Reviewed by Annabel
Up until now, Meg Rosoff has primarily been known for her seven novels for teens, for which body of work she has just won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s richest prize for children’s literature. (I reviewed her seventh novel Picture Me Gone for Shiny here.)
Now she has written her first ‘adult’ novel. She sees this as purely a marketing ploy, she doesn’t see any difference between adult and children’s books. When I saw her talk recently at the Oxford Literary Festival she said, ‘My books are not for children, they’re about the relationship between children and adults, about adolescence, about coming of age.’
In Jonathan Unleashed her protagonist is just a little older… a young man in his twenties who works for an advertising agency in New York. Jonathan is flat- and dog-sitting for his brother who has got a job in Dubai. Jonathan is perplexed by the dogs:
Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him.
It’s a great first line. Of course the dogs don’t really talk, but they let us, the readers, read their minds a little and Dante (a border collie) and Sissy (a cocker spaniel) are concerned about Jonathan. Not knowing dogs, he doesn’t realise this and, thinking the dogs are unhappy, takes them to the vet – who turns out to be a young Englishwoman called Clare:
‘I know they’re dogs,’ he said, struggling to explain. ‘But I get a feeling they’re dissatisfied. Dante should be herding sheep, at the very least. He’s so intelligent. And Sissy… she doesn’t complain, but I often get a sense that she’s missing something. Grouse? I don’t know. They both just seem a bit – off.’ He glanced at Dante, whose face was entirely blank. ‘Look at him. Can you see what I mean? Sometimes I get the feeling that he’s… angry.’
‘Untapped potential,’ Jonathan said. ‘Sissy, now she’s not the angry type. But even she’s trying incredibly hard to be cheerful. Sometimes I feel she just ends up feeling sad.’
Jonathan is an indecisive chap, a daydreamer, unfocused and confused by life. He has a girlfriend, Julie, who is his complete opposite. She is really organised and knows what she wants from life; ideally she’d like him to be richer and as organised as she is, but she is intrigued by his ‘otherness’.
In the early days of their relationship, Jonathan sat up at night watching her sleep, while Julie expressed her devotion with expensive sweaters to replace the ancient moth-eaten ones he wore.
He can feel himself hurtling towards the altar; ‘resistance is futile’ (as the Borg say in Star Trek: TNG). You know it can’t work – although Jonathan wonders what being mature and having a mortgage is like, he’s obviously not ready to settle down, and besides, she hates the dogs. This feeling is cemented when Julie says they can go antiquing in Vermont…
The use of antiquing as a verb made Jonathan shrink like a salted slug.
Then, there’s work at a small ad agency where Jonathan is stuck working for a client who doesn’t require him to use any of his imagination to create daily deals ads for their stationery business, ‘3 for 2 on all gel pens, this week only!’ Jonathan would love to use his artistic abilities drawing comics for them with little story arcs, but that’s not to be. He hates his job.
It’s not until there’s a change of personnel in the agency, that Jonathan begins to slowly take control of his life. The androgynous new PA to the boss, Greely, is the catalyst, and between Greely and the dogs Jonathan is gently nudged towards working out what he really wants.
Rosoff worked in advertising for over 15 years. Just like Jonathan, she says it was the wrong job for her although it was a good apprenticeship for writing. The agency in this book isn’t exactly Mad Men, but it is a very mad place. Jonathan’s frustration clearly comes off the page and Rosoff has said she toned her own experiences in the advertising business down for the novel.
Rosoff was inspired by Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon in creating Jonathan; Lucky Jim being one of those classic novels that you just chuckle your way through. That’s also the case with Jonathan Unleashed which I adored from start to finish, chortling along with our hero as he lurches from one disaster to the next. After the seriousness and darkness of her previous novels, it is lovely to find her letting loose her wacky sense of humour – she has a great ear for a one-liner. Jonathan Unleashed is full of gags, but set against a coherent story arc that you hope will lead to a happy ending, even if it’s not the one you may expect!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed (Bloomsbury, 2016). 978-1408870778, 288 pp., hardback.
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