Karen Campbell’s eighth novel, her most ambitious to date, opens with a great misdirection. A drunken, scantily dressed young woman sits alone in Glasgow’s George Square with a chamber pot on her head and fingers her engagement ring. She went to her bachelorette party, but her friends seem to have abandoned her and you’re led to believe it’s her story we’re about to read. It is however only the occasion of the history which belongs to a SDF, Kelly, along the bench of it. The engagement ring will somehow be left with Kelly and the novel recounts his attempt to return it to the girl, although she does not know her name, only that she is from Galloway. She will travel to find her. The ring might help change her life, but it’s the journey and the wide variety of people she’ll meet that must do it.
Thus, Paper Cup is a quest novel and a picaresque novel. Like all good quest novels there are journeys, the story of Kelly’s physical journey and the internal story of what is going on in her mind and how it may or may not change her. What she will experience on the road will prove to be a moral education.
It is therefore a novel in a classic tradition like Fielding’s Tom Jones or Stevenson’s Kidnapped, however different they may be in mood and setting. There are picaresque novels that are just one fucking adventure after another, leaving the main character at the end no different than they were at the beginning, but Paper Cup is more than that. Of course, Kelly’s experiences and adventures on the road and the people she meets are interesting themselves; the novel would be boring if they weren’t, and there’s a nice variety of them. But their particular interest lies in what Kelly does with them and their effect on her.
Campbell began with detective novels, efficient police procedures. Paper Cup is in a sense considerably more ambitious. The picaresque novel is, or can be, liberating, the author liberated from the tyranny of the plot. On the other hand, such release can result in self-indulgence, and his new venture is not entirely free from it. The scenes are too long, sometimes it seems just because she had fun crafting them, so they continue long after their point is clear. Description is expected in a road trip novel, but description obstructs the narrative. It is not necessary to go as far as the French novelist Henry de Montherlant, who declared in his notebooks that “description is always boring”, but a novelist is wise to remember that Stevenson said that no one ever looks a beautiful view for more than five years. minutes. So why talk about it at length?
It’s a good novel, very good even, but it would be even better if it had been cut. At its best, it’s vibrant, well-observed, and meaningful, but too much of life feels like a photograph, not a movie. That’s partly, if not mostly, because Campbell chose to write it in the sadly fashionable present tense, often excellent at description, but not at storytelling. The present tends to freeze the action and it tempts the novelist to dwell excessively on the details. “On and on runs the road”, but the story limps too often.
With that caveat, there is much to appreciate and admire in this generous and often ironic novel: a fine variety of incidents and characters, fine descriptions of Glasgow street life and Kelly’s journey – a both physical and spiritual quest, offering the prospect of recovery and redemption. While there are times when some may find the novel and its message a little sentimental, more readers will surely find pleasure and satisfaction in the humanity of Campbell’s treatment of people who have led difficult lives.
Paper cup, by Karen Campbell, Canongate, 327pp, £14.99