In Extremis by Tim Parks review – midlife misery lit up by explosive humour

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We know from the moment we start reading Tim Parks’s new novel that we are in for a particularly intense kind of experience:

Mother’s corpse. This is what I keep thinking about.
Should I view it?
Why can’t I decide?

Followed straightaway by:

I was at a conference for physiotherapists in Amersfoort. There was much discussion of the pelvic floor and anal massage. For the first time, I opted to try the treatment myself.

Intensity is all here, and peculiarity, in the texture, the tone, the very rhythm of the prose. Though this story of a man visiting his ailing, then dying, then dead mother will proceed according to the conventions of the so-called “realist novel”, veering between European airports and the suburban streets of south London with all the place-naming and article-fixing of things and situations needed to establish a world, something quite other is going on in the sentences that make up the book.

“I write not to a plot but to a rhythm,” declared Virginia Woolf, and though Parks’s writing has never placed itself fully in the traditions of high modernism – he has always apparently valued incident and event too much to seem entirely in that camp – nevertheless, in this book, the roiling, turning, contingent quality of the syntax, teeming with dependent clauses and questions, clearly situates it there. That, and the fact that we as readers are brought fully into the experience of the protagonist making sense of the story as he goes along: “Do I really want to see my mother’s body then, I wonder? Or don’t I?” asks Thomas, interjecting into the narrative he is creating.

It’s great fun, this writing about its own writing. It lights up the story and makes us care about a clever, self-conscious central character, not because of who he is, but for the way he wants to “possess” meaning, the particular way he describes things. Thomas is a middle-aged English writer and linguist, once married with children in Scotland, now living in Spain and en route to his mother’s, via a visit to a physiotherapist in Amsterdam. During visits home, he comes to feel increasingly distanced from his Spanish life with his much younger girlfriend. Can the new relationship even be real, he asks himself, as his past seems to take over and the needs of family and old friends intensify. “Que haya un amor [that a love should be],” he finds himself saying to his analyst in tears, a “stout elderly woman in a sack of a dress and bedroom slippers … ” “It was not me,” Thomas says. “To speak of love. Perhaps only the Spanish made it possible. I would never have gone to a shrink in Edinburgh.”

The book is full of these kinds of introversions, questions about words and intentions. All is language, the novel suggests: language before character, language before description or fact. Thomas’s mother is portrayed in a series of repeated phrases and actions, homilies and prayers – she was very religious; Thomas’s father was a vicar – and his friends as individuals whose dialogue never breaks out of the characters they have created for themselves. When his old friend Dave falls into a coma, Dave’s wife tells Thomas “Can you talk to him a bit while I take a break? … We’re supposed to recall positive memories and speak in a gung-ho voice.” She could be describing herself.

And then there is that “anal massage wand” at the conference in Amersfoort. It’s a reminder to Thomas of his undependable body – and it makes a serious tale of mortality come all undone. Its effect is to bring together something terrifying – his mother vomiting “black blood” in the last stages of her life, for example – with the banal reminders of everyday human sensation, the bad back and bladder unreliability that have brought Thomas to the Netherlands in search of a treatment.

I pulled the wand from its plastic bag, which also included a pack of 10 thin rubber gloves. The idea was to stretch the middle finger of the glove over the ball at the top of the wand, pull it down the shaft, then tie it off beyond the plastic ring that prevented the thing from disappearing up your butt.

The insertion of something called an “anal massage wand” and its associated activities in a story about frailty and loss and being human, deliberately poking fun at a protagonist while staying loyally within his point of view, lifts Parks’s project head and shoulders above so many of the books turned out by similar writers of his age and stage – the seemingly endless parade of novels about white middle-aged men having doubts about themselves, sexually and intellectually, in a range of contexts and against a variety of political situations.

Parks, by being funny, explodes all that. So one can forgive the presence throughout the story, at the end of the telephone line, of that standard appendage of the white middle-class, middle-aged man in crisis novel: the athletic and beautifully proportioned younger woman who is there to adore him. She is waiting for him, literally, at the end of the story, between freshly laundered sheets – “starched”, in fact. What’s more, her life-saving presence reflects a similarly lithe young woman also in love with Thomas’ friend David; they’ve one each, so to speak.

Because the risks taken In Extremis are exhilarating. This is a wonderfully written novel that draws us close to Thomas in spite of who he is, not, as a lesser author would have had it, because of how he’s been carefully curated to be.

Kirsty Gunn’s My Katherine Mansfield Project is published by Notting Hill. In Extremis is published by Harvill Secker. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.