Stylistically McBride still inclines towards Beckett: “Door. Scratched dull lock. Put in. Turn the key. Fail.” But in this one I thought I detected the influence of French novelists, the precision of Emmanuèle Bernheim, the incantatory reminiscence of Duras. Much of the book is a meditation on loneliness, ageing, sex and mortality, melancholy (but not wistful) and as featureless as the rooms in which it is set. It comes as a great relief when the author’s familiar raging defiance finally makes an appearance in the closing pages.
Strange Hotel oscillates between a kind of obsessional neurosis – a fixation on repetition and control – and neurasthenia, a deadening, fatigued inability to act. Those twinned emotional states transmit themselves to the reader, who worries away at what meaning is being suggested, while also wondering if the attempt is designed and destined not to bear fruit. When the novel shifts to the first person, the “I” reveals herself to be both a much younger version of the woman at a significant emotional crossroads in her youth, and a writer looking back, unsure of her attachment to what she is doing... Reading Strange Hotel is indeed a matter of strange immersion, and one that will often puzzle and sometimes frustrate the reader, but its portrait of sadness and alienation is, in the end, also strangely revivifying.
Occasionally, it’s funny, and it has its touching moments. The woman admits to struggling with “the human condition’s most essential component: knowing someone alive, then knowing them dead”. When dialled back like this, it’s an affecting novel. And its slippery introspection will appeal to many. Others, though, will be inclined to agree with the woman when she thinks: “Maybe I should stop f---ing around with language? It’s not improving matters at all.”
The wounds themselves, left by love and grief, are perhaps the novel’s real subject. Gradually we learn the narrator’s shapes of thought and movement, the feelings to which she compulsively returns and those which she repeatedly avoids. We intuit the presence of a gap in the middle of the story, an emotional chasm which is responsible for her recurrent sense of vertigo. By the final section, that feeling of vertigo becomes overpowering, until at last she allows herself to fall back through layers of memory to a final, remembered hotel room long in the past, where her life might have taken a quite different turn.
This is a novel with no moving parts, where everything that happens inside the narrator’s head, and the descriptions are skewed but effective. “Outside the sky’s a horror of fight and bruise. Velour black, pumped with racket, gored by orange.” Its quietness is apt for the subject matter of love lost, of the mystification of middle age, and the pleasures and sorrows of solitude. Some will find Strange Hotel’s evasiveness maddening, but there’s something oddly comforting about it too: not a word usually associated with McBride’s work.
If I were to write out the novel’s plot, it would easily fit in a single sentence (I won’t; the novel’s suspense and emotional power comes from McBride’s control of those “little things”), but the simplicity of the tale belies the deep psychological complexity it explores. Perhaps evoking the block-universe concept of time and space — that the present is no more or less real than the past or future — and echoing Einstein’s view that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”, McBride’s fractured, fluid indirect style captures the newness of past events, constantly alive in the mind.
Hotel rooms are strange – and McBride captures brilliantly the uncanny feeling of replication across cities and continents they give, how they seem to exist out of time, and how an abstract, untethered version of the self stacks up whenever you check in. But Strange Hotel’s view is also limited, always turning inwards rather than outwards. There’s a stuffy, airless claustrophobia to the character’s solipsism... McBride has pinned down the inner workings of an individual arguing with themselves with as much coherent virtuosity as she captured the unrestrained rush of youthful impressions and geysering emotions in Girland The Lesser Bohemians. It’s just that – to put it bluntly – the result is rather less interesting.
Strange Hotel is richly written, and wholly absorbing, and centres on sexual danger; still, it isn’t quite the McBride novel you might expect. Nor is it obvious where her style will go from here, with its stringencies partly relaxed. But experiments aren’t links in a chain, and anyway, the departure is apt for the setting. Hotels aren’t homes exactly: they free us from domestic roles, make us strangers to ourselves for a night. That’s the thrill of going to one: you play around, and then you come back.
Why is this story being told? You could argue that it’s about the wasteful self-absorption that accompanies romantic obsession. “Remember where you are and look out! It’s a city! Look!” the narrator tells herself, before slumping into another of her “inverted chats”. But Strange Hotel exults in an inwardness that’s characteristic of a lot of women’s fiction right now. It’s melodramatic but oddly evasive, light on plot but heavy on deoxygenated angst. I will always defend good writing about the self — so hard to do well — but I fear that, unless these novelists develop an interest in other people, literary fiction is on course to become a depleted cul-de-sac.