If everybody's right, how come it feels so wrong?
FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews Everybody’s Right By Paolo Sorrentino, translated by Howard Curtis Harvill Secker, 340pp. £14.99
MEET TONY PAGODA, crooner and killer, the kind of delusional, in-your-face character to either listen to or simply run a mile from. The Italian film maker Paolo Sorrentino’s bombastic debut novel begins big and loud, and more or less continues that ramshackle way, not always making very much sense. Life’s like that sometimes – but fiction isn’t.
“Somehow, it just crept up on us. But it really started because one of us had talent, unfortunately, and that was me.” Tony is inclined to rhetoric. “What else is there to say?” he asks. “It’s almost never all right. And I’d stop right there if it wasn’t for this unhealthy vanity running around inside me, overwhelming me.” It is kind of him to tell us, but it is easy to guess. Tony’s chaotic yarn is sustained by ego as well as by a fair measure of guilt.
As the narrative begins Tony is “carrying 44 bitter years on my back like a burden”. He also informs us that he is a crooner and that he dislikes the label, but then he changes his mind.
Tony requires immense patience; so does this novel. Our mouthy anti-hero is waiting to go onstage. But first he may have to vomit and is possibly still a bit drunk. “I can feel my third gin and tonic rising into my throat. I don’t do coke when I sing. Mick Jagger might have been able to, because all he does is scream and run around and wiggle his hips. But I sing.”
Such a bundle of information, including a brief discussion of his soul – “flaccid, submissive” – and he’s not even out of the dressing room. Sorrentino is balancing everything on a narrator who is not easy to listen to – “Now the walls of my brain are knocking like shutters left open in a windstorm” – and becomes progressively more difficult and less sympathetic as the story, such as it is, proceeds.
There are some saving flourishes. One of them is having Frank Sinatra sitting in the front row. “He’s something else, is Frank, it’d take more than this to surprise him . . . Sinatra, although he’s very drunk, doesn’t fall asleep.” With a bit of luck the reader won’t either.
This is a busy book, cluttered by gestures, grotesque characters, excess and ageing women desperate for sex. There is an almost amusing encounter with a parrot that turns out to be a bat. Sorrentino does not want any empty space, nor is he interested in silence. At times it seems that the narrative may be intended as a confession, and it is obvious Tony has sins, lots of them. “I don’t lie. I don’t deal in bullshit. My songs are screams of fear. Basically, they are all about fear. The fear I’ll never again be able to love the one person I really loved. That’s exactly it. I get up on that stage and launch into those feelings. I bomb, I drive everyone crazy, knowing I have the power, the power to manipulate everyone’s heart, all except one, my own.”
Tony is many things, including irritating, crude and sexist. But he is not particularly real. Nor, come to think of it, is the novel. One of the many problems is the fact that Everybody’s Right has been hyped as a novel about modern Italy, but it could easily be set in New York or Tokyo or anywhere else. To compare it with The Tin Drum, as some have done, is outrageous: in Grass’s classic an entire historical epoch is evoked beyond, and by way of explanation of, Oskar’s self-absorption.