“I felt I had hitherto woefully misdirected my energies in attempting to cultivate a personality. If you didn’t have one then that left more room for everyone else’s.”
With so many professional reviewers hailing Exciting Times as one of the best debut novels of 2020, praising Naoise Dolan for her wit and her razor-sharp social commentary, or describing her book as being “droll, shrewd and unafraid”, this promised to be an intelligent and compelling read. Sadly, as with a lot of hyped new releases, Exciting Times wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
While part of me rejoiced at the sight of quotations marks (yes, I’m looking at you Sally Rooney), I soon found myself wondering where the ‘wit’ I was promised was (in case you are wondering, largely MIA).
Exciting Times is an innocuous debut novel. It follows the tradition of the alienated young woman, which has regained traction over the past years, in no small part thanks to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The women who populate these novels have a lot in common with Esther Greenwood, who is perhaps the supreme example of the alienated female narrator (then again I think this title should go to Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman). Ava, the protagonist of Dolan’s novel, is far less morbid than Plath’s or Moshfegh’s narrators. Her alienation comes across as a phase of sorts, something she was experiencing merely for the sake of the aesthetics. Still, Ava’s millennial despondency does seem to make her prone to bouts of lethargy and ennui.
“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”
At 22 Ava decides to leave Dublin behind and move to Hong Kong where she ends up teaching English grammar. Because she didn’t like herself in Ireland she believes that a change of scenery will either improve her personality or the way she sees herself. In Hong Kong Ava makes few attempts at socialising with her colleagues or her roommates, and it is only when she meets Julian, a banker, that she begins to be interested in someone other than herself. The two form a bond of sorts, which sees them occasionally sparring about the fraught history between Britain and Ireland, while for the most part they seem content with being cynical together. Soon enough Ava moves into Julian’s guest bedroom. While he’s back in England Ava meets and ‘falls’ for Edith who, unlike Julian, openly reciprocates her feelings.
“Keeping up with both of them took work, but their similarities lent the enterprise a certain economy of scale.”
The plot as such sees Ava obsessing about either Julian or Edith, checking their Instagram accounts, over-analysing their texts, and attributing a special meaning to everything they say or do.
In passing she talks with others about class, race, abortion. But these topics are briefly mentioned, and for the most part Exciting Times is about Ava’s detachment from others. In a certain way I can see why this novel could appeal to fans of Rooney as the narrative is very much focused on creating and maintaining an aesthetic of detachment. Ava is all about the ‘conceal don’t feel’. She feels ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘damaged’, ‘messed up’, ‘different from other people’…you get the gist. While this is in part intentional, and both Julian and Edith call her out on the ‘woe is me’ act, the novel perpetuates this ‘she’s different’ by casually reminding us that she has a right to feel ostracised given that once a girl in school was homophobic towards her. Personally I don’t think that just because she spends large portions of her time daydreaming, envisioning what ifs scenarios, or wondering how others see her, she’s actually ‘different’.
The novel is so focused on being clever that it ends up not having anything substantial to offer.
Ava’s alleged ‘aloofness’ seemed an excuse for her character not to have a personality. One of my favourite literary characters is Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, someone who is aloof, distant, occasionally manipulative, and who hides her feelings from the reader. In spite of this we do see glimpses of her emotions. Ava instead just tells us that she ‘loves/hates’ someone…and I just didn’t feel it. If anything she was infatuated with the idea of love…which brings me to the ending. Are we meant to believe that there was any character growth on her part? Cause I don’t…
Much was made of the power dynamics between her and Julian. Ava plays her own violin insisting that if she were to end things with Julian she would have to find a ‘crammy’ room…and I’m meant to feel sorry for the circumstances she’s in? She is employed, and earns far more than others, and has enough savings to leave Julian’s apartment (or make a small contribution). Yet, her ‘dilemma’ is made into this ‘big thing’.
Lastly, in the novel Hong Kong is a mere cardboard backdrop for Ava’s existentialist crisis. The story could have been set in any city outside of Ireland and it would barely need changing. Mentioning Hong Kong’s political unrest now and again was not enough.
Julian and Edith, although not strictly likeable, felt much more like well-rounded people. I couldn’t see why they were both interested in Ava given how self-involved she was.
Dolan has a knack for dialogues. They are extremely realistic: at times the characters talk about nothing, misunderstand each other, use the wrong words to express what they feel…her back-and-forths, or banter, between certain characters was fairly engaging.
Most of all I loved the way Dolan writes about the English language. Ava is attentive when it comes to English. She often questions people’s word choices (“We discussed whether the word ‘quite’ magnified or diminished a compliment. I sketched a cline on a napkin and put ‘quite’ between ‘a little’ and ‘very’.”) and, given her teaching position, she also reprimands herself for using ‘bad English’.
Dolan rendition of different intonations and accents is evocative:
“Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday – anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple.”
My favourite passages were the ones that focused on language and the ones describing a person’s pronunciation or words choices.
Ava does share some genuinely clever insights about the English language or modern methods of communications. For example I particularly liked the way she describes texts:
“We chose what to share. Through composition I reduced my life, burned fat, filed edges. The editing process let me veto post-hoc the painful, boring or irrelevant moments I lived through.”
As I’ve said before, this was an inoffensive novel. It wasn’t thought-provoking or half as witty as it tried to be but it isn’t badly written. I was hoping perhaps for a less glib take on alienation or a more complex interrogation of power dynamics and gender.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars