The life of cinephile Brian: in Jeremy Cooper’s latest novel, a not-really hero finds a sort-of miracle in the pleasures of film-going.
Brian, by Jeremy Cooper, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 180 pages, $17.95
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Brian. The very name sends me into a tizzy. I think of Brian Jones: founder of the Rolling Stones, dandy, and speed freak, early member of the 27 Club. Of Brian Eno: glam-rock peacock, oblique strategist; his enthusiasm for flesh, cybernetics, and, most spectacular provocation of all, the band Coldplay. My most beloved Brian? That must be Brian Rix: droll impresario of trouser-dropping stage farces such as Let Sleeping Wives Lie, Stand By Your Bedouin, and Chase Me, Comrade.
Then there’s Brian, the not-really-hero of Jeremy Cooper’s new novel. My Brians have verve and dash; this one lives alone in a modestly furnished flat, works in the Housing Department of a North London borough, wears sensible shoes and a tie he only occasionally discards in the summer. He eats late lunch at the same Italian restaurant each day, and has developed an evening routine that involves brewing a pot of tea, reading a film magazine, and taking a long hot bath. Thence to bed. His colleagues think he’s a closet homosexual; he demurs and believes himself “nei,” drawn neither to men nor women. He’s scared of intimacy with anyone.
What has happened to Brian? There’s a reference to “unwanted family memories” and what may have been early scarring: until the age of eight, he was brought up in a children’s home after his mother was imprisoned for supporting a Northern Ireland paramilitary group called the Ulster Volunteer Force. This, though, is a backstory that’s not remotely fleshed out until much later. A description of Brian as being “wary in general of eyes” and “paranoid about control” hint that he may be on the spectrum. (The novel starts in the late 1980s, when such language was almost nonexistent.)
Brian is in a holding pattern that is starting to feel like atrophy. He worries about . . . imminent disintegration. Then, a sort-of miracle: he joins the British Film Institute and finds himself attending screenings nightly. The BFI, near London’s South Bank Centre and National Theatre, is not the kind of place that shows midnight movies or anarcho weirdness, but it’s a microclimate in which he can regulate his feelings. He’s grateful “that a nakedly emotional film on themes and feelings close to his own story”—Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives—“did not necessarily shake alive his stifled memories of the past.”
Cooper knows that many of us go to cinemas for reasons only partly connected to the films they show. Film-going is an excuse to escape our apartments, to be alone, to be alone in company. Cinema is about dressing up, getting ready, traveling in by bus or subway, standing in line and milling around. Without these rites and rituals, cinema is shorn, blunted, a depressingly infinite list of stuff to gorge on at home. Brian’s military-style preparations to ensure he’s never late—he wears two watches, always carries maps in case he gets lost en route—are both risible and rather charming.
All movie “geeks,” a term that rubs Brian the wrong way (he prefers the honorific “buff”), will recognize his accounts of spending weekends mooching around market stalls hoping to discover Taiwanese film festival brochures; of reading a Bill Viola press release that bangs on about “a process of Being and Becoming” and makes one want to reply, “Tosh! Neo-Nietzschean cliché. The sad self-importance of an overpraised artist with an irritating Shakespearian surname”; of feeling, as he does after seeing The Wall, Yilmaz Güney’s 1983 drama about child prisoners in Ankara, that certain films ask us to be committed, to see ourselves as needed, more than mere viewers.
Brian enjoys his evening screenings, chitchatting with other (mostly middle-aged and male) buffs, occasionally even going to their homes. But his life is still silted and anxious. Years go by. He’s flustered when his local laundromat closes down. The café where he snacks on his pre-cinema lemon muffin is shuttered for a while. Calamity! Ever more tense, he carries a razor at all times. Will clean cheeks save him? He is knocked down by a motorbike and ends up in a hospital ward alongside victims of an Islamist suicide bombing that actually did strike London in 2005. He’s not sure if he was caught up in the attack. Later, like one of the directors he admires—Derek Jarman—his eyesight starts to fail.
Every city has its Brians. Every cinema has its Brians. Still, in his looping disassociation, Cooper’s Brian recalls not just Bartleby (“I would prefer not to”) and Prufrock (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”) but also a particularly English lineage of introverts and isolates: Stevie Smith (“I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning”), the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (“All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?”), the anonymous protagonist of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” (“I am the son and the heir / Of nothing in particular”), the title character of Alan Bennett’s almost Beckettian TV monologue A Woman of No Importance (1982).
Going to the BFI, says the novel’s omniscient narrator, transformed Brian from a mouse to a squirrel. Readers may protest—a squirrel’s just a squirrel! Brian’s bus journeys, the supermarket teas he prefers, his sensible observations about the films he’s seen: all are itemized in plain, almost artless prose. Sometimes Cooper hastens, as if he couldn’t be bothered to keep listing Brian’s neuroses, to write diagnostically, describing the poor man as “a veteran of concealment and evasion” and referring to the “self-inflicted solitude of his adult life.”
There is humor amid the dolor. Brian, chronically constipated and self-conscious about the “echoing gurgle of his ill-behaved intestines,” is especially fond of a scene in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road (1976) in which a car mechanic (played by Rüdiger Vogler) needs to take a shit: “The camera focused low down to film from behind a long dark sausage turd drop slowly from a pale arse.”
Cooper may not deliver the trauma narrative some readers expect or wish. He doesn’t assure us that Brian is ever going to be able to shed his inhibitions, share a pillow with someone, have a true friend even. Still, what an achievement: to compose a sentence about the pleasures of watching a turd fall slowly from a pale arse. So unexpected, as vivid as a haiku. O Brian!
Sukhdev Sandhu directs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University. A former Critic of the Year at the British Press Awards, he writes for the Guardian, makes radio documentaries for the BBC, and runs the Texte and Töne publishing imprint.