Divorce Is in the Air review: Sick degrees of separation
The hero of this nastily funny Spanish novel is a whinger on the verge of a nervous breakdown
Gonzalo Torné: his third novel is like a Spanish version of Portnoy’s Complaint
Divorce is in the Air
Gonzalo Torne, translated by Megan McDowell
Judging by this master class in personal breakdown, life may not begin at 40 after all, but instead grind limply to a halt. Joan-Marc, the narrator of Divorce Is in the Air, has decided to tell the story of his multiple disasters to the person who has shared in one of them: his second wife.
Still, rather than relive his hell with her, Joan-Marc begins at the beginning of his wider misery, and his attempt to salvage something with his first wife, an American glamour girl who had been a track star yet appears to have discovered alcohol in a big way.
Gonzalo Torné’s third novel, his first to be translated into English, was initially published in Spain in 2013. It is another of the very clever, often hilarious and barbed Everyman narratives to emerge from that country in recent years. There is nothing particularly Spanish about the book; it could as easily have been written by a Norwegian or a North American, or even Japan’s Haruki Murakami.
Joan-Marc is beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown; he has been living an ongoing one and appears to have gotten used to the turmoil. Nothing much happens, yet everything does. He is not particularly likable, but nor is he unpleasant. Instead, he is almost neutral in his dilemma, very real and completely human.
His story is not unique because it is too familiar. The easiest way to describe it is to say it is a Spanish variation on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, except Joan-Marc is not exactly complaining – more like whinging belatedly. He could be trying to figure out how everything went so wrong, if only to offer some excuse to the only person who really mattered to him once his father died: the elusive second wife who, though barely present, retains a defining presence. There is also his mother, a study in apathy, and his hostile sister.
It all begins (he thinks it does) with one final attempt at reconciliation with wife No 1, Helen. “We went to the spa to save what was left of our damned marriage,” he says. With a nod to John Updike’s lyricism in the face of upheaval, the narrator battles the rented car and attempts to negotiate the road while “under the vigilant gaze of those medieval towns that in Catalonia sprout from the hills like giant stone mushrooms”,
Also in the car, along with the edgy, estranged wife, are the in-laws and a young boy. This is Helen’s son, whose origins are never fully explained. He becomes “paralysed” each time he lays eyes on the narrator. Joan-Marc is so tense; his state of mind appears to seep off the page.
The appeal of this fast-moving story lies in the narrative voice, exasperated yet laconic. Joan-Marc feels sorry for himself, but he also takes most of the blame. Full credit goes to translator Megan McDowell, who conveys and sustains the hectic stream of consciousness with a conversational fluency. The result is a book so believable that even when it is at its most horribly funny, you wonder if you should really be sighing with solidarity.
It is also fantastically ambiguous. Could things have gone that wrong? Was Helen really that much of a monster? Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but that seems unlikely: Torné is too clever, and the novel, for all its pathos, possesses a cold brilliance. Divorce is in the Air leaves no doubt it is written from an inspired, relentless momentum, rather than gut alone, so Helen the ex-athlete emerges as a Helen of Troy, fatal in her allure and bland but for her anger.
“Move,” she spits at him in the hotel room. “Move,” before she races out into the night. That scene may well be Helen’s finest moment. Otherwise she is also quite stupid and apparently without any redeeming qualities, not that he says that exactly. Torné makes effective use of implication.
For a novel so full of words, a surprising amount is left unsaid, which makes it all the more effective and unexpectedly fresh. The battle in the hotel room is epic and more visual than psychological. Helen’s physical perfection enables her to goad the narrator with taunts about his future fatness.
This seems to hurt; Joan-Marc is not quite overweight as yet, and he had once been a decent if lazy basketball player. For all his personal disasters, our anti-hero must face his most pressing regrets, of unfulfilled promise and of never having tried.
Resuming single life causes him to attempt to locate people from his past. Torné has cruel fun bringing together former friends, once wide-eyed schoolboys, now broken men. The author is sophisticated and his narrative never descends into a mindless rant. His control never falters. even when his attention appears to. But that, too, is deliberate; it is as if he wants to inject the randomness of thought. Joan-Marc may think he is speaking with his second wife, the one that really did get away, but he is actually addressing himself.
Lively and convincing
There are some shocking set-pieces. Although aware he is no longer invincible and that junk food is dangerous, Joan-Marc likes it: “The fabulous power of saturated fat propelled me home, which is no longer the charming flat in Diagonal Mar I can’t afford without you” (“you” being his second wife). About to enter his more modest dwelling, he prepares to take the reader, not for the last time – be warned – by surprise.
“I gathered my strength to climb the stairs. If I hadn’t been ashamed at the thought of eating in front of the peepholes, I would have saved some crisps to replenish my energy on the landings. Luckily, I was two floors up when the pain hit me. It felt like fingers were plucking my nerve endings, pulling them towards the side where I felt my heart beating, I stood stock-still like a rodent surprised by artificial lighting.”
Joan-Marc mentions that he sometimes goes swimming at a local pool. If he pushes his body too hard, even at times experiences nausea, he never takes it too seriously: “my mental life is so tangled there’s bound to be the odd physical repercussion”. But this time it was different: “I realised right away this was more aggressive . . . what really scared me was the crystal clear impression . . . that my heart was suffocating.”
With echoes of fellow Spaniard Álvaro Colomer’s Uppsala Woods, Torne’s stylishly assured universal excursion into one man’s breakdown is lively and convincing, and resonates with the remorseless panic of modern existence.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent