One of the ironies about living in a large city is the fact that one can often feel very lonely even though one is surrounded by millions of people. In any major city around the world, whether it be New York, Paris or Berlin, one is thrust into the beehive of human activity, with everyone rushing to and fro, trying to make a living, trying their best to survive, and most importantly, trying to make meaningful connections. Cities like New York, Paris or Berlin are the kinds of cities where one could see someone, on the subway or the street, and there’s a very good chance you’ll never ever see that person again, despite living in the same geographical space. It’s hard enough for people who are native to their city to get by, try to imagine a newcomer, whether it be someone from a small town who decides to try their hand in the “Big City” or especially, an immigrant.
One other large city in this world where one can easily get lost in the shuffle is, of course, London and it is in London where we follow one year in the life of a writer named Cal. When we first meet him it is Christmas day and he is awakened by the smell of sex and cigarettes in an office where he works with Melanie. There is a pounding at the door and he realizes that once again, he’s going to be fired from his job. Switch to six weeks earlier and we find Cal on a plane to New York City after some heavy drinking and still suffering the after effects of having taken ecstasy a few days before. Then, another flashback, to Christmas Eve, two weeks earlier from the present. Cal finds himself spending his time alone, having a couple of drinks in a pub. Without friends or family to spend the holidays with, Cal decides to get out of his small apartment and try to be amongst the living but the only people around are other lonely types as himself, sitting by the bar next to him. He makes a fleeting “friendship” with them (which he chalks up to people being in the “holiday mood”) and remains there until closing time. Once back out on the street, he decides to head home - drunk. The tube has been shut down for the holidays as well as bus service so despite the December chill and his inebriation, he decides to simply walk home. Along the way he runs into some people who offer to “help” him out - by offering him some weed and to spend some time with him at their apartment, getting in with the holiday spirit. The above are just some of the mistakes in judgment Cal would make over the course of the year in which we are privy to his life.
Leaving London is a circular narrative, which begins more or less at the end of the story, winding its way back over the course of the year. Over the course of that one year, Cal meets many colorful characters. Sofia, a co-worker at the temp job he works at; his boss Alma - a stodgy, middle aged woman who prides herself on running the office with the crack of a whip; Tim - another co-worker who he inadvertently gets fired; Kara - who had invited him to leave his bed and breakfast room and move in with her - is a call girl who has fallen in love with one of her clients; and of course his closest friend Baxter, who doesn’t take life all that seriously and who constantly prods Cal into wild evenings of booze, drugs and sex. Each of these characters have their own back story, all of whom are suffering from their own personal problems and demons. As is Cal, who is basically the nice guy who finds himself being sucked into everyone else’s drama as he tries to deal with his own problems - being alone and trying to make his way in a city that he does not come from, the failure of a serious relationship (brought on by a trip to Greece without his girlfriend) and a looming court date over a drunk and disorderly charge of which he has no memory of. As Cal tries to put the pieces of his own life together, he finds himself picking up the shattered pieces of everyone else’s life around him as well.
Some of this makes for great comedy and there is quite a bit of humor here. The personal dynamics between Cal and the other characters are very realistic and you will sometimes cringe at the mistakes in judgement Cal often makes, feel the anger at those who use him as nothing more than a sounding board or begin playing mind games with him, or feel empathy for his genuine offers to help those around him although they don’t necessarily feel obligated to do so in return. Many of those that Cal meets are people who need him to fulfill a role in their lives and although Cal realizes this, he often finds himself making the same mistake over and over again, often getting himself into more and more trouble as he tries to find his place in the world. Cal is a man with his guard up, watching and sometimes over-analyzing every situation he finds himself in. Sometimes it helps him, other times it unravels what very well might be something good and worthwhile.
The city of London itself plays as a major character in the narrative. For those who have been there it will invoke wonderful memories of the city and for those who have never visited, it will make you want to hop the next plane and shoot right over and walk in Cal’s footsteps. The city’s vastness, in all its glory and wonder, grime and grit, seems to echo Cal’s emotional state at times and his sense of being “lost” and “rudderless” as he struggles to maintain his footing in a place very unfamiliar to him. Cal not only seeks his place within London itself but within his own emotional sphere as well.
Leaving London is a complex narrative with a lot of complex issues to think about and explore. What is the difference between being alone and being lonely? When does one stop “thinking too much” and just open up to the situation as it presents itself? How often does one have to make the same mistakes before one learns the lesson? How does one find their sense of place while feeling alienated in a location where those you meet one day will disappear from your life the next and quite possibly forever? How does one navigate the complex nuances of a relationship when everyone is damaged by their own past events? When does one stop trying to avoid their issues and face them once and for all? These, among many other questions, are brought to the fore as you follow Cal through one tumultuous year of his life. Garry Crystal has a very original voice and I have no doubt that you will enjoy this complex and thought provoking story. Highly recommended.
