I bought Fear of Fighting in early 2009 after reading Be Good, a pretty good debut novel that wasn’t perfect, but took some risks and showed that Fowles is an author with a lot of promise. I want to say that I put off reading it until now because I was really busy, or because it was lost on my ridiculous fucking coffee table (which is partly true), but what actually happened is that I got stuck living Marnie’s life.
I never bothered to read the synopsis on the back cover when I bought it—I generally don’t when buying a book by an author whose other work I’ve enjoyed—but when Zoe Whittall described it for The Post as “a good non-cliché-ridden mental illness narrative,” I almost wanted to put it off forever. I do not enjoy mental illness narratives largely because I have yet to encounter one that isn’t chock-a-block full of clichés, and looking for them generally isn’t worth the effort. Fear of Fighting turned out not to be a cliché-ridden mental illness narrative after all, and if Whittall hadn’t referred to it as such, and Marnie not referred to herself at least once as mentally ill, it never would have occurred to me to think of it in those terms at all. Depression, or anxiety disorders, or panic disorders (I don’t know if any of that is accurate terminology; I haven’t read the DSM IV) aren’t always taken seriously by a lot of people, and often aren’t really looked at as mental illnesses at all. I know intellectually that those things are mental illnesses, and can be quite serious, but I’ve never actually classified them that way in my own internal schema. I may simply be hiding: I’ve always had what I think of as long, dark periods, and even a handful of full-on breakdowns, but for roughly the last five years I have (according to Google, anyway) suffered from nearly all the symptoms of atypical depression. I’ve been reluctant to see a professional, partly due to the cost, and partly because of fear. Who wants to think of themselves as mentally ill? I certainly don’t. Anyway, my mental health isn’t really the point. The point is, by opening up Marnie’s non-manic, slow-burn depression, the sort of post-breakup blue period that most of our friends would simply advise us to snap out of (which is what Marnie’s neighbour Neil does, in his clumsy, affectionate way, by giving her used self-help books) to the vocabulary of mental illness, Fowles transforms Fear of Fighting into something other than an angst-ridden woe-is-me breakup tale, which it very easily could have become.
It’s tempting just to keep talking about Zoe Whittall’s piece in The Post, because it covers most of the ground that I want to. Marnie’s genuinely suffering, but she’s got a sense of humour about it as well; Whittall mentions the semi-comical mugging, but Marnie’s descriptions of her work life are also very amusing (and Fiona’s appearance late in the novel was great). Despite the heavy, melancholy subject matter, Fear of Fighting never drags, never seems weighted down or oppressive.
Which is not to say that it’s perfect. Fear of Fighting doesn’t feel like a first novel, but it isn’t far enough away from Be Good to feel like a sophomore effort either. It’s like something a half-step between. Fowles’ prose is a little too loose at times, and though her poetic flourishes and pop culture/consumer references can be clever (there was some fun alliteration, if you can believe it), they came off as forced almost as often. She largely lets go of those things for the last third or so of the book, and the ship sails steadier from that point on. Fowles doesn’t stumble when it comes to matters of theme, character, or crafting distinctive voices, but she doesn’t yet seem to have developed the same level of control over the nuts and bolts of individual sentences and paragraphs. I think she’ll get there, though, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where she goes next.
Fear of Fighting was my fourteenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Why Your World is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin.