On Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, abjection, and sublimated dreams

I forced myself through the last half of Gwendoline Riley’s 2017 novel First Love wondering if I actually liked her latest novel My Phantoms, a book I read just a few weeks ago.

(What do I mean to capture in the puny verb like?)

The material of First Love will be familiar to anyone who’s read My Phantoms, and I kept mentally underlining the similarities: first-person narrator, woman, living in London, a city she is culturally alienated from; bad parents–abusive asshole dad, narcissistic dippy mum. Vegetarian cooking.

Like My Phantoms, First Love is a slim, spare, precise study of passive-aggressive cruelty, sublimated dreams, and lowered expectations. Pervading the novel is a general sense that one would prefer not to get stuck in a corner with any of these characters at a party, let alone end up living with one.

The thrust of First Love (one wouldn’t call it a plot, which isn’t a negative criticism) is something like this: Neve, a thirty-three-year-old writer (who makes some money teaching) is married to a man named Edwyn, who is a generation older from her, and suffering a heart condition. His heart condition has left him close to death at least once, but it also doubles as a symbol for his trashed spirit: Edwyn’s heart condition is that Edwyn has the heart of an asshole.

Edwyn belittles and abuses Neve, condescends her feminism, and generally bullies her. Most of the abuse is verbal, but sometimes it is physical. The abuse is always awful though—an abuse of spirit, of love.

Riley announces the themes of this awful “love” by the novel’s fourth paragraph:

We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises—little comfort noises—at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage.’ Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.

There have been other names, of course.

‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.’

‘You can always just get out if you find me so contemptible,’ he went on, feet apart, fists clenched, glaring at me over on the settee. ‘You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.’

What’s the project? you might wonder, as does Neve—well, it’s not “winding up” Edwyn and “feel like shit all the time!’”

Does Edwyn actually feel abused by Neve’s behavior?

Riley certainly gives the man plenty of opportunities to vocalize his self-pitying and abusive rants. The central totem Edwyn hangs his anger on is an episode in which Neve drank alcohol excessively and vomited (apparently) all over the couple’s apartment. Riley does not depict the episode because Neve, natch, cannot recall it. The bits we get from it involve Edwyn’s violence, his anger. An ugly and true recollection of the sweaty abject reality of a hangover.

Much of First Love is mired in abjection—sweat and grime and piss and shit. Early in the book Neve and Edwyn exchange reminiscences of their young mothers on the toilet, Neve’s suffering IBS, Edwyn terrified of “The thundering waterfall of her first piss” in the early morning. “Terrifying. I thought bodies were terrifying.”

The abject reality of bodies and filth repulses Edwyn, and he buries his repulsion into a store of misogynistic tropes and curses that explode with more ugly frequency as First Love progresses. “You live in shit, so we all have to live in shit, is that right?” he demands of Neve, who he repeatedly accuses of slovenliness, filth. For Edwyn, Neve’s apparent uncleanliness is also related to her Northernness, underscoring the novel’s themes of class and place. Neve herself capitulates, reminiscing:

But was anybody clean back then? When I think of my friends’ houses, they weren’t any less filled with shit. Here were cold, cluttered bedrooms, greased sheets. The kitchens were a horror show: ceilings bejewelled with pus-coloured animal fat, washing-up sitting in water which was spangled like phlegm. Our neighbour’s house, where we went after school, was an airlocked chamber smelling of bins that hadn’t been put out. There was a long skid mark, I remember, on one of the towels in their bathroom. It was there for three years.

So—I did grow up in shit. It was no slander.

Shit, filth, stupidity, dishonesty. (Mother looking up slyly from a crying jag.)

I did use to be sick a lot. No slander, though Edwyn didn’t know it.

Edwyn doesn’t know fucking anything. I was relieved in the novel’s final moments, where the narrative disappeared him.

But now and so I go back to the beginning of this riff and see the opening clause, I forced: I did force myself to finish First Love, poison cup. And, that second sentence up at the top: Did I like the novelNo. Reading it hurt. Riley offers up raw reality, ugly, abject, mean. The novel is well-written, which I don’t mean pejoratively: no seams show, and thematic resonance carries from minute details: dialogue, concrete imagery, minor moments that coalesce into an abject portrait of sick “love,” messy and cruel. I am so happy that I’m now outside of the thing.

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