the immediate context of that question, Strickland is exploring his dual identity as lawyer and soon-to-be parliamentarian, but in fact that question permeates the entire novel. Who are we? Can we be sure we have any reliable understanding of ourselves? Are we perhaps only reflections of what others see in us, mere exterior identities without inner substance or value?
On the surface, Strickland is mildly prosperous, making about fifteen thousand pounds a year. He owns both a house in London and a cottage in Wiltshire. He has two model children and a lovely wife. To be sure, he cannot afford to replace his rusting old Volvo, and he is beset with mortgages, life insurance premiums, pension funds, club dues, and sundry other expenses which reduce his material well-being; but on the whole he is firmly ensconced in the English upper-middle class.
Beneath the surface, Strickland is on the edge of despair, although his condition is not represented in his mind as anything so dramatic. (He would not understand the term “despair” in its religious sense anyway, being an agnostic.) He calls the feeling “Ivan Ilychitis,” since it comes upon him only after he stumbles over Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Vaguely discontent and anxious about his life in a way he cannot articulate, Strickland knows only that things have not quite turned out right, that the socialist values he once held as a young man have faded away, that his wife is a disappointment and a drudge. In other, more lucid, moments he is equally convinced that this discontent is groundless. Thus, Read crafts as his central character an individual whose main outlines are irritatingly blurred. One moment insightful, the next moment obtuse, one moment reflective, the next moment a dullard, one moment charitable, the next moment trivially and meanly self-serving, Strickland never emerges in the novel as a character whom the reader can fully grasp. Of course such ambiguity is part of Read’s point: each of us is an odd composite of the noble and unworthy, the banal and profound. But that point, as sound as it may be intellectually, simply fails to work in the novel. Most readers will merely be irritated or appalled by Strickland. He has none of the interest of Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, whose Ilychitis is “the malaise” (The Moviegoer), or John Barth’s Jake Horner, whose complex character has a controlled thematic purpose (The End of the Road). He is only faceless and shallow, a protagonist deserving neither admiration, understanding, or pity.
The connection with Percy and Barth should suggest something else about A Married Man: it is in some respects anachronistic. The subject matter of the novel was very popular in both British and American fiction fifteen to twenty years ago. Read has tried to give it a new dress for his book, but in truth the effort is not much worth it. Strickland’s Ilychitis is vague and unconvincing. We are told every now and again that he senses its presence; rarely are we shown it in plausible actions. Rather, his discontent (assuming its presence) never appears related to the acts he performs.
For example, early in the novel Strickland becomes attracted to young Jilly Mascall, a senseless, giggling newcomer to London whom he tries to romance. After a couple of discreet luncheons and an interrupted kiss in her apartment, he writes her a spur-of-the-moment note suggesting she meet him for the weekend in Birmingham, where he is going on legal business. The tryst never materializes. Without explanation she broadcasts the note to a few family members, giggles a great deal over the intercom when Strickland tries to question her about the event, then exits the novel. Angst? Ilychitis? The Malaise?—Strickland seems less motivated by these than by the simple, drab fact that his married life is a bore and Jilly is agreeably exciting.
Of course, that, too, is part of Read’s point: we are such pathetically trivial creatures. Relentlessly, he offers examples of this. Strickland pleads a client guilty so he can get away for his holiday. Later, with a lover waiting in the wings, he has fantasies of Clare dying in an auto crash—for he would never leave her, let alone harm her—and imagines what it would be like to have a rich wife in her stead. No more anxieties about insurance premiums and school fees, no more need to practice law—and even the battered old Volvo would be neatly disposed of in the crash. Such are the kind of unwilled effluvia which seep through his mind. That such thoughts come unbidden to all of us at the worst times no one would doubt. That they embarrass and shame us is only too true. But what is the point of Read’s preoccupation with them and with other moments when one’s mental guard is down—in an early morning half-sleep, for example, when Strickland confuses Clare’s comforting presence with Paula’s sexual allure? Is it, in Swiftian fashion, to condemn the Yahoo in us? Is it to confirm that a cynic is probably right in reducing complex human motives to simple self-interest? Read is never very clear about this in his book; as a result one has the sense that his main characters are emotional morons whose cognition can scarcely rise above some glandular abyss.
With its five act structure, A Married Man is clearly intended to be a modern tragedy. The first section of the novel, ten chapters in all, introduces most of the main characters, announces Strickland’s Ilychitis, and explores in some detail the failings of his marriage. The second section introduces the first major complication, Strickland’s determination to run for Parliament as a Labour candidate, and treats the fiasco with Jilly Mascall. In part three, a mere eight chapters, the complication intensifies. Strickland meets Paula Gerrard and is persuaded by her to defend Terry Pike, the young criminal who earlier pled guilty upon Strickland’s advice and was unexpectedly sentenced to jail. Paula learns of Strickland’s emerging interest in politics and urges him to fulfill his ambitions.
The fourth section of the novel works through a series of events to a shattering climax. Strickland is elected to Parliament. He becomes deeply involved in a love affair with Paula, who fully believes that he will leave Clare for her. His marriage with Clare worsens considerably. Then, toward the end of section four, he discovers Clare shot to death in their Wiltshire...
(The entire section is 2687 words.)