As well as being one of the shop's best customers, Jessie Jones is our go-to emergency bookseller and a committed reader of strange and challenging fiction. Below she discusses her appreciation for author Jeremy Cooper, author of Brian, which was one of our favourite books of last year.
Jeremy Cooper is a writer and art historian, author of numerous novels and works of non-fiction, including the standard work on nineteenth century furniture, studies of young British artists in the 1990s, and, in 2019, the British Museum’s catalogue of artists’ postcards. In 2018, he won the first Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize for Ash before Oak.
There’s a twinge you immediately feel when you start reading Brian by Jeremy Cooper. As though you are speaking to a child who has been bullied, even if you were bullied yourself, and your empathy stems from similarity not perpetration, there’s a human complicity felt in the isolation of another human being. Especially when it seems to stem from a social disconnect. You’d be forgiven for thinking, at first, that this protagonist is a man who is lonely. It’s only the novel’s second page, after all, where we hear that a visit to the cinema when he was nineteen (now thirty nine) ‘felt long ago, a period from which Brian had managed to move on, without ever finding a comfortable alternative place for himself.’ Brian follows the titular protagonist as his lack of ‘place’ ebbs away when he becomes a member of the BFI cinema on the Southbank, drawn into its inner circle of ‘buffs’. Gentle, quietly devastating, punching you in the chest with its reality and poignancy, this part-novel, part-film-criticism, is as difficult to categorise as its main character.
The speaker and diarist of Ash Before Oak, a novel Cooper published in 2019, at first feels close to Brian. This novel follows an unnamed speaker as he renovates the house and grounds of a secluded estate in Somerset. There’s a similar sense of warmth we feel towards him, despite him seeming grumpier and more bristling. This is a man who, instead of rejoining some sort of social scene, starts at a point of retreat, initially keeping the company of animals and unruly plants instead of his human neighbours. A restoration of some sort still appears to be the aim, repairing his sense of self and humanity, but the process is here initially propelled by an easing away from the human rather than a gesture towards.
There is, seemingly, nothing unfamiliar here. Any readers of nature writing, saturated as it traditionally is with the lone, enraptured, middle-class male voice, will recognise plenty of the linguistic tics and framings of the genre. The novel opens with: ‘Today I did a beautiful thing: built a rose arch from timber I had first felled and trimmed.’ An immediate sense of dominance is established where the non-human is simply a catalogue of resources. He has also ‘cleared the garden path inside the wall to the lane, so overgrown that few signs remained of it having been a way to walk’. Again, a fairly traditional and anthropocentric approach to gardening where the space is something to be tamed and bent to the human will interacting with it. So why did I like it? What was going on here that made me love him, and Cooper for creating him, despite these tropes?
It’s the realisation, as you move through the novel, that this is an incredibly sad person. The immediate compassion you feel towards Brian may not be quite so quick with Ash Before Oak, but it gets slowly drip-fed to you via an increasing number of jarring switches in tone, chapter by chapter.
This switch happens from even the first and second pages when he suddenly writes ‘Tomorrow is Christmas day. I am happy to be living here’ and then, a page later, at the end of the second entry, ‘I hope this is a real feeling, not sentimentality - a fabrication’. Something is hinted at here that will ultimately be revealed with blows that become increasingly more devastating as they develop in frankness. By the time we’re halfway through the novel, the crushing reality of this speaker’s state of mind is delivered with a heartbreaking bluntness: ‘I’ll write myself alive again, I thought./ Can’t./ Must./ How?/ Why?/ Because I need to block the slide into thoughts of suicide.’
The reason I focus on these two novels, neglecting Cooper’s 2021 work Bolt from the Blue, is that they both centre on the complexity of a particular kind of traditional masculinity. Both of these men feel anxious and depressed respectively, the events leading up to the novels kept vague but with a hint of quiet tragedy. Their anxiety and depression is marked by an inability to connect healthily to others, or even articulate how they feel. Both are alone, but in increasingly dissimilar ways.
The men in them are increasingly different, the stories of their isolation being for different reasons, and their enhanced sociability playing out in very different ways. Brian’s social reluctance remains as he barely extends his interactions beyond the cinema, except for a concert and a house visit to one of the buffs. Even then, when accepting: ‘Brian declined, as he spoke, to look Jack in the eye, fearful in certain lights of seeing his own face reflected on the curved surface of another's cornea and finding himself unable to resist the magnetic power of alien control.’
Brian is told via an intimate but omniscient third-person narrator whereas Ash Before Oak is told through sparse diary entries. Where the unnamed narrator of Ash Before Oak unfurls through varying degrees of self-awareness, we don’t have to rely on the protagonist’s own consciousness of his behaviour in Brian, the narrative voice explaining and detailing in a way this type of man probably never could of his own accord.
That’s not to say there’s a complete lack of awareness from our diarist. In fact, his humanness shines through most when there’s enough awareness for self-admonishment but not enough to avoid hypocrisy. For example, the early attitude of frustration towards the unruliness of the garden path is later completely contradicted: ‘walking along the mown path through the dell this morning, I thought about the damage gardeners do to natural life with their fetish for tidiness’. Here the speaker may not remember, or admit, that he himself has displayed this ‘fetish’, or it’s another example of his self-loathing.
Ash Before Oak’s narrator is wrestling with being alone as a necessary, but lamented, temporary state: ‘Accept the solitude, I tell myself, if that’s how things must currently be.’ He embarks on a relationship with a character called Beth, which plays out with all of its flaws and complications, punctuated by reflections on his previous marriage to an ‘original Beth’. He visits Paris, The Hague, New Zealand, and the Brecon Beacons, spending time with distant friends and acquaintances in each. This is someone who has been, and aims to be again, far more socially integrated than Brian.
Brian’s own social isolation, though, is not a new thing. We learn that ‘from an early age he had mostly been pretty good at refusing to do the things he disliked’, framing the fact that ‘by now his separateness was by personal choice, he felt, not through the imposition of others.’ The more the novel goes on, and the more we learn about Brian’s devastating awkwardness, the more we learn that actually the other buffs are a lucky consequence. His initial decision to join the BFI is with the hopes that film will provide a ‘release somehow from the pressure in his head’. His choice to go everyday, however, is about ‘the regulars themselves’ with whom he retains a connection solely centred on cultural sharing.
A line from early in the novel where he compares himself to the others in his office, one of the most beautiful lines of the whole thing, remains true throughout: ‘Brian was the opposite, barely able to recognize himself unless alone.’ Brian’s ultimate re-emergence into a semblance of a social circle, spending time with other isolated and awkward men at the cinema, is not a process of him unlearning his solitude. This is somebody who, despite becoming no longer isolated, does in fact still remain alone.
Both of these novels force us to be nuanced in our perception of aloneness as well as delicately framing the impact of a somewhat emotionally stunted masculinity on the people who possess it. When is it sometimes necessary, when is it the kindest thing for the people around these men, the most human thing, to be alone? And what are the subtle and beautiful differences between being solitary and being lonely? These novels, I think, may not answer the questions, but remind us of the significance of asking.