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With Glover’s Mistake, Nick Laird has crafted a cunning psychosexual drama that bristles with wit and insight and, ultimately, heartbreak. While Laird’s novel takes its name from the young barman whose affair with an older woman gives the book its shape, its main character is David Pinner—single, middle aged, overweight and discontented. When his teenage crush, Ruth, an American artist, falls for David’s dim but pretty flatmate Glover, it drives him to resentment, jealousy and sabotage.
Although Pinner has some good traits—he’s thoughtful and funny and genuinely devoted to Ruth—his behavior quickly escalates into the near psychotic. The other points in the love triangle don’t comport themselves especially well, either. Ruth turns out to be devious and manipulative, Glover irrational and violent, and the novel’s sudden and painful winding down carries the hard-won emotional weight of real-life messiness and unhappiness. When the machinations and betrayals and small catastrophes have finally stopped piling up, no one is left with any romantic illusions about true love.
A bundle of insecurities, David is a ferocious snob who at the same time feels inferior. When David and Glover go to the home of David’s pleasant but staid parents to celebrate Christmas Day, the details paint such an accurate portrait of Little Englander mediocrity that it makes you want to laugh and cringe at the same time. The sociological detail gives the narrative an extra twist, sharpening its effect.
Glover’s Mistake turns on the kind of awkward, hurtful collisions we encounter in real life, not in glossy romantic comedies. In doing so, it does what great fiction does, and makes us understand ourselves in a better and more forgiving light.
Nick Laird was born in Northern Ireland in 1975 and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. He is the author of two award-winning collections of poetry and the novel Utterly Monkey, which The New York Times claimed introduced “a writer with a wonderfully original and limber voice” and praised for its “ebullient cast of characters rendered with an idiosyncratic mixture of sympathy and wry humor.” He currently teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York.
Q. David has a vehemently negative view of most popular culture and the decline of civilization, love, and romance. Do you share his inherent pessimism or is it all intended to be a parodic portrayal of a cynical blogger?
Well, it’s not just parodic, no, though I’m certainly not as pessimistic as David. It’s not so much that he’s negative, I think, as that he’s so consumption oriented, without even noticing it, that he feels his only way of engaging with life is to review it. And since he’s discontented with himself and his life, everything around him tends to suffer and fall short.
Q, Glover’s Mistake is set in 2005, in the go-go days of a financially flush economy and peak art market. Do you think this would be a different story in any way if it were set today, in the current landscape of financial difficulty?
Not sure. It’s definitely a period piece in those terms. You hope that a novel shows the temperature of its time; a book like The Great Gatsby now seems to embody the Roaring Twenties. And now we’re having our own great crash, I suppose it would be different. Having said that, I was in London last month and I didn’t see it as suddenly austere or monastic. It was humming along as usual.
Q. Glover’s Mistake has a lot of discussion about painting, sculpture, and artists’ techniques, not to mention a canny view of the art scene and its attendant openings and parties. Are you an art world insider? Have you ever tried your hand at visual art? Some of Ruth’s remarks are quite technical and specific. Are they based on firsthand knowledge?
No, not an insider, though I know a few artists and I’ve hung around a few studios. I have a good friend who runs a gallery in Rome and I’ve been living in Italy for the last couple of years, so I spend time wandering around galleries and museums. I borrowed ideas from a few places and people but most of the stuff is made up.
Q. The portrayal of David’s experience teaching is caustic and extremely funny. He makes note of his students’ “misplaced faith in their own capabilities” (p. 115) and describes teaching as “standing in a room full of . . . young people whose sole job was to hate you” (p. 195). Is this animus based on personal experience? How do you feel about teaching?
No, not personal experience. Teaching can be great. It depends on your students.
Q. The technology of communication, the ubiquitous cell phones, blogs, and e-mails, is used like weaponry in your novel—David’s false e-mail and surreptitious blogging are part of his arsenal. How do you think the pervasiveness of the digital world has affected contemporary romance?
I wanted to write a book that could only be written now, so wanted to look at how technology has affected character and how a character might interact with the world. David’s tendencies, his slightly obsessive traits, are certainly exacerbated and exercised by the possibilities of the Internet.
Q. You published an award-winning book of poetry before your first novel. Why did you go from poetry to fiction? How does the process of writing in each genre differ for you? What are you working on now?
