A character in Diana Evans’s new novel, “Ordinary People,” is reading “War and Peace.” The message is clear. Evans, the author of two previous books, has earned comparisons to Dickens with her panoramas of a jumbled, multitudinous London, but Tolstoy remains her spirit guide in how he intertwined the public and the private, the momentous and the mundane. Evans’s characters are navigating milestones of contemporary blackness: the novel opens at a party thrown in honor of Barack Obama’s Presidential victory, in 2008, and closes in the aftermath of Michael Jackson’s death, the following year. It name-checks stars like John Legend (the book shares a title with one of his songs), Ja Rule, and Venus and Serena Williams. But “Ordinary People” is less invested in the celebrities that serve as its touchstones than in the diaphanous experience of its non-famous protagonists.
Evans has spoken of her desire to “see the everyday in middle-class black lives normalized and humanized.” Her book follows Melissa and Michael, or “MM,” whose partnership has turned sweetly boring. They’ve been together for thirteen years and have recently moved into a flat—No. 13 Paradise Row—in the Crystal Palace neighborhood of South London. Domesticity does not agree with Melissa, a freelance journalist who spends the workday at home with her infant son and young daughter. She feels stifled by cleaning, “that life-usurping, burdensome act of servitude and futility,” and by motherhood, which she deems “an obliteration of the self.” She also feels stifled by Michael, a radio reporter turned corporate-responsibility coördinator who yearns to recapture their romantic spark but only succeeds in re-wetting the dry things on the drying rack and making the incorrect facial expressions. Michael, who loves Melissa but can’t reach her, seeks advice from his friend Damian, an aspiring novelist slash housing officer languishing in the suburbs with his wife, Stephanie, who is straightforward and conventional and infuriated by Damian’s listlessness. The four thirtysomethings have reached an aporia: “Adult life has fully revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown.”
They look to the rich and famous to orient their identities and frustrations. Evans created a playlist to accompany “Ordinary People,” and she has Michael think about the arc of his relationship with Melissa in terms of John Legend’s album “Get Lifted,” from 2004. “Michael did not quite know where he was positioned along this narrative” of connected, confessional tracks, she writes. “He would like to say that he was at So High or the less exciting Refuge,” but “it seemed at times that he was slipping back . . . still in the vicinity of She Don’t Have To Know.” Hoping to rekindle the euphoria of their courtship, Michael and Melissa go on a date to a Jill Scott concert, only to have their malaise cosmically reaffirmed when the singer reveals that she has recently left her husband. “It was a message for the world but it seemed to come directly for them,” Evans writes. “The music that had married them was now telling them to divorce.”
“Ordinary People” in many ways resembles a traditional novel: realistic, concerned with social mores and psychological states, full of sharp descriptive language—the “bleaching conquest of gentrification,” the “demeaning regularity” of mornings. Still, if you asked its characters to account for their unhappiness, they might complain that their lives don’t feel sufficiently plotted, especially compared to the artistic and media narratives that they consume. They see no grand teleology pulling them into the future. They don’t know what to do or who they are meant to be. This sense of being un- or under-written raises the spectre of another English author, Rachel Cusk, whose “Outline” trilogy dispenses with many of the classic techniques—plot, dialogue—that give fiction shape. Writing for The New Yorker, Jonathan Dee proposes a spectrum with Cusk on one side and Kate Atkinson, the author of “Transcription,” on the other. Cusk finds the spellwork of the novel “fake and embarrassing,” while Atkinson “maneuvers the tropes of the murder-mystery genre, of historical fiction, and of privileged white Britishness into a kind of critical salvage of women’s work, women’s lives, that’s as heterodox, in its way, as Cusk’s,” Dee writes. It’s possible to read “Ordinary People,” too, as a reply to Cusk (who casts a Napoleonic shadow over contemporary English literature), with help from Tolstoy. Evans’s book shows how we turn famous lives into stories; then it uses those stories to make the point—Cusk’s point—that our own lives are fundamentally un-storylike.
Despite its apparent traditionalism, the book itself resists the conventions of steadily rising action or dénouement. Its story, held between the arbitrary-seeming brackets of electoral victory and pop-star overdose, is inchoate, and beguilingly so: a series of meetings and partings, a fluctuation of perceptions, emotions, and desires. Characters attempt to transcend their slumps in various ways: Damian wills himself into an infatuation with Melissa; Michael pursues an affair with his secretary. These choices create mini-ruptures, but they don’t produce the novel’s most heightened moments, which are to be found, instead, in passages of exceptionally sensitive writing. Melissa’s flashback to her son’s birth is a masterpiece of satire (sending up the well-meaning “earth mothers” who urge women to reclassify pain as “sensations”), body horror, and tenderness (“the air sings lullabies, and you stare and stare into the crevices and the movements of the little face”).
There is a richness to the novel’s smaller units, its phrases and passing moods. Commuting to work, Michael identifies less with the corporate suits seated around him than with an “old pink drunk,” because, Evans writes, he’d always thought of himself as the type who would likely die young or end up sleeping on a park bench. This idle morbidity is both arresting and familiar, and then comes the sentence “If he were ever released, or ejected, for whatever reason from the grave and beautiful responsibilities of this life, he sensed that he would sink down easily to a truthful reunion with a shabbier self, like a hot-air balloon that had lost its flame.” (The image is uncanny, with the precision of “ejected” correcting the too simple liberation of “released,” adding ambivalence and regret.) Michael has no access to the deeper logic directing his steps, and the book is shrewder than most at conjuring his seemingly unauthored confusion. Is he the homeless man with the bottle, or the grind in the fancy tie?
(This way lies spoilers, so turn away if you must.) “Ordinary People” hints all along that No. 13 Paradise Row might be haunted, and at the end Evans does veer into gothic horror. (As the apartment turns on its occupants, one thinks of the gut-renovated houses in Cusk’s fiction: the structures that stand for novelistic form.) It is a surprising, convulsive twist, as if one of the characters had got his hands on Evans’s draft and decided to “punch it up.” But it succeeds as an expression of the couple’s desperation and a glimpse at how the slog of domesticity can turn to phantasmagoria—Melissa’s inability to recognize herself appears due, for a short time at least, to a spectral housewife invading her body. Cusk’s buildings never came to life, but the flat in Crystal Palace is an extension of its inhabitants. Melissa nicks Michael’s ear while shaving him, and “some sawdust slipped quietly from the gash in the kitchen wall.” The everyday and the remarkable are fluid categories here. You are sitting in your kitchen at home, and then “Thriller” comes on the radio.