This week I’ve been reading Chris Cleave’s Gold, set in Manchester in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It follows the equally intense careers and personal lives of Britain’s two best female track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and explores the difficult dynamic between friendship and rivalry as they train and grow up together, under the supervision of their coach, Tom. Whether for closeness or for competition, the two women depend on each other more than they think.
I chose this book, out of all the wonderful suggestions offered for Greater Manchester, for the same reason I chose to read Money Can’t Buy Me Love a few weeks ago – because of how recent the setting is. As I said then, it always amazes me when I find a book about events in my own living memory, having spent so many years reading curriculum-prescribed classics. Cleave, in an interview published in this very edition of Gold, explains this far more eloquently than I manage to:
“Some people find it jarring to read work that is set almost in real time. I understand that – it’s not something novelists generally do – but I like that territory for fiction and I suggest that it’s a fascinating space in which to be an artist, because it’s the space in which public opinion is formed. My novels area hybrid between reportage and fiction and they take place in the five year gap between the point at which newspapers leave a story alone and the point at which historians generally take up their analysis.”
Wonderful as it has been so far, my education – along with many other people’s I imagine – usually encourages me to associate modern writing, no matter how popular, with so-called ‘bad’ literature, simply because it might not (yet) carry historical or canonical weight or might not use complicated language or need footnotes to translate allusion and symbolism. I admit I have been guilty of turning my nose up at Jodi Picoult’s global bestsellers, hiding my apparently humiliating enjoyment of Dan Brown and rolling my eyes at the epic Twilight series. But the truth of the matter is that these are the books that sell in modern times; the pursuit of understanding why certain genres have such cultic followings in the present is as fascinating and meritorious as the research done in any Jane Austen class, the real difference being that only one of these subjects has already been done to death.
(This video clip is a trailer for the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s classic in which the Bennett sisters are trained to fight the undead as well as to find suitable husbands.)
Think of this decade’s vampire phenomenon, the prevalence of zombie apocalypse fiction since 2000, and how, in 2012, erotic fiction suddenly became widely acceptable – even in the staunchest minds of our middle-age, middle-class relatives – and made its way onto bestselling shelves with Fifty Shades of Grey. Why then? Why not before or after? What forces are brewing under the surface of society now that might erupt into a new literary craze in ten years’ time?
I spent most of my final degree year (and all the time since – hence this blog) obsessing about these very questions, my interests shifting away from Shakespeare and Chaucer – as much as I value them – and resting on what I’d always dismissed: the current. I refused to stay in the closet any longer: having an interest in popular culture isn’t a cop-out; nor is it glamorously avant-garde. It’s a study of the nitty-gritty here-and-now, of the themes and events that are relevant to us in an increasingly battered world.
I love being on the other side of the dividing line that Cleave defines between history and fiction in this challenge. Producing serious writing set in ‘real time’, without being pejoratively classed as Airport Fiction or Chick Lit or Easy Reading – all the terms synonymous with Trash that sceptics choose to deploy – is a skill, and one that Cleave succeeds in. I find it bizarre that some reviewers describe his plot as predictable or farcical and his characters as underdeveloped. I completely disagree. I was deeply impressed with the descriptions of training and races in particular; I could feel the athletes’ muscular and emotional sensitivity twitching the pages in my fingers. There is an intense physicality and even sensuality in reading this novel which, aside from making you believe you’re on the racetrack too, gives the novel a cinematic feel – you hear the breath of Kate’s pursuer and the hum of Zoe’s tyres on the ground. It is not the same exhilaration as I felt when watching the London velodrome events on television last year; it’s much more tuned-in, more personal, more close-up. In short, Cleave is able to describe so much movement in so much slow-motion detail without once comprising on pace. Masterful. For this aspect of the novel alone, it’s a 4/5 star read.
So finely tuned are the girls’ bodies, in fact, that the distinction between themselves as animals and machines is difficult to make, and Cleave’s juxtaposition of the two is hugely effective. Their “twelve thousand dollar American prototype race bike[s]” (9) are extensions of their own limbs, with “no distinction between their skeletal systems and the bones of their bikes” (74). In racing and training their reflexes are mechanical – superhuman, programmed in – and yet at the same time, bestial. Their senses are heightened to a primal state, in which changes in the breath and slight movements in the muscles of their competitors causes immediate and instinctual physical responses to achieve the most primitive of urges: to win. Teeth gnashing and claws scratching all the way.
And yet these girls have been friends for 15 years, through youth training, national competitions, the Olympics in Athens and Beijing…They are a support to one another, understanding the dangers of such a high level of competition, both physically and psychologically. There are, in fact, constant reminders of the damage it causes: Tom’s dodgy knees, the girls’ sore ankles, Zoe’s crash, Kate’s difficulty in juggling career with family life, Zoe’s brother’s early death and her resulting emotional trauma and failure to maintain relationships, as though “as soon as she got off the bike her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions – like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere – when all she’d ever trained it to do was pump blood” (45). Cleave expresses, completely convincingly, the way in which racing obsesses them, consumes them and is always one step away from breaking them. They cannot even escape their bodies’ pressure when off the track, for when sitting on the sofa and unable to switch off, “Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race […] hopelessly” (11).
The complicated relationship the girls have to their own bodies results in an equally complicated relationship to the space around them: they cannot belong. For Zoe in particular, everything outside the racetrack is described as unfamiliar and disconnected. Despite her ability to see practically 360o from her luxurious skyscraper apartment – she looks over Manchester city and can pinpoint Snowdonia, Liverpool, the Blackpool Tower and beach and Cheshire plains in the distance – she feels so out of touch with the ground beneath her that she is like a “ghost” (42). There is “no traffic noise; no sound of the neighbours’ TV; nothing” (44), her apartment no more than an empty space designated for living by a faceless architect. Even Management has identified the need for a “souvenir of Earth” this far above it and is intent on “making a ‘green space’ with birds and plants and a water feature” (40) – but the “Italian olive tree ascend[ing] silently past [her] window” (45) attached to its crane only makes Zoe’s world even more surreal.
In fact, the whole of the country seems, to Zoe, like a series of disconnected “planet[s]” (86), Manchester being one of them, the generalised “up north” (220) another and “Surrey” a third, where “rain comes in bottles labelled Evian” (221) rather than being icy cold and endless. (North-South divide, we meet again.) Much like her inability to connect genuinely with other people, she is unwilling to admit to affection for any place she has lived or raced.
Ultimately, Cleave creates an excruciating world in which the girls race round and round in circles on tracks that never change: no wonder their bodies jar at the tension between so much speed, and absolutely zero movement. Kate notes at one point, “What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?” (16). Add to this the pressure of personal lives and off-the-track developments and Cleave has produced an excellent novel that has as much of a human factor as superhuman. I’ve heard it said that London 2012 did great things for the popularity of cycling in Great Britain – writing this novel in 2011, Cleave knew what he was doing.
Next week I’ve picked up Maureen Lee’s The September Girls to read. Can’t wait!