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Adam Mars-Jones Biography

london stories lantern lecture

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1954. Education: Cambridge University, B.A. 1976, M.A. 1978. Career: Film critic and reviewer, the Independent, London. Awards: Maugham award, 1982. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop, 503-504 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 0XF.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Waters of Thirst. London, Faber, 1993; New York, Knopf, 1994.

Short Stories

Lantern Lecture and Other Stories. London, Faber, 1981; as Fabrications, New York, Knopf, 1981.

The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis, with Edmund White. London, Faber, 1987.

Monopolies of Loss. London, Faber, 1992; New York, Knopf, 1993.

Other

Venus Envy. London, Chatto and Windus, 1990.

Editor, Mae West Is Dead: Recent Lesbian and Gay Fiction. London, Faber, 1983.

* * *

Few writers have established a reputation on as slight an output as Adam Mars-Jones. In the decade since Lantern Lecture (comprising three prose pieces totaling under 200 pages), Mars-Jones, though active as an arts journalist, has published only half a book of short stories, The Darker Proof with Edmund White, where he abandoned the experimentalism that had distinguished his first collection.

The opening and title piece of Lantern Lecture outlines the life of eccentric landowner Philip Yorke. The story is told in the present tense in a series of two-paragraph sections. In the opening section, Philip's christening is described in the first paragraph and his Memorial Service in the second: "The fame of his house and of his own appearances on television attracts a large crowd. The overflow is awkwardly accommodated in the adjoining Church Hall, by chance the site of Philip's last magic-lantern lecture only weeks before his death." In fact, Mars-Jones's prose sections are the linguistic equivalent of lantern-slides. About halfway through, the reader becomes aware that the order of the pair of paragraphs in each section has been reversed with the first paragraph about his later life and the second about his earlier life, so that the second paragraph of the final section reproduces the first paragraph of the opening section—with the odd significant change.

The second prose piece is entitled "Hoosh-Mi," which we later learn "is a nonsense word coined by Princess Margaret as a child, and means (as a noun) mixed food of any sort, or by extension … 'disorderly jumble…' small" The piece opens with an off-course rabies-infected American hoary bat infecting a dog, who turns out to be no less than a royal corgi and who infects Queen Elizabeth II. Her condition becomes apparent on "walkabout" in Australia when she attacks a sightseer's hat; decline through hydrophobia follows until Prince Philip authorizes euthanasia. A key element in this tour de force is the interpolation in the narrative of a speech by Dr. John Bull on "Royalty and the Unreal" at the Annual Dinner of the Republican Society. Thus the absurdity of royalty is shown both in theory and practice in this subversive tale.

The third prose piece, "Bathpool Park," focuses on the trial of Donald Neilson, the so-called "Black Panther," who after a series of post office robberies involving three murders kidnapped seventeen-year-old Lesley Whittle of whose murder he was also convicted. (Mars-Jones acknowledges indebtedness to Harry Hawkes's The Capture of the Black Panther.) Mars-Jones intercuts his description of the behavior in court of all those concerned, including the insignifi-cant marshal-cum-judge's-social-secretary, with reconstructions of Neilson's crimes. In invented dialogue between the two barristers, after Neilson's sentencing, Mars-Jones suggests possibilities that could not emerge in court through the inevitably flawed working of both legal procedure and the preceding police investigation, in turn handicapped by the press. This is the most ambitious of the three pieces in Lantern Lecture: while maintaining the witty, dissecting style of the two previous pieces, Mars-Jones must encompass the suffering caused by Neilson, which indeed he achieves.

It's all the more disappointing, therefore, that when Mars-Jones wrote four stories about AIDS sufferers and those involved with them—lovers, friends, "buddies," families etc.—in The Darker Proof, he jettisoned his experimentalism. Possibly, he opted here for conventional techniques to write as vividly as possible about a few individuals, whereas in "Bathpool Park" the focus was not on individuals but the judicial machine.

The opening story "Slim" is a 10-page interior monologue by a man with AIDS about his "buddy," that is his helper from "the Trust," presumably the Terrence Higgins Trust. In his state of permanent exhaustion, he imagines a World War II ration-book "only instead of an allowance for the week of butter or cheese or sugar, my coupons say One Hour of Social Life, One Shopping Expedition, One Short Walk. I hoard them, and I spend them wisely."

The other three stories are all in the third person, longer and plotted. "An Executor" follows the "buddy" Gareth's attempts to fulfill the charge laid on him by the dying Charles—whose moment of death in hospital we witness—to find a suitable recipient for his leather clothes. "A Small Spade" describes a weekend spent in Brighton by schoolteacher Bernard and his lover Neil, the young HIV-positive hairdresser from New Zealand. Because a bad splinter in Neil's fingernail "like a small spade" takes them to out-patients, Bernard fully comprehends "A tiled corridor filled with doctors and nurses opened off every room he would ever share with Neil."

All the main characters in these three stories are deeply sympathetic, unlike architect Roger in "The Brake," who ranges across America as well as London fully exploiting his sex-appeal in search of his perfect lover, while smoking heavily, taking drugs and overeating. The unfortunate Larry "became very attached." Though warned by a doctor to "put the brake on," Roger carries on until a faulty heart-valve forces a change of life-style, roughly coinciding with the beginning of the AIDS crisis: "he made his accommodation. In the end, he found it easier to give up men than to give up the taste, even the smell, of fried bacon."

It's ironic, given Mars-Jones's fully justified attack on the tabloid press in "An Executor," that in his stories AIDS appears to be exclusively confined to Western gay men. And Western gay men with a certain level of income. This is not the world of the terminally ill struggling along on inadequate Social Security benefits. Given that the book is subtitled "Stories from a Crisis," it seems fair to harbor these worries—though the subtitle may have been the publisher's rather than the author's choice.

Albeit devoid of the exciting experimental structures of Lantern Lecture, the same basic strengths of Mars-Jones's writing come through in The Darker Proof. The humor, fully retained in the later stories, springs from an awareness of the maximum possible motivations and interpretations of any action, and his subject matter of whatever kind, is imbued with absolute precision.

—Val Warner

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