Rating: * * * * *
This past January, I had the honor to finally meet and hang out with Garry when he paid a visit to New York City. After knowing him and his work for the past 7 or 8 years online, it was great to finally meet the man behind the words. I recently caught up with Garry again to discuss his debut novel.
The writing is very vivid and the storytelling so convincing - add to that the story being written from the main protagonist Cal’s perspective - that it is inevitable that someone will ask how much of it was autobiographical. So to get that question out of the way for our readers, how much of it is autobiographical and how much of it is pure invention?
Thanks. I’ve put the disclaimer at the front of the book re all characters being fictitious but I’d be lying if I said that all of the characters were pure fiction. There are characters that have been invented for the sake of the story and they’re usually composites of people I knew when living in London, Baxter is one example – many of the things he says in the book and the situations he instigates were stolen from real people I knew when living in London. There are plenty of chapters lifted completely from real life, the mugging chapter, the warehouse scene etc. If there is a really stupid thing that the main character does or a dangerous situation that he finds himself in then chances are they did happen.
Cal is a very well developed, very well rounded character, one that many readers will be able to relate to. How did Cal come to be? Was he already a fully formed character in your mind prior to writing or did he develop as the writing progressed?
He wasn’t fully formed in as much as he changes slightly over the course of the year in which the story is set and as I was writing. I knew I didn’t want him to be a particularly likeable character or a hugely strong one either. He’s a cynic who thinks he has all the answers at the start but the things that happen are constantly making him alter his view. He’s constantly questioning as well in the hope that he won’t make more bad decisions if he analyses thoroughly enough, which is in some way his biggest problem.
I tended to see the city of London as not only another major character in the story but also something of a metaphor for being lost and overwhelmed. Sometimes - at least I thought so - the various sections of the city seemed to reflect Cal’s mental and emotional state: the more downtrodden, grimier parts of the city whenever Cal finds himself in another troubling situation or the beauty and splendor of it whenever he finds that moment of peace of mind. Was this intentional or did this just happen organically?
He’s a completely lost character and he’s not in a great state of mind. He’ll fall into situations that most people would sensibility avoid, particularly when going to parts of the city that aren’t all that safe. There’s a certain self-destructive element about his drinking and it’s not as if the character doesn’t realise this but once on that path he no longer really cares. I wrote a sort of a short story called How to be Depressed in London which explains that in big cities, especially when you’re not from that city, you can do what you want and indulge in excess without really caring about the consequences. When the sun is shining and you’re wandering about the West End of London without a care it’s great, you live in a place that other people come to on holiday but then you can find yourself face down in the dirt in King’s Cross fighting off two attackers. The emotional state in relation to the city wasn’t intentional – it’s a beautiful city but wander into the wrong place and you’ll easily find another reality.
There’s a strong sense of lack of permanence throughout the story - in relationships, friendships, jobs, money, etc. This is also reflected in the lives of the other characters in the book, particularly Sofia and Kara. Cal is also very outspoken about his disbelief in God, fate, and other superstitions (such as the tarot reading that Sofia attempts to do with him) and this sort of plays into the idea of life being very fluid and unable to control at times. Was this your intention and if so, can you further elaborate on this?
The temporary theme is consistent with my view of London (at that time), everyone is leaving or arriving or making plans to go somewhere else, and if everyone is leaving then what is the point of investing in anything permanent? When I lived in London I always had these shitty temp jobs and I was basically living from week to week, and the thought of going permanent at these mind-numbingly dull jobs filled me with dread to the point where if I was offered a permanent position I would say no and just move on. The people I would meet, other temp workers, were from other countries and were always talking about their next move to another country, I lived in rented accommodation, moving around the city a lot, nothing whatsoever seemed permanent. For a year I worked two jobs per day from 9am to 10pm, five days per week just to make ends meet and seemed to be constantly travelling the city by underground between jobs and home, and the weekends were just a blur of pubs and drunkenness. It did feel like an uncontrollable rat race during the two job period and there was no finishing line in sight. I don’t think anyone would want that situation to be a permanent way of life although it’s a permanent reality for many people.
Almost everyone in the books leaves London for their own reasons, they’ve had their London phase and I think the Cal character just feels trapped there. Leaving London to him would seem like another failure but he reacts to the alternatives given to him. He doesn’t try and find his own alternative or solution but chooses from the options that are presented to him by other people and this means he has little control at all. He weighs up alternatives instead of thinking of his own alternative.
