Never a Dream, by Polina Traore and Dana Kaledin - 4 Stars
I melt into these sort of novels when they get me analysing dating dynamics in a dry and objective style that would never just happen consciously and that’s how I’m thinking now. It’s like a philosophy exercise where you reach new conclusions that were in your subconscious all the time, arriving finally on the page and radiating a squeak of universal truth. I guess that’s what the best songs do, plugging into our minds and hearts and connecting into something deep we always knew was there but could never put into words, always circling the heart but the singer touched it like he could see through us, to what is hidden inside.
Never a Dream is not too ambitious in scope but it’s an easy read that has the comfortable feel of a casual 20s about town, hedonistic, sassy web of characters making mistakes, finding their feet in careers, living life on their own terms and secretly needing their bones squeezed by love. The theme also explores the classic question for girls: When and why do men settle down? The next discussion of the core theme is going to be useful and unpleasant but it’s best to get it out of the system, a bit like a shewee.
The music star in this piece is a typical Michael Hutchens sort of heart-throb who, de-sensitised by easily obtained sex has lost sight of the ability to love. Despite his talents and looks, here’s someone who can’t do what other people find natural and easy, fall in love. On, for heaven’s sake, he hasn’t even stepped in it a few times? The star has writing and performing talent but essentially he’s a straight lad doing what they all do, to prioritise sleeping with any girl who’ll accept him, lose respect for her soon after the act because the chase was too easy and then move on to persuading the next prospect. I suspect that for the small number of men with this power, the routine really is de-sensitising and meaningless after a few years, when it becomes repeat, repeat and their names go in one ear and out the other. If a guy continues a quest for sex which is no longer thrilling (some give up: “I’d prefer a good cup of tea”, Boy George), they can then choose between extending their ethical limits into ever more perverse experiences (Caligula, Nero, de Sade, Ted Heath) or they can switch to a new set of criteria and look for a long term companion or marriage partner. This story catches the youthful rock-star at precisely this point of transition, the moment he grows up and changes from endlessly trying to score, becomes aware of adult responsibilities and then sees a girl he could commit to, The Girl. Pity she’s already got a boyfriend. Send in the ninjas [sadly, this doesn’t happen].
Here’s where I let the cat out of the bag because the female of the species performs this transition too. When the teenie crush phase has passed and you’re in your late teens and twenties, there are two categories of men. Category A is the standard leisure model, for all your entertainment and performance needs, in music terms they’re the rhythm section, with a glint in their eye and a hole in their pocket – but they are available for experience. Category B save their pennies, have no confidence, need to be told what to wear, don’t wear scent, shop for gifts at Tesco, always choose safe activities and remind you of your uncle slightly. Cat. A take you somewhere unexpected, change the plan on a whim when they arrive, you’re never quite sure they can pay the bill and you just might end the date climbing out through a window. They also borrow money and don’t stick to what they promised. Cat. B takes you to the same place and always, always, orders the second cheapest bottle on the wine list because they’re careful with cash but don’t want to appear completely cheap. Cat. A cheat on you, sometimes with your best friend, but that’s okay because you cheat on them and they’re so wrapped up in themselves they never know it. After the seemingly endless supply of Cat. As, when you wake up in the morning, look into the mirror and realise it can’t always be like this, the situation changes. It’s time to build a nest while you still have the goods to collect a quality Category B. Should you jump into security early, before all the best ones go off the market? This is not dropping standards so much as growing up. Both sides do it, if they can, if they’re not ugly bugly, but music stars are perceived as drenched in extra sexuality and they are given rights of skip-a-few-stages access, perhaps not by you but always by someone. The someones in this book are all called Kitty because he can’t remember their names. Red flag. There’s Kitty and another Kitty. There's a Kitty with a ring.
“Paul was sacked out in the chair”. That’s good imagery. Can I start using it? “This was the first time she’d ever looked him in the eye. It was like a shot of adrenaline. A straight line, a bounce”, that’s born for film noir. Then there’s this terrific quote from when the band members find a book in the dressing room: “The book was plain and it felt like it was stinging in his palms. Oh, his head started spinning as he tried to read the headline. Dostoevsky?”
Showing the star in a psychiatric session is a clever technique from these authors because it gives the reader a route into masculine motivations, not just a view of the surface you’re meant to see. His hierarchy of needs is pretty limited and entirely selfish but I can just about relate to the idea “if I didn’t do that, what would I be?” The number of conquests and bottles of Irish whiskey is just a score card to track how successful he is as a musician and song writer. There’s then a scene at about the 39% mark which is pretty steamy and, you know, you probably would, which is where this swearing, arrogant, moody, drunk, ignorant kid and centre piece of the book turns into someone else. Then he spoils it with more immature stupidity later.
Yet, he isn’t the centre piece, is he? That would be Rain, a secondary character in a Cat. B relationship who is artistic, imaginative, dreamy and grows on you until you acknowledge her importance in the story and remember her name. Someone compliments her name early on, which sounds silly to her and she sees it as a kind of pattern of what blokes are supposed to say on a date. Nowadays we all have friends called Rain, Wind, Snow, Sleet and Cumulonimbus, which we no longer associate with weather conditions and take them seriously (as if). Even so, Rain should find a new crowd to hang around with because she’s going places, if she can drag herself away from antique shops for long enough. She also has an unacknowledged guy who she meets in dreams and everybody knows they should be together except themselves.
Taking all of that commentary and pulverising it into a dough ball of essential life knowledge, to be mangled into the pasta of realisation, with the spinach of determinism, here I go, the perfect partner is a Category A (the three Fs: frivolous, fun) who then metamorphoses into a more stable and reliable form that you can emotionally invest in, who’ll pay a mortgage and will be there for the children, i.e. a Category B (the three ibles: sensible, dependable, reliable). If he can switch back into an A when the children are in bed, that’s quite cool. I think Cat. A guys eventually settle with Cat. B girls, the best they can get from the pool of slow-reacting women who couldn’t secure more reliable men before they all flicked off the confetti and went indoors. I’ll say it now: Before a girl about town finds her perfect B and settles down, the impulse is to try a string of Category As. To return to the question – When do men settle? About 29 years old. For women it’s about 24 or 25 (change your name and don’t stay in contact with anyone). First year at Uni though, promise your parents you’ll be getting plenty of straight As, like they wanted, make them proud, so proud; and the occasional interracial.
What the book doesn’t cover is how the charming Charlie can keep hold of her rock idol, a text book Category A but with a reliable income, both an F and an Ible. Thousands of famous people’s partners have never solved this control problem. If they are highly attractive and always away from home, what do you do? Just accept it and welcome home or are you going to spend your life shielding your investment from #them? Either way, when he’s bored or you have to leave early to look after the children, the rosy future can lose petals. Got him? Good. Your work has just begun, unless you freeze him in carbonite. So tempting.
The story is a fulfilling tale that does what it should and makes you feel warm and fuzzy but I’m not going to give it five stars because there’s room for improvement and I think the authors could do even better with the next one. That’s a challenge. In future I can imagine each pop star or actor might be followed by a drone which reports home but until that happens this is a bad industry to wed into, so the wise advice in real life is still to marry a Cat. B. Will she? No, of course not, so that’s good romantic fiction.
There are a few killer lines in this but here’s the one you buy it for: “Matt swept Charlie up”.