BOOKE REVIEW: Good Day? by Vesna Main

A piece of experimental fiction which thankfully doesn’t lose sight of itself, Good Day? is an accomplished novel that explores obsession, desire, and human interaction. Our nameless narrators, a female Writer and her opinionated reader husband, expose themselves and the cracks in their relationship while they analyse a work of fiction and lose themselves in the story of Anna and Richard. Main has managed to achieve something quite remarkable – a novel within a novel story, but one that is not pretentious, or there just for the sake of being different. Form is our greatest ally in this story, yet at the end of the conversations, we question everything we have just read.

I won’t pretend that I slipped into this dialogue only novel easily. For the first 20 pages or so, I found myself ‘counting’, trying to work out who said what and where I was at in the speech. However, I’m glad I stuck with it and got used to the unique form. Looking back on it, I think this might have been one of Main’s intentions. We don’t get any indication of who speaks first, ever, and sometimes the narrators would say multiple things despite there being a line break, which did throw me off a couple of times. Yet, as the story evolves, it was easy to understand just from the way that each reacted or said things, who was talking. And this mirrors exactly what Writer and Reader are battling through themselves: trying to understand the characters of Anna and Richard, who they are, how they would react, what their next move is. As the shape of Anna and Richard became clearer, so did the narrators. Main makes us question whether life informs art, or indeed if it is the other way around?

This is something that the male Reader is aware of throughout the novel, this intermingling of life and fiction. He is often unsure how he is different from the character of Richard, and to him, his wife is almost a copy of Anna too. He dislikes Writer picking things from their intimate lives and using them, however the naming of a side character in particular really gets to him, yet Writer argues

Bob suits him perfectly. You know how important names are to novelists. They are part of the overall characterization. Bob communicates so perfectly his fumbling, clumsy self.”

Despite being quite mundane – at least a lot more so than using his first sexual experience, which Writer wants to do – Reader is furious and insists she changes it (“Look, you can have the library conversation, you can even have them in Bristol, but you can’t have Bob.”) His reaction made me question how we use those little things from our life in our writing, and whether in fact those seemingly unimportant things actually have more meaning to them.

Main also inserts herself into the narrative, which is a brilliant decision that adds yet another layer to the novel. Again, this isn’t a ‘just because’ decision, and it is clear that Main has taken her form into deep consideration. Good Day? is one of those novels which becomes even more interesting once you do a little background research on the author. I’m aware that most readers will form an opinion without any extra knowledge as to Main’s decisions, but for me, her explanation of her process is just too fascinating to ignore. In this article, Main reveals that she did in fact write the novel in a more ‘traditional’ sense, but it just wasn’t working;

“As a writer who believes that the way a story is told is vital and has to be ‘of our time’, I was bothered by the idea of writing in a style that I associate with the positivism of the nineteenth century.”

She changed the novel to dialogue only and, given the modern subject matter, this also meant she was able to explore her feelings towards the themes:

“Was the sex industry the same as any other? What did freedom mean in relation to punters and sex workers? How free were the men whose passion became an addiction? How free were the women who had no choice but to sell their bodies?”

It’s a brave and ambitious decision, but one that certainly pays off from the point of view of the reader. It also sounds as though the use of this form made the novel somewhat cathartic, as Main was able to work through her thoughts and address those previous questions.

Main’s cameo in the novel comes through the form of a short story that Writer reads out, titled ‘Safe’, which features an abused woman as its main character. The writing here is flawless, and perfectly captures the terror, frustration and helplessness that I can only imagine comes in that situation. Writer says the story is written by a ‘V Main’, yet Reader notices straight away that this isn’t Writer’s style of work.  Again, it raises the question of how much influence things like literature can have on our own writing, and how tortuous writing a novel really is when such a great example of what you want to achieve, already exists.

All of the characters in Good Day? are wonderfully formed, however for me, Anna remains slightly absent compared to the rest of them. If, like Reader suggests, the story is a comment on their own lives, then Writer ultimately has the control over how much of herself she reveals. Perhaps Writer hasn’t figured out how she sees herself, and the direction she would take if faced with the same situation as Anna. She is a person who doesn’t want to look too deep inside of herself – ‘Anna’ walks out of therapy, after all. Her thoughts and feelings sometimes have little grounding or explanation, and Reader quizzes her on Anna’s character and why she makes certain decision. While Writer can articulate her responses well, she seems to be struggling to decide on a path for Anna, and perhaps herself.

Main’s comments on writing in general were fantastic and gave a breath of humour to the serious subject matter:

“…what I have in my head, the voice I hear, the words I see in my mind, the tone, it’s never as good as when I put it on paper. It’s always inferior. So sometimes you feel you want to keep it in your mind, preserve the idea for ever, rather than write it down.”

The story runs away from her beautifully, and by the end we feel that Main is no longer in control of the ending – it is up to the readers to decide for themselves what they have just read. Having read the Postscript multiple times, I must confess I am still none the wiser, yet this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Anna and Richard’s and Reader and Writer’s stories feel incomplete, yet in real-life stories so often are, aren’t they?

Good Day? is published by Salt and is available here.

Vesna Main

Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia. After graduating in English and comparative literature, she gained a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham.  She worked as a lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK, as well as a journalist and translator for BBC and as a college teacher.

Review by Mariah Feria

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