Baxter is the perfect foil for Cal. While Cal is constantly over thinking and over analyzing the events in his life, Baxter is more carefree, not taking life so seriously and preferring to have fun above all else. He also exerts something of an influence on Cal - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, almost as if he is part of Cal’s own conscience as he tries to work through the various questions and problems he faces in his life. Was this the intention regarding Baxter as a character?
Baxter’s character was intentional, I wanted someone who was the flip side to Cal. Cal has this saying at the start – “maximum fun, minimum effort” but he’s unable to live that whereas Baxter just goes for it and doesn’t give a toss what people think of him, he just carries on regardless. He would be regarded by many as one of life’s winners due to his attitude alone. I’ve had friends like that and they’re great in small doses, just larger than life characters and you can get carried on their wave of exuberance. It’s like a relentless energy they have, this, positive, positive, positive, no negatives but they’re slightly unstable in their own, they’ve just chosen a different way to handle life.
There are quite a few women that move in and out of Cal’s life. We know he is suffering from the breakup with a serious relationship and that experience colors his experiences with these other women who come into his life: Kara, Jade, and especially Sofia. While Sofia seems to have many emotional problems of her own, she also seems to be something of a “challenge” for Cal, often calling him out (or at least trying to) on his behavior and trying to psychoanalyze and finding fault in him although she can’t seem to get a handle on her own issues. She seems to strike more of a chord in Cal than the other women do.
Sofia, to me, is the strongest character in the story; she makes her decisions and sticks to them. All though the story she is moving forward, she can be vulnerable at times and it’s this mix that’s appealing to Cal plus he just can’t work her out given a previous episode in the book. There seems to be a lot of game playing and mind games going on from both characters but the reader can’t see what’s going on in Sofia’s mind, just as Cal can’t. Cal wants everything to run to his timeframe, which is basically – keep prolonging everything as long as you can with Sofia, that way no ultimate decision has to be made and no responsibility is needed. Sofia isn’t going by anyone else’s timeframe. They are both keeping each other at a distance but for their own reasons – Sofia thinks Cal goes around working people out after two minutes whereas she wants to know what people are actually made of and she has her own ways of finding out.
We know that Cal is a writer based upon the job he is offered to write articles for a website for money (there’s also mention of his writing some short stories while hanging out in local cafes). At first, he welcomes it with open arms due to the fact that he can work from home and not have to deal with another office situation. Although he starts making some good money doing what he loves to do, he feels his sense of loneliness and isolation increasing. It is this feeling that allows him to agree to have Sofia move in with him. It works out well for a while before things start to get complicated. On one hand, he seems to want something to happen with Sofia, on the other hand he’s very standoffish, rethinking his decisions again. Sofia as well, as she still tries to overcome her breakup with her boyfriend and the idea of moving to California for work. There is a tension between the two that could only end in one of two ways. Do you think this portion of the story is indicative to the fear and uncertainty people have in trusting one another and just letting go and letting things grow organically in a time when trust is hard to come by?
I think the fear and uncertainty comes after you’ve been through the mill a bit. After a long-term break up you just don’t want to go through a situation that may leave you feeling that shit again and both of these characters have just been through break-ups. These two are also unfortunate in that they’ve met when they’re still feeling raw from their break-ups, maybe if they had met a year or two later everything would have been completely different. They end up being their own little support group and I’m not sure that’s too healthy, it allows people to wallow. Someone told me that the hardest thing for people is actually telling others how they feel - that’s usually left for the person you are closest to, whereas these two have no one else and because they’ve been through a similar situation they relate and the trust builds up - slightly. Some people can jump into another relationship easily, others shut down for a while, there’s no set in stone rule there.
Cal is obviously from somewhere other than England due to his references to “the English”, however his place of origin isn’t specifically mentioned. I assumed that he is from Scotland. Was his place of origin not mentioned for a reason so that it could be just anyone from anywhere who find themselves in a large, unfamiliar city? The ending of the book also seems to hint at this as well, when - while not giving anything away - Cal comes to a particular final realization about his sense of place. Can you elaborate on this?
The main thing I loved about living in London was the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Working as a temp I moved jobs a lot and I would always find myself working with South Africans, Americans, Irish and Australians. We were all roughly the same age and it was a case of work during the day and pubs at the end of the day. But these were temporary friendships mostly, they would end when the job ended or when the person’s visa expired or they went back to their country. These were never destined to be long-term friendships and in some cases everything was very superficial and by that I mean you didn’t need to know each other’s background in detail, you knew this probably wasn’t going to be a long term friendship. Not only were the jobs temporary, so were the friendships.
