In his new novel, The Large Door, Jonathan Gibbs captures the academic conference universe to perfection, right down to the canapés, the eye-glazing, colon-punctuated paper titles and the corrosive gossip. But this is not the laugh-out-loud satire with which David Lodge sent up the same milieu thirty-five years ago in Small World. Chill Amsterdam is the backdrop to a meeting of the International Society for Philology and Linguistics, and something much bleaker. In from Berkeley jets forty-something academic superstar Dr Jenny Thursley to deliver an encomium for her former supervisor, Leonard Peters. She hasn’t finished drafting the speech yet, and there is considerable discussion in the novel as to whether she will ever give it, or even finish writing it. This is slyly clever, for part of the speech will be or, more accurately, could be, about the subjunctive.
Jonathan Gibbs has a thing for trompe l’oeil; his debut novel, 2014’s Randall or The Painted Grape, portrayed a Young British Artist who was a dead ringer for Damien Hirst. This new book, too, is full of dizzying reflections. Reading it is like strolling through a hall of mirrors, a series of half-apprehended shapes and tricks of the light... at its best, The Large Door echoes the Dutch paintings Gibbs so plainly admires: it is poised, suspenseful and enigmatic, with a hint of brute eroticism. More than that, it has heart.
Gibbs, his second novel confirms, is a Young Master himself. The Large Door is if anything even better than its predecessor. This time, the setting is academia, with Jenny Thursley, a troubled, fortysomething linguistics lecturer, returning from the US to Europe for a conference dedicated to the work of her ailing, one-time mentor...The author has an outsize talent for observation and simile, at one moment giving the reader a captivating view of the room in the round, the next zooming in to a practically cellular level... The Large Door has echoes throughout of Saul Bellow’s famous line that “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” But it is also very, very funny – Gibbs doesn’t miss the chance for a bit of campus-novel preposterousness. I can’t think of many authors who are capable of doing so many things so well, all at once.