September 28, 2009
I’ve never understood the high praise which seems to greet each new book by William Trevor. Having read a couple of collections of his stories, and three longer works (My House in Umbria, Felicia’s Journey, The Story of Lucy Gault), I’ve thought of him as an efficient sketcher of lives of quiet desperation, but otherwise – well, otherwise I haven’t thought of him much. Nonetheless I am wildly susceptible to hype, and when his Booker-longlisted novel Love and Summer was published to critical delight, I thought I might like to read it after all. This feeling was galvanized when I saw Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent of the Irish Times, enter an hysteria of grief over its omission from the shortlist. In a short article, she laments the loss no fewer than eight times. (She also gets wrong the name of Hilary Mantel’s last novel as well as the number of novels Mantel has published, and mistakenly