I didn’t think it mattered where Cal came from just that he wasn’t from the country he was living in to give this extra feeling of uncertainty but I don’t think it actually mattered to him. Although really there are plenty of people who have moved to different countries or different towns and still feel that the locals consider them ‘outsiders’ even after decades of living there. A lot depends on your attitude whether it’s living somewhere else or just going on holiday. Many people have the ‘us and them’ way of thinking when it comes to different nationalities when basically we’re all the same. You can be born and live in the same place all your life and still have this feeling that you don’t belong there but this goes extra for people who move around a lot, when that happens everything feels temporary.
Cal’s trip to New York City to visit Jade seems to be his one last chance and finding his place and it is there he finds some semblance of happiness and even contemplates the idea of moving there. But something happens that changes his mind and before long, he’s back on his flight to London. Is it this experience with Jade that allows Cal to come to a realization about where he actually belongs, or is this just another example of his trying to dodge another complicated situation?
I think the visit to New York was in some way an escape from London and leaving behind his problems there. I mentioned on my blog post about this regarding the film Round Midnight where a character says to Dexter Gordon’s character Dale Turner as he is about leave New York for Paris for a better life, “You know who's going to be waiting for you at the airfield in Paris, don't you? You.” All that has changed is the city. He has feelings for Jade but because of Sofia he hasn’t allowed them to grow much at all. He acts pretty much the same way in New York as he does in London, all that’s changed is the location.
Can you tell the readers about the process of writing this novel? How did the idea come to you? What were your influences, if any. How did it feel, creatively speaking, to have a much broader canvas in which to work and to explore the various ideas and questions posed in the novel?
At the time I started the book I was still living in London and was reading a lot of Kerouac, getting through all of his books on the tube journeys. Someone also gave me a copy of Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Upand that was a book I related to at the time while living in London. But I didn’t really start writing the story until about eight years after leaving London. I had 50 or 80 pages written in London and stalled because I wasn’t too sure what it was supposed to be about or what the actual theme of the book was. With time I saw the theme of a temporary way of life and too much analyzation leading to missed opportunities so I focussed on that more while writing instead of the office politics and drunken incidents that populate the start of the book, time lets you stand back and view things from a different perspective.
One of the questions posed in the story is the vast difference between “being alone” and “being lonely” and this is something Cal talks about at the beginning of the novel when he’s sharing drinks with strangers on Christmas Eve in a pub. Can you further elaborate on this point?
Well some people have said they’ve never felt more alone than when they’re in bad relationships. It’s like when you see the couples sitting in restaurants opposite each other and not saying a word, they can either be enjoying a comfortable silence or just don’t have anything left to say to each other anymore but would rather have that than be completely on their own. It all depends on the nature of the person. I know people who tear their hair out when they’re not in a relationship because they’re not used to being alone. Everyone feels lonely at some point I assume but as the character says, “this is a temporary loneliness”…many of us also assume that singledom isn’t going to last, so enjoy that aspect of life while you can because sometimes it will last for a long time. Again, I suppose it’s how you view life and whether you need other people to make you happy or give your life some value. The feeling of loneliness can also grow, for some, in relation to how many problems you have and if there’s someone to listen or not. It doesn’t take much to make someone feel less lonely but we’re all so afraid of encroaching on others, you just need to look out for the signs. It’s a hard one to find an answer to.
Towards the end of the story, Cal is secure in his new job, offering to volunteer to work on Christmas Eve for the extra money. He seems to go into it without worries, preferring to use the time alone to be out of the apartment and to perhaps write. Then Melanie enters the picture, which brings the narrative full circle. To me, this is a pivotal scene, where the reader gets to know whether or not Cal has learned anything from his experiences. Can you further elaborate on this scene and what it means for Cal?
It is the idea of a full circle in as much as the question is, is he back where he’s started? Life is simply repeating itself and he’s blindly going into another situation in another shit job. He can question and analyse as much as he wants but unless he learns, which I don’t think he does, he’s just going to keep going around in circles. Most of Cal’s insights come to him when he’s drunk or stoned anyway and by the next morning he’s forgotten them. I like the idea that he has no set plan in place and is pretty much just as clueless as anyone else about how to progress with his life.
Apart from Leaving London, Garry is also the author of 4 previous short story collections: The Last Busker in London and Other London Tales, A Relationship: In Pieces, And When The Arguing’s Overand Grand Canyon. For more information, please visit the author’s website.