They’re very different beasts and I can’t usually write them near each other. You need a few days’ decompression or else the prose becomes all knotted and the poetry too filled with event and narrative. The baggage restrictions are diverse, I suppose. Poetry seems to be more about one’s relation to oneself and to the world, whereas the novel is much more of a social forum, setting different characters up to glance off one another. This is generalization of course and I can immediately think of counter examples. I once had a couplet for an unwritten poem that was something like “Poets sit by the window while / Novelists choose the aisle.” There’s something in that, I think.
Q. You once told the Guardian that you valued the poet Seamus Heaney partly because he “makes it clear your own life is a worthy subject to write about,” but you also say that your work is not explicitly autobiographical. Does this represent a tension in your work or in your attitude toward your work? Have you ever considered writing straight memoir? Would you say your fiction or your poetry tends more toward the autobiographical?
Well, when I say a “worthy subject,” I don’t mean the explicit features of one’s life, one’s own back garden and so on. I mean that one’s viewpoint, one’s way of moving through the world, began to seem as valid as any other. There’s a point where you begin to challenge all received notions and poetry helped me for one to do that.
I think all poetry is implicitly autobiographical, but that can mean only, say, in terms of tone. I think poetry is probably the truer autobiography, though that depends what we think of as the self. I think you get the sense of a mind’s presence from it. There again though, when you deal with a writer like Updike or Bellow, with a writer who lives by style, then the same thing occurs. Each word choice, and the coherence of those choices, is the mark of a sensibility.
Q. Glover’s Mistake is set in London and Utterly Monkey is set in England and Ireland. Would you consider setting your eye on America in your next work of fiction? Do you think it would be different to write an American protagonist?
The new novel’s set on an island in the Pacific, so not this time, no.
- Glover’s Mistake depicts the archetypal love triangle. What attracts these three people to one another? How do the foibles of each person contribute to the downfall of their relationship?
- David has found that “misanthropy could be taken for wit,” and he enjoys “some semblance of pleasure in anger and cynicism” (p. 21). How does David exploit this wit? How does his reliance on this particular kind of pleasure affect his life?
- On the way back from the National Gallery, “Ruth, like one of Prufrock’s females, was still talking of Michelangelo” (p. 25), which would make David into the Prufrock of T. S. Eliot’s poem. Is the subtle comparison apt? How is David like Prufrock?
- The discussion of art, film, and performance in the novel is treated as a competitive sport, as an arena for combat, seduction, and conquest. Who generally gets the best of the contests? Does it matter? What is the relation between James and David? How does it manifest itself?
- At Ruth’s opening, David says to himself, “What on earth was [he] doing here among these people, with their casual manners and ironic patter, their insinuation that surface was depth, that appearance was content? And what was Glover? These were not their kind” (p. 127). What is he implying about Ruth’s friends? Who, in contrast, would be David’s and Glover’s “kind”? What are the consequences of mixing with these people?
- In sending the concocted e-mail, David tells himself that he is doing what is best for James and Ruth. Is this reasoning legitimate or is it self-justification? What is the real motive for sending the e-mail?
- David feels that Glover “had too much trust,” which “would be tough on him. He regarded everything as fixable” (p. 208). Is this assessment accurate? What does the statement say about David as opposed to James? Will David’s lack of trust make it tough on him?
- David claims, after letting Glover know another piece of damaging information about Ruth, that he “once thought he was a painter; then a novelist; then a poet. Right man, wrong mediums. His gift was for silences” (p. 230). Why does he view himself as an artist in search of a medium? Is his gift really for “silences”? What would be another way of describing David’s “gift”?
- At the end of the book, David says that now “No one is carrying anyone. Everyone was on their own.” What is the irony of his saying this?
- David does some horrible, devious things in his attempt to sabotage Ruth and James’s relationship, yet he is also the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist. What are your feelings about David? Do they change over the course of the book? Are his actions justified?
- The title of the book seems obvious in its meaning: Glover should not have gotten mixed up with Ruth. Is it possible, however, that there are other meanings? Which mistake exactly is the title referring to? And what is David’s mistake or Ruth’s mistake?
- Was David ultimately successful in preventing Ruth and James’s marriage or were there other deciding factors? Do you think that Ruth and James could have had a happy marriage? What would you have foreseen for the future of their relationship?