Martin Amis wrote, of Humbert Humbert’s essential unreliability, “let us remember that Nabokov was capable of writing entire fictions . . . in which the narrators have no idea what is going on at all.” Rodrigo Fresán’s Kensington Gardens, the first of the Argentinean writer’s novels to be translated into English, shares with Lolita its unhinged, desperate spokesman; its errant pulse through overfamiliar landscapes; and a heroine—a lost child—”dead on arrival” (Amis again).
Unfurling as the confession of wildly successful children’s book author “Peter Hook,” creator of the time-traveling Jim Yang, Kensington Gardens is also the good kind of biography (indebted to Andrew Birkin’s fine one), of Peter Pan maker J.M. Barrie—not exhaustive, not even strictly true, but laid with the mind’s unruly logic and hierarchies. Barrie recognized that the warfare between children and adults begins at bedtime and sided with the child; Fresán’s Hook warps this by kidnapping the boy signed for Jim Yang: The Movie, and, over a long and dawningly monstrous night (in prison circles this would be called sleep deprivation), telling him his life story alongside Barrie’s. It’s the ’60s: Hook’s the son of aristocrat rockers in London. His father, Sebastian “Darjeeling” Compton-Lowe, of the band “the Beaten aka the Beaten Victorians aka the Victorians,” has a pathological Beatles hatred and seeks to defeat the enemy by becoming “a kind of Beatles Part Two, intent on anticipating the Liverpool quartet’s every move,” which in 1967 means shutting himself up to record Lost Boy Baco’s Broken-Hearted Requiem & Lysergic Funeral Parlor Inc., the band’s Peter Blake–designed magnum opus.
Fresan captures some of that decade’s purity, the idiocy of its inexperience (“This elephant I painted next to your little brother isn’t . . . the Indian god Ganesh: it’s Dumbo,” Hook’s mother tells him), and these discursions are among Kensington Gardens‘ most fun. More sugary, but ultimately one of the book’s deceits, is the treasure it seems to hold out to the lonely child reader—”the happiness we feel when we reach a certain paragraph and understand at last why a chapter’s called what it’s called.” (KG begins, only, on the side of literature.) Later on, Lennon dies. Hook’s at a diner near the Dakota when two policemen come in with walkie-talkies: ” ‘Beatle,’ said one. ‘Dead,’ said the other.”
“Dead people like hit singles”: Barrie, some weeks before his death, wrote, “He who dies is simply one who finds himself a short way ahead in the procession of millions all headed to the same place; the person we lose sight of for a few seconds because we fall behind a little upon stopping to tie our shoelaces.” His failure, if fairly called that, was in being powerless to protect the boys he became guardian of after their mother’s death, the five Llewelyn Davies who together made up Peter Pan. Eldest son George took a bullet in the trenches, and Peter Davies, who became a noted publisher before throwing himself in front of a train at 63, would write, in his Morgue, of the “essential virtue” that went out of the family when George died.
Fresán’s Barrie isn’t a saint, and he wrote because of what he termed “my personality difficulties.” Two days after his wedding, Barrie set down several sentences, among them “Our love has brought me nothing but misery” and “How? Must I instruct you in the mysteries of love-making?” But compare Barrie’s boy-child asexuality to Peter Hook’s outrageously wrongheaded one: Emotionally detached, he extends his detachment to the women he leaves, who “come out of an affair as if emerging from a long bath. Clean. And they dry themselves with fluffy towels.” He counters his first wet dream by undergoing a “deluxe vasectomy.” He has phone sex with an alternately “good” and “bad” girl he calls Wendy and Tiger Lily.
Kensington Gardens, plotless and perorating with the repetition of dreams and the ego at the helm, is in the end too much of a game. Nabokov gives nothing away when Lolita‘s opening page offers, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” But Fresán’s increasingly conceptual ramblings— on time, childhood, memory, lies, shadows—are finally just ways of prolonging the night for a captive, faceless kid who has no chance against a stylist. Fresán writes that for Barrie, “art’s supreme mission . . . has more to do with fantasy than sincerity.” This doesn’t seem precisely right, and a mournful, undeniable sorrow leaps throughout the book’s lives of Barrie and the ruined-from-the-start Hook, who, waiting by the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens for Cat Stevens to pick him up, accidentally ingests acid. The alarm clock in “A Day in the Life,” a reiteration of the clock in the crocodile’s belly, hovers like a curse. To be among the living is to be guilty (both Barrie and his Hook descendant lost brothers in early life). Books, and love, are guilty because they pervert childhood, which is what Humbert took from Dolly and what Hook did without. But in Kensington Gardens, there isn’t even the tragedy of desire.