Fittingly, the narrator of Blake Morrison's The Last Weekend is a secret gambler. However much Ian likes a bet, his risks aren't as large as those Morrison himself takes in having an unreliable narrator describe his own midlife crisis. Morrison gambles significantly on a narrator who seems petulant and maudlin for the first half of this story, devoted to fortysomething friends bringing old rivalries and smouldering crushes to a holiday long weekend. By the time we realize Ian is a manipulative sneak, not a passive whiner, Morrison's bet comes up a winner.
One indication that Canada still hasn't produced the great Canadian cottage novel is the absence of a work devoted to a friendship- and romance-sundering long weekend away in which two or more couples fight, gossip, shift allegiances and repeatedly contemplate infidelity - if not a boozy orgy. Morrison, author of the memoir When Did You Last See Your Father?, dives headlong into these choppy waters.
Shrewdly, Morrison investigates the friendship break-up, not just the romantic break-up. Two couples who claim to see too little of each other in regular life meet at a remote cottage. Some want to idle in nostalgia for their undergrad days while others want to address the new challenges of their maturing years (a surly teen and waning romance for one couple, fertility and career troubles for another). The host couple, lawyer Ollie and his entrepreneurial wife Daisy, have more money but less sex than guests Ian, a teacher, and Emily, a social worker.
Morrison uses the cottage weekend to explore long-term relationships (for both friends and lovers) keenly: their capacity for persistent grudges, their détentes and flash-points. Secrets travel between couples then are unleashed just a few steps across the creaky hall. Solidarity and allegiance wax and wane. Sex is withheld on one front and routine on another. The novel's opening line is accurate (and eventually ironic): "You know how it is with friends - the closer you get, the less you see them for what they are."
In a great Guardian compendium of writers offering writing advice, Jonathan Franzen recommends: "Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly." Ultimately, Ian is a very compelling (alarmingly compelling) first-person narrator, but his draw isn't apparent until the novel's second half. In the beginning, he's capable of interesting social observations and, it seems, emotional honesty. As a child-free teacher, he provides a great social lens. He helps us see that when Daisy and another guest compliment each other's obviously flawed parenting, they're actually flirting.
Ian's confessed fusion of admiration for and competition with his old friend Ollie is also engaging. In the beginning, however, he pretends to be passive and hard done by. We're not simply given flashbacks to a childhood in which he was picked last for sports, spurned by his father and (no joke) received that traumatic wasp sting. As narrator, Ian chooses to emphasize these details and risks, replacing what B.J. Thomas's country song calls "another somebody done somebody wrong song" with a "somebody done me wrong" song.
Crucially, all is not as it seems in The Last Weekend. Ian is not simply an unreliable narrator, but a delusional and manipulative one. This stance is more than legerdemain and less than narrative sadism. Both tenderly and indictingly, Morrison suggests that Ian is delusional and manipulative because so many of us in midlife are. Ian confesses, "What had made my life tolerable till then was that it seemed provisional: a book I could lose myself in but return to the library whenever I chose. Now I realized it was becoming the opposite: fixed, fated, the only story I would ever have." The Big Chill asks when you last got through a week without a rationalization. Each of the characters here, not just Ian, asks how many delusions and mild manipulations get us through our days.
Darryl Whetter is at work on one novel about adult delusions and another about weekends of coupl-ey innuendo. He teaches writing and literature at Université Sainte-Anne.