Recently, my boyfriend and I were looking for somewhere to live. It would be wonderful not to have to do this, that’s the general feeling. There are two humiliations: the terrible places you greet with enthusiasm, and the little conversations where you have to pretend to be pious, good, and most crucially, secure. Well, I’ve never really enjoyed exchanges where I have to play at being worthy while I’m secretly being evaluated by someone I don’t respect. Who does? Besides, I’m not good at them. My boyfriend remarked that our face masks were useful as they hid, what he lovingly described as my ‘face of contempt’. Not really, I assured him, I can do a lot with the top half of my face.
At one of these viewings, the owner told us that if we wanted to sit on the couch, he would have to get us a new one because the current one was too expensive to sit on. If we wanted to sit on the couch. Where else would we sit? On the floor? The future our government wants: all of us living in houses we don’t own with couches we’re not allowed to sit on. It’s a good joke, depending on your sense of humour about the state of housing in this country. My main problem with this exchange was not the owner’s easy confidence as he told us we weren’t allowed sit on the couch, or even the idea of living in a house where I wasn’t allowed to sit on the couch which, like everything else, I was sure I would get used to. My problem was this: it was the ugliest couch I’d ever seen in my life. I greeted the fact that this couch was expensive with blank incomprehension. How? That night, when I tried to sleep, I saw the couch. I thought about the couch all the time. I tried to find it online (I typed in ‘blue couch, diamond shapes, hideous’). The day after, my boyfriend passed the owner of the couch on the street and they both, wordlessly, agreed to ignore each other. Maybe, in time, I too would forget about the couch.
Reading A Shock by Keith Ridgway brought it back. A Shock is about several things but mostly about how the unacceptable has become largely acceptable. It’s Ridgway’s fifth novel (a list which includes the inarguably brilliant Hawthorn and Child, a book of real invention and force). I fantasise about a world where Ridgway’s emotionally distant, obsessive and immensely weird characters are widely celebrated. Then again, I also fantasise about a world where people aren’t ritually humiliated when they try to have their basic needs met. Judging by A Shock, so does he.
This is a book about houses, flats, rooms, and the people who occupy them, the traces we leave on temporary spaces. It could be described as a ghost story, where everyone is a ghost, but the ghostliness is mostly dictated by economic conditions. It’s a book that’s ruled, refreshingly, by its characters’ circumstances: London-based, renters mostly, lost in clouds of confusion or depression or loneliness. (One character, Gary, tells his friend Stanley, ‘You’re an intelligent, decent man but you have these big, fucking zones of stupidity where you wander alone.’) These people aren’t plagued by a restless melancholy that’s ill-defined—it’s very clearly defined. It’s the rat in the kitchen, it’s the sense of foreboding you’ve inherited from the people who lived in your flat before you, it’s the noise from the party next door leaking through your walls. It’s a lack of privacy combined with few opportunities for emotional connection.
The atomised, isolated way we live now, the blank void where community used to be, has been explored in a lot of contemporary fiction. Ridgway’s characters don’t have time to explore it; they’re already numb to it. They wander alone. And the effect it has on their wellbeing—the lack of structure, the lack of safety—infects their confidence, their relationships, their conversations. It robs them of self-worth, drive, happiness. Most crucially, it robs them of language. Witness Gary and Stanley’s strained conversations in the pub; Maria, Stan’s girlfriend, already defeated at twenty-four, a defeat that seems to manifest as the rat in her kitchen. They have no interest in truth, characters disappear without a trace, everything is transient. They are incapable of being honest with themselves, with each other, because of the shame they feel about their own lives, which take up no real space. They own nothing—not even their own stories. Ridgway’s clipped, terse dialogue masks great turbulence.
A Shock is also simply about being in other people’s homes. Other people’s spaces close around them, suffocate them. A plumber called Pigeon gets locked in the house of a woman he’s doing a job for and retreats to the attic. David, after moving into a new flat, discovers pornographic photos of the couple, Karl and Peppi, who used to live there before him. In the opening chapter, an elderly woman scrapes a small hole in her plaster-wall so she can peer into the party next door. What she finds is an eye staring back at her. The effect is uncanny, jarring. Imagine if you were watching and someone turned to acknowledge you, the spectator? I dread to say it, but it’s relevant right now as our relationship to property is mainly defined by voyeurism. We are all that great eye looking through the bland and unknowable rooms in the property pages, watching the proliferating number of home improvement shows, feeling outrage and, to some painful degree, enjoyment.
The property industry never slows down, never pauses to consider the number of people it excludes, and it has infected everything. Recently, I was bored and irritated watching a film, not an uncommon occurrence. Many films now look like they were directed by real-estate agents. It’s just rooms, and we ascribe value judgements to characters depending on how much we like their particular rooms. In this film, there was a character you were specifically supposed to dislike because she was a critic and an enormous bitch. (These are bad things to be, apparently.) In case you were uncertain about how you were supposed to feel about her, her apartment was cold, austere, ugly, with not a trace of warmth anywhere. Who needs characterisation when you have interior design? I dislike this trend because it’s deceptive; it implies thought where there has been none at all. But Ridgway, an emigrant, has thought seriously about what it means to make a home, to live amongst other people’s possessions, to occupy a space not entirely your own, and how it shapes and changes you.
Houses are strange things, and Ridgway only deepens the mystery. He is the master of the withheld detail, who refuses more than he acknowledges. What does David’s obsession with Karl and Peppi stem from? In clinical third-person, he narrates David’s increasingly strange movements, a series of long-shot sequences as if the reader were watching through an apartment window, the curtains left carelessly open. He cuts away when David masturbates to the photographs, announcing simply that this is private. His characters are shy—their dialogue always mumbled rather than delivered from a pulpit—and he gifts them their privacy.
There are two things I’ve always admired about Ridgway’s characters. Firstly, there is no permanent sense of devastation. Life can always be restored, in the oddest ways. They find comfort and connection in harsh places. They find new rooms. Secondly, his characters have little to zero self-control. They are unrestrained, illogical; this isn’t disinfected, hygienic prose. Take Tommy’s drug-induced monologue to a taxi driver after a dedicated two-day session. It begins with, ‘Happiness is lovely to come across,’ and quickly descends into nonsense, babble. He can’t help himself. This inability to shut up strikes me as very true, very human. It’s a luminous moment in a book full of luminous moments.
Another thing: Ridgway is artistically serious but always funny, never professional. A Shock could be described as frustrating but it’s like life: you might make sense of it if you give it your total attention. The possibility is what is interesting. His books, full of violence, sex and lies, are gentle and beautiful. Every so often, over the years, I’ve had conversations about the greatest Irish writers. I’ve had these conversations less often than you might think but, at the same time, embarrassingly, I’ve had them. After a while, never at the start, someone will always say Keith Ridgway. They will say it with total conviction like they’ve finally hit upon the right answer, and that’s because they have. A Shock makes that perfectly clear.