Turning Thirty, Mike Gayle

Flame, 2000, 350 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 0-340-76794-4

I know it’s fashionable among some genre readers to deride “general” fiction as being, somehow, un-cool. I should know; I’ve been there. When you’re used to star-spanning wars, far-reaching conspiracies, intricate murders and a bunch of dungeons and/or dragons, why even care at all about boring “relationships”? I get enough of that in my own life, thank you. What doesn’t help is the (oft-justified) sense that a lot of that so-called “mainstream” fiction are merely navel-gazing exercises by pretentious artistes with, er, deficient story-telling abilities. Life is too short; why bore myself with a dull three-hundred-pages meditation on how being single sucks? I could write such things myself.

But genre readers should also be the first ones to warn others against hasty judgements based on clichés and hasty generalizations. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, for instance, meets most of the prerequisites for general, mainstream fiction… and yet it proved to be a hilarious and impulsively readable account of modern life. Mike Gayle’s Turning Thirty is in the same tradition, down to the oh-so-fashionable iconic cover design that manages to convey its “not your parents’ gen-lit!” hip attitude.

Turning Thirty begins as its narrator manages to undergo the easiest break-up in the history of mankind. Officially single, bored with his life in fast-paced New York, lined up for a job in Australia, he decides to take a short sabbatical back in his hometown back in England. A few weeks at his parents’ place, a few reunions with old friends, some time off until it’s time to start his new job in Australia… it’s a good plan, if it wasn’t for one slight detail: the clock is ticking down to his thirtieth anniversary, and his sort-of-early-mid-life crisis is ticking along with it. An ex-girlfriend will complicate things… but then again, this sort of thing wouldn’t be worth reading if it didn’t feature tons of complications.

Fortunately, Gayle can write as well as Fielding (sigh; I need a bigger data sample. I really should start reading some Nick Hornby) when it comes to presenting the complexities of today’s younger adults. He does so from a male perspective, granted, but it doesn’t matter much one way or the other; it would be highly presumptuous to consider Turning Thirty as an examination of what it means to be thirty in today’s western democracies, but the novel is peppered with flashes of recognition that will be shared by most. (Even die-hard geeks like me get a chance to nod their heads as one character maintains that the last three hours of “Babylon 5” were the best thing ever broadcast on TV.) The dry British tone is just distant enough to offer something new to North-American readers.

While the protagonist’s lack of decisiveness can be annoying (and depressing) at time, Turning Thirty is easy reading; just sit down on a sunny afternoon and turn the pages. There are plenty of laughs, plenty of good turns of phrases and plenty of plain good fun. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the wimpy resolution (which doesn’t seem solidly motivated), but plenty of room is left in the epilogue to suggest that the likely couple will get to snoggle a lot once the final page is turned.

All told, this is one worthwhile non-genre novel. Deftly mixing romantic pains, growing-up concerns, a heavy dose of nostalgia with assorted musings on modern life, Turning Thirty is the kind of novel worth reading, worth sharing and worth discussing. Not perfect, but good enough that it doesn’t matter.

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