You want to know what it was, don't you? Perhaps, like Glover, you too make mistakes. Perhaps you feel unjustly punished, worthless in the eyes of the world. You like this Glover already, before you've even opened the book -- precisely because he has made a mistake. And you don't even know what it was. You open the novel ready to forgive, proving your largesse. That is what humans do; they forgive. What a great person you are.
Nick Laird, bless his heart, knows exactly how hard people try to do the right thing. He knows how people sour, like (yes) spoiled milk. He knows how love is supposed to fix everything and how it almost never does. These are important things to know for a writer whose novel is based on characters, not plot.
"Glover's Mistake" is a triangle novel (specifically an equilateral triangle). There's Ruth at the top, 45, a very successful artist, thrice-divorced with one very bitter daughter and a trail of lesbian relationships. There's David, 35, an English professor with a secret life -- a blog he calls the Damp Review. And there's James Glover, 23, a handsome bartender who doesn't know much about art but is a swell guy. James and David are roommates. Ruth was once David's professor in college. James is cool. David is bitter and rancorous. In his blog he writes caustic, ironic reviews of movies, art, books, etc., and outside of his blog he doesn't have much of an actual life. Who do you think Ruth is going to fall in love with, especially after a nasty divorce?
Well, David is surprised (perhaps because he spends so much time at his computer and not with real people). In a half-hearted way, he had a thing for Ruth. To his credit, he tries to stomach it. James and Ruth become lovers and get engaged. David tags along for a bit and then tries to sabotage the relationship.
That there is not too much plot is fine because Laird is so deft with character -- the many ways we turn more and more inward and devour ourselves like creepy cubist robots. The novel slinks forward by snipes and barbed comments; the triangle spins and wobbles off kilter. Many writers these days talk about shape versus plot in their writing; a nonlinear configuration that bears more resemblance to real life and even manages, now and then, to cozy up to a bestseller list or a movie deal.
The love triangle is certainly not a new thing in literature; the tension and pressure build until the shape cannot hold. What is new is the cultural context with which Laird fills the rest of his canvas. David and James are iconic, polar opposites in today's world: the guy who believes that you "make your own luck" versus the guy who believes that "everything happens for a reason." The sociable young man (a little naive) versus the computer creature on the margins, observing: "Our culture is too old for love, David thought. You must rescue yourself and you know it. The impulse inwards has overcome the impulse out. Who wants to relinquish autonomy, be whisked up by someone else, be enthralled and helpless? We are busy. We are surfing for porn. We are watching TV. We are waiting at the counter for our turn to describe the size of the slice of Brie we want, or Gorgonzola. . . . Expectations are different. Our plays do not end with a marriage now, or if they do, we expect that that marriage too, one day, will end. We have absorbed various crystalline truths, and one of them is this: people love each other all the time, and leave."
So the triangle wobbles. There's an "emotional vertigo" in the book that is specific to our times -- the increasing isolation despite the Internet and the expectation that love ends. "God is dead," David thinks, "as is Nature, as is the Author -- and Love has followed them into the grave."
It's enough to make you like David, who's a canary in that grim coal mine, and resent Glover for his bumbling hopefulness. Ruth remains oddly Teflon, a causer of pain, a lightning rod who makes art that people pay a million pounds for. (If money has anything at all to do with time invested, Laird is rooting for the art, no matter how pretentious, over the blog.)
Some of the most beautiful writing (no irony, no rancor, no sarcasm) in "Glover's Mistake" is in Laird's descriptions of London. These passages are so gorgeously specific and evocative, you'd almost think the guy was homesick, living elsewhere. "The restive black river, slicing through the city, granted new perspectives. The buildings on the other side were Lego-sized, those far squiggles trees on the Embankment walk. . . . The sky was granted a depth of field by satellites, a few sparse stars, aircraft sinking into Heathrow."
Laird has his finger on the pulse and he's pressing hard. What is it, exactly, he's trying to kill? "Modern life is the city: modernity has atomized society. The human now must move in Brownian motion, not in a shoal, not in a pack or a team or a herd, not in a chain. We don't lie in family plots. We don't work our father's father's land. Randomly, repeatedly, we knock against people, and spin off like particles elsewhere. How hard it was to form a bond, to stick."