The author of three works of fiction, Jonathan Lee makes his US debut with High Dive, a finely textured novel set in the UK in 1984. Centered on the hotel bombing designed to end the life of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, High Dive performs a feat of reverse engineering, puncturing the botched assassination plot to reveal the precise emotional circuitry running between regular people threatened by death. What could be lost isn't only blood: it's the opportunity to finally attain the upper-management position, to take the chance on love again, to make good with Mum, to form less shitty friendships, to finally figure out the physics of water sex.
Primarily set at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, the story alternates between the lives of a middle-aged diving coach-cum-hotel manager named Moose Finch, his newly adult daughter Freya, and a confused young man named Dan caught in a Northern Ireland bound up in years of political contention. Lee is at his best capturing the everyday rhythms of his characters, the moments of daydream and planning and considering roads untaken, so that an unexpected wistfulness drives High Dive to its final, orchestral pitch. When Lee and I first met last year, we spoke about literature, Greg Louganis, and crap jobs. After reading his third novel, I sat down with Lee to discuss the book, in particular the pleasures and disappointments of the body that manifest in his characters' lives.
VICE: I'm interested in your treatment of the relationship between thought and the physical. High Dive organizes itself around the 1984 Brighton bombing. Can words be as dangerous as menace to the body?
Jonathan Lee: The most dangerous people in the whole of human history are the storytellers. Hitler knew how to stand on a podium and tell a great story. In his own back-handed way, George Bush did, too—he nailed a certain "I'm an ordinary guy" style. I became interested when writing High Dive in the way that language not only reflects terror, but instigates it. The plot of my book is about a group of guys in Belfast forming a story and placing themselves within it—a plot to kill Margaret Thatcher. Language can be an instigator of events in that sense—stories about manmade disasters are stories about storytelling—and IRA members in the 80s repeatedly dressed themselves up as other characters, assumed false identities, stitched sequences of action together to reach for a certain ending, and spoke in voices that were not their own. Even when caught, language was at the center of their identity. Many IRA prisoners scrawled Gaelic on the walls of their cells, lists of verbs and nouns, as a way of reclaiming the language the British establishment seemed to be trying to devalue or erase from their history.
We live in a world where someone can end up in jail for a 140-character bomb joke. Words, even when they're not dangerous, are dangerous. All of which makes sense when there's this risky semantic instability embedded right at the heart of terrorism. The United Nations have struggled for ages to come up with a definition of what the word really means. The only consensus in the General Assembly seems to be that it's not good. Well, lots of things aren't good … Most leaders in the Western world agree that a terrorist is someone who endangers peace and international security with their actions, often with a political goal in mind. But what does that do for us, I wonder? Margaret Thatcher did plenty of things to endanger peace and international security.
"The most dangerous people in the whole of human history are the storytellers. Hitler knew how to stand on a podium and tell a great story. In his own back-handed way, George Bush did, too—he nailed a certain 'I'm an ordinary guy' style."
One of my favorite parts of the book is when you write, "Pain insisted on its preeminence. Everything else was play." At this point, Moose is having a heart attack. Was this a statement about the way that pain impresses itself to the detriment of other feelings generally?
I think there's real beauty in pain, don't you? Any greatly intense sensation has, to my mind, a beauty to it. One of my minor characters lectures Freya at one point in the book about the necessity of feeling something, of having an opinion. Apathy, to my mind, is death. I hate the idea of building one's life upon a gray middle-ground. And yet, like almost everyone else, I fall into apathy constantly.
We might think of the fanaticism of terrorists as the antithesis of apathy. Do your IRA characters understand something about the "real beauty in pain" that most of us don't?
I'm sure it's different for everyone, but it makes sense that there's a basic element of human psychology whereby extreme situations lead to extreme reactions. Apathy is something that the characters in a lovely grand hotel in a seaside resort in England can afford. It's not something the Catholic guy in 1984 Belfast, living in an increasingly violent Protestant neighborhood, can afford. Fanatical behavior is self-fulfilling, I think. It seeks to push out any possibility of mistakenness or doubt. It says, "This is 100 percent true." And I can see how that blinkeredness, though it causes pain, can be beautiful to the fanatic—it must be so simplifying, so purifying, to know beyond doubt that you're in the right. If you live a comfortable American life, you might be fanatical only on Sundays, about the Patriots or the Jets. If you grow up in a city of extreme political and religious and racial divisions, and violence, you're more likely to be fanatical about bigger things. After Moose has the heart attack, his daughter Freya's relief at her own physical well-being momentarily trumps her concern. Can the young ever really empathize with the deterioration of the aging body?
It does have its limits, this thing called empathy, because if you fully put yourself in someone else's shoes you would no longer be you. It's something we always say at our lowest points—"I wish I was Jen, she gets everything she wants," or "I wish I was Jonathan Franzen, he knows all this shit-hot stuff about birds"—but we never really mean it. What we mean is that we would like to remain ourselves whilst adopting, occasionally, the trappings of another person. There's something hopeful in that, I think—in the fact we're preternaturally invested in ourselves, but there's always this threat that we fall into complete self-interest and forget other people entirely.
My character Dan becomes someone else, Roy Walsh, in order to terrible things. He has climbed inside someone else's life and got lost in there. I think Margaret Thatcher did that too, to some extent—she created a distance within herself in order to do her job. There seems, in life, to be this balance we need to strike between being ourselves, on the one hand, and being capable of adventuring into other people on the other.
So to talk about another way of adventuring into someone else: sex. Freya, who is pretty sexually inexperienced, begins fooling around with a guy named John. Though she knows "this thing with John was not love," she's hurt when he no longer wishes to continue. Is sexual pleasure worth the pain?
I like to write in a close third-person style, tracking the thoughts of characters in a way that's hopefully elastic enough to be within and without them at the same time. I think about sex a lot each day and tend to assume others do too so, um, it tends to come up a lot [in my work]… I suppose when I was writing the Freya sex scenes, I was just thinking about my own sexual experiences when I was her age. Sex back then was almost always a pantomime of disappointment. As a 16- or 17-year-old boy, it was my strong conviction that condoms had been created solely to confuse me into impotence. Sometimes I think reviewers and readers get a bit hung up on gender—wondering how a male author has got into the head of a female character, or vice versa—but most of the humiliations and failures I'm interested in writing about are more tied to age than gender. Almost every person who has been 17 knows what an embarrassing sexual encounter feels like, whether they experienced it as a girl or as a guy. The harder thing, for me, would be trying to imagine how someone might feel about sex aged 80.
For Freya, like most people, sex or the thought of it is a way to close distances—her life is full of these separations and missed connections and she craves a sense of closeness. There's this desire to own or be owned by someone else, I think, and a shifting power dynamic always at work. Also, she's 17, her hormones are all over the place. That's what interests me about sex, in literary terms. It's about people, in satisfaction of their most private desires, giving themselves over to another person—moving out of themselves to be seen and felt. Sex is an interesting subject for artists because it offers a space for sheer happiness and sheer misery. It's like that Henry Miller line: "What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse."
Moose lives a sexless existence for years after his wife leaves him for another man. One of her criticisms of him is that his life is dominated by repetition. Yet sex is about as repetitious as it gets, a binary pattern of in-out-in-out, like breathing with your genitals. How do you approach writing about sex to make it more interesting than the sum of its parts?
Breathing with your genitals. Oh man. I suppose when I'm writing about sex, at least in this book, it's very much bound up with power. Moose, at 45, feels in a position of powerlessness, and that both reflects and is maybe engendered by the fact he hasn't fucked anyone for a while, and meanwhile worries about all the men he imagines trying to fuck his 17-year-old daughter. And "fuck" is the right word, because, the way he thinks about sex, it's purely about power. Someone also suggested to me that maybe Dan, walking into the hotel with a bag of explosives slung over his shoulder, using a false name, and flirting with a pretty girl at the reception desk to the hotel, gets a kind of sexual kick out of the power dynamic. That seemed a stretch to me, but I guess there is an air of power and sex in any expensive hotel, and he's performing a kind of role-play, so Freud, God rest his soul, would get over-excited about that.
The main thing I try and do when I'm writing about sex is avoid similes and metaphors and unusual adjectives, unless they're for comic effect. There's nothing sexy about a "throbbing member" and there's nothing sexy, to quote from the otherwise great James Salter, about a line like "he came like a drinking horse." Someone on BBC radio, describing how I narrate part of the book from a young female character's perspective, said, "Lee is great at getting inside 17-year-old girls"—which is another unfortunate line. When it comes to sex and gender, you have to pick your words with care, and less is sometimes more.
Tracy O'Neill is the author of The Hopeful. Follow her on Twitter.
High Dive by Jonathan Lee is available in bookstores and online.