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Morley and Mayhew: Hook-up Gone Awry...,
This review is from: One Day (Movie Tie-in Edition) (Vintage Contemporaries) (Paperback)
"One Day" by David Nicholls, depicts two post modern adults whose lives exemplify the insubstantiality of a generation that has been weaned on war, the good life, and the ever present group-think that is the price college graduates pay for their liberal educations. Immersed in a culture of self-gratification and media dominance, Emma Morley's and Dexter Mayhew's futures are diminished by a tendency to drift through life rather than seize the moment and thereby make their lives work. Whereas the culture extols "carpe diem" as a worthy goal, Dexter, Emma and their acquaintances have not internalized the values necessary to take charge of their lives. It can be argued that not possessing the sense of certainty harbored by earlier generations, these young people have succumbed to a sense of impotence in their personal lives, falling into their fates rather than shaping their professional and personal destinies. They are easily bored, easily diverted and easily disappointed but rarely proactive.
Lacking the moral certainty of their parents, Dexter and Emma are products of the "existential age" of relative values and the pursuit of pleasure. Thus are they doomed to epiphanies of an unsavory sort: Dexter's that he must acknowledge his substance abuse and professional and personal failures and Emma's that she has discarded a true-blue lover for a womanizer, has had a sordid affair with a loser and has finally married more to assure herself of her normalcy than to strive for emotional depth in marriage. These are people drifting like "candle(s) in the wind," as John Elton described the "lost" of contemporary society. They do not know who they are and because of this they are not equipped to achieve lasting happiness. Perhaps this is because they cannot exert the patience with the prosaic necessary to make their lives work in the long run. Instead they are dependent upon outside stimulation to keep them going and to divert them from their endless self-absorption and anxiety.
The book centers around the seeming fated relationship of Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, during and following a "hook up" on their college graduation day. Subsequently they meet annually in mid-July, their relationship sustained, evolving or devolving, as situations change, from 1988 to 2003. Dexter is a narcissistic, immature playboy, and Emma, an idealistic, insecure woman whose goal is to "change the world through art." Both are anxious when they meet for a one night stand, and both are uncertain as to where life will take them, Dexter wanting to sleep with lots of women and to avoid sadness of any kind, and Emma seeking to live life and "stay true to [her] principles." Predictably, both are disappointed as their lives proceed, taking them in unintended directions and exposing them to disappointment and defeat. Yet despite the bumps in their respective journeys, they seek each other out as friends each can depend upon, if only to remind themselves of what they once were and what their goals were then. In this sense each clings to the other as part of his/her original identity - before the world devalued them in their own eyes.
Throughout their long association, Emma holds onto her original infatuation with Dexter, although he seems unaware of how much she cares and is too involved with his own concerns to focus on the possibility of an enduring relationship with Emma. Instead he takes her for granted, as one would a superfluous uncle for whom one has a shallow affection. Yet it is to be noted that when Dexter is down, it is Emma he seeks for sustenance. Meanwhile, she is removed to the background of his life during key moments of emotional torment on his part during which he succumbs to bouts with drugs and drink and sleazy encounters in bars and at parties. Likewise, she betrays her lover, Ian, for a tumultuous roll in the hay that compromises her in ways she does not appear to understand. Nevertheless, she is tolerant and accepting of Dexter's unsavory experiences and his inane jobs and even his mistreatment of her in the hope that they will someday get back together. Until the very end, she is the consummate Penelope, always waiting for her wandering Ulysses to return and make her life work - make her a mom, provide a good living and be her soul mate.
Nor is she disappointed because true to her vision, Dexter eventually does return to her on her terms, finally acknowledging the validity of their long relationship and willing to accept her conditions of marriage. All seems fine and worthwhile until a disastrous twist in the plot lays bare the irrationality of life as most of us know it. It is then that the existential dilemmas hold sway. What does the bereft lover and father of a young girl do after life has delivered its ultimate kick in the groin? Suggests Nicholls, he plods on like a character out of Camus - dulled but persisting in a grim, monotonous dance, settling for a limp friendship rather than the kind of relationship sans sadness he originally intended. No, he settles, like a lost dog searching for mere shelter rather than the give and take, the pulse and throb of a meaningful, growing love. He settles for the predictable which does make sense in the light of his past relational failures, self-absorption and disappointment.
What makes this book somewhat exceptional is the witty dialogue, the absolute humor of various scenes. One finds himself laughing out loud at what people say, the very genius of some of the dialogue and narration. Also the internal musings are engaging and intelligent, even if both main characters are revealed to be less than admirable in their lassitude and lack of insight. They are sincere in their respective ways, if lacking in gumption so that the reader may be sympathetic to their plights. To me they are products of their environment and the society that has filled them with triviality and reduced their yearnings to pathetic whims. This is postmodernism and for some of us it's dangerously akin to a terrible science fiction novel where automatons take over the world and sincerity and depth languish in the name of programmed responses. Both protagonists have looks, intelligence, education, friends, and jobs, but each privately rails against the notion of what they might have become had they the wherewithal to achieve it.
Emma achieves some success as a writer of children's books, and Dexter eventually approaches his goal of becoming an entrepreneur by owning a small shop in a trendy neighborhood. Yet neither is fulfilled and both have their moments of acute disappointment in themselves, symbolized by Emma's fate on a rainy bike ride to view a house she has resisted seeing, as if the inevitable confinement of marriage is ultimately beyond her emotional capability. In the final analysis, they both glance off each other like rain thudding onto a biker's helmet, if you know what I mean...
Dexter and Emma struggle with the issues of the day, but more importantly they attempt to find their professional and personal niches in a society that espouses freedom and self-gratification to the extent that the mundane realities of life dull one's capacity to envision something remarkable in the moment by moment experience of daily living. Thus do both Dexter and Emma end up pursuing illusory goals until each must face the reality of authentic living: that human connection and family are what matters, not fame or even professional achievement. For even when affluent enough to have the "breakfast bar" at last, both yearn for something more out of life than having babies or lounging naked in the morning light. Both want more, having been reared to achieve something of merit, like their own parents, but they have lost sight of what it took to be "successful" in that light, having succumbed, at least partially, to the emptiness surrounding them in terms of the culture's vacuity and the omnipresent threats of a media-driven society where appearances matter more than substance.
In the end they surrender to the absurdity of normalcy, wrapping themselves in the conventional cloak of routine and predictability, as do most mature people. They give in to what is. This is just one more story of coming of age in the post modern world where believing in anything is harder than than in the past and where defining oneself beyond trivial pursuits is more challenging than it was for our parents. These are clever, striving young people who are legitimately confused by what appears to be a lack of enduring meaning in the modern world. They deal with this by holding onto each other for support, but perhaps that is not enough, as Dexter seems to realize in the end when his one claim to meaning beyond himself is his daughter, Jasmine.
Although it was not always believable to me that Dexter and Emma would remain together and be happy as a couple, I applauded the union anyway , allowing my "willing suspension of disbelief" to embrace this couple trying to do what was right in an absurd world. The author's syntax, internal passages, his sense of the human comedy, his ironic observations of people and places - all contributed to a sense on my part of a talented writer of great promise. I feel he made a tragic mistake in his denoument, but I would argue the book is still a good one because it implies much about the pitfalls of modern life for the young, who harbor idealistic notions they can save the world or be successful in a big way or that marriage or any relationship or diversion can redeem one from disappointment or ennui. No, life is a Sisyphean experience, as Dexter, Emma and the reader come to realize in spades.
Author of "Bread of Shame"