Leonard and Hungry Paul, title characters in Rónán Hession’s debut novel, are like Forrest Gump, Johnsey Cunliffe from The Thing About December, Moss and Roy from The IT Crowd, and Richard Osman and Alexander Armstrong from the TV quiz show, Pointless. Lovable dorks, awkward antiheroes, oddballs who are comfortable in their own skin. These are not the pithy millennials of Sally Rooney’s world. Leonard and Hungry Paul don’t attend poetry readings or engage with internet culture. They don’t even read novels, preferring encyclopaedias and scientific journals. They like bird watching, discussing the bleaching of coral reefs and the discovery of dwarf planets, and playing board games.
Before opening this book, I read an online reviewer categorise it as “up lit” (uplifting literature). This terrified me. There’s something odd and doomed about things that try to make you happy in times of chaos: like a man telling you to smile when you’re crying or the quartet playing a waltz as the Titanic goes down. Sobbing over a romance, poring over social critique; these can be cathartic and illuminating. But “up lit”?
It’s all a bit smug, isn’t it? Who even plays board games? Okay, I know some people do. I’m partial to some Scrabble myself, but only occasionally, when I can spare a minute, which is usually over Christmas, or never. Why would I spare the time when I could use it to finally watch The Wire, start my own blog, learn how to make hummus, amass one of the fiscal or cultural currencies in which we all trade? Board games might be fun, but who has time for fun?
Actually, there’s something there. A curious trick of this book is its refusal to engage with the fiscal or cultural currencies mentioned above. The outside world is only barely sketched: a Tesco here, an Italian restaurant there; we aren’t told where on the planet we are. Nor are we afforded the conflict this kind of illustration can give. Hungry Paul, for example, could be living with his parents because of an unstable economy. Instead, the reason is that “his family [is] a happy one, and maybe it’s rarer than it ought to be that a person appreciates such things”. Rare, indeed, in the narrative space, where conflict is king. “Put your characters into hot water”, any creative writing manual will tell you, “make them squirm”. But here, the stakes are never particularly high. Just as we think disaster might be lurking, things work out.
This is no oversight. There is a polite anarchy at play.
At one point, Leonard, devoid of any other answer for what his favourite novel is, offers Moby Dick (“basically an encyclopaedia of whaling with a story stuck on to it”). But in ways he and Hungry Paul resemble more closely another of Melville’s creations: Bartleby the Scrivener. In the short story Bartleby is a Wall Street clerk, who works hard until one day he refuses to do any more, his only explanation: “I would prefer not to.” Like Bartleby, Leonard and Hungry Paul can be read with an anti-capitalist bent. All around, the corporate machine revs its gears, but within the story are characters who prefer not to participate.
The book triumphs in this unassuming rebellion, and ultimately the appeal to live in the now, appreciate the little things, treat life not as a duty to some external expectation, but as something to be enjoyed, is a relevant one. But what annoys me (and I admit, getting annoyed at this book feels like getting annoyed at my dad for not knowing what “woke” means – this book is decidedly not woke, not cool) is that the women never get to participate in the triumph. They are bridezillas, worriers, small talkers, pawns of the frantic external world, who must finally be told off for being so, so that the central characters can carry the thesis of the text.
It’s not easy to remain happy and a feminist at the same time, it seems.
Perhaps the characters Leonard and Hungry Paul most resemble are Sheldon and Leonard of The Big Bang Theory – a TV series in which women aren’t properly characterised until around series three when it is decided that geek girls might add some flavour to the soup. I long for geek girls. And with a two-book deal under his belt, perhaps Hession will provide them. Next time. For now, all I can do is what the book asks: take it for what it is. One of life’s simple pleasures.