EPS Review #131 - Stuart, A Life Backwards

Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, Harper 2005, 296pp. (Cheaper in the UK).

I was worried about this book-club choice for two reasons. I thought that the "backwards" gimmick would be show-off writing as in Time's Arrow. And I thought that a biography of a homeless man would be too earnest and depressing. I was wrong on both counts. In fact, the backwards-ness of the tale is imperfect and slightly confusing: mostly you just have to wait to find out about Stuart's childhood. And though parts are depressing, the rest is funny or thought-provoking.

Alexander met Stuart on the campaign to release the Cambridge Two, who were sent to jail in 1999 because drug dealing occurred at their charity for the homeless, even though they knew nothing of it and had strict rules in place to prevent the trade. Ruth Wyner wrote her own book about jail, and Masters' account of the effect on her and John Brock's lives is all the more affecting as we read of Stuart's frequent stays in prison, where violence and dehumanisation rule.

The book is self-referential, which again is usually a problem for me. But it works well here. Stuart constantly criticises Alexander's writing in a funny way - which makes Stuart more real. At the same time Stuart is the crazy man who injects himself with citric acid and held his own son at knifepoint in a burning house. Yet often I reflected how similar Alexander's slobby student poverty is to homelessness, and on the strange taste of some other homeless workers for dating their charges. We constantly cross the line from thinking about "them" - the weirdos - and ourselves, when put in similar positions, like jail, or on the streets. A brilliant section is the protest camp-out on the sidewalk in front of the Home Office.

I begin to see why bag ladies have bags. When life is this dull, you have to invent purpose. Collecting torn-up newspaper gives you a hobby, provides an anchoring intimacy with your surroundings, keeps the streets clean. Or so you think. Then one day you wake up and realise that it was all a con: what you had thought was an escape from madness was in fact the arrival.

[ ... ]

At around two, a large, once well-dressed man, seeping drink, bumps round the tube station corner, past the blue wheelie bins, and stops to glower at us.

'I was with the Provos!' he declares at last, sounding, because of his brogue, like a cross between a cold-blooded assassin and a lilting boat at sea. 'I know what the fucking government's like. Fucking down with the British! Good on you fellas whatever you're fucking doing. Do you know what day it was on Friday?'

Friday was St Patrick's Day.

'Fucking right! Down with the fucking empire!'

'I hear you, mate,' Stuart yells back, to my acute embarrassment. I consider myself a monarchist. 'We're with the homeless,' bellows Stuart, 'and it's the same fucking queen and government with us!'

Speak for yourself. Horrid republicans. I do not speak, however. I keep quiet. I am not a suicidal monarchist.

There is a lot of self-deprecating wit in the book, which may be what makes it feel so English. My fellow book-clubbers suggested it is also the tradition of impoverished aristocracy. In any case, I think an American version, were one possible, would be more strident. I dog-eared many other sections, but instead of reading them here, you should read the book.

Does one draw any conclusions? Well, yes and no. Impoliticly, Masters asks Stuart right out why he could not just have overcome his difficulties, as others have. I suppose one answer is, would you? I doubt I would cope well with jail, and now feel that the system is less fair in some ways than I thought. You might have noticed that my jury-duty "review" is one that I did not put online. It is still harrowing, and it wasn't me in the grip of the law.

There are lots of drawings, which is fun. I wonder why, in this age of home color printers, books remain so little illustrated.

A tough act to follow for Masters. Good luck to him!


Katy wrote: I am glad you liked this book as much as I did! I have been trying to get our book group to read it but they were reluctant and felt it would be depressing. I found it thought provoking and revealing and our 17 year old daughter, who is not a keen reader, found it very absorbing. Sometimes shocking and sometimes funny, I thought it was cleverly written and not patronising to Stuart or overly sympathetic. I would definitely recommend it too.

Paul wrote: I am currently half way through Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. You should immediately buy and read this book, if you haven't already. And I'm not even done. It's about the most engaging and fun fiction I've read in an awfully long while.

Steve wrote: On the back of this, I think I'll purchase and read it, nice review.

Bill wrote: A nim, a la, lamina! Brilliant, but who is I?

I first read Time's Arrow on a trip from the US to London. I was wildly jet-lagged and tried to sleep with the help of antihistamines. The combination of reading a backwards novel at 3am in a strange room, and the sleeping pills, had me reeling. Where am I? When is me?

But why do writers write backwards if not to show off? Is there a literary purpose served? My recollection is that Amis had a narrator from the backwards direction of time, allowing him (and the reader) to be innocent of the protagonist's crimes that occur in the forward direction.

I don't imagine there are many backwards novels. I've only ever read this one, and it seems the intense concentration required of the author would see to it that, like palindromes, they are all fairly short.

I replied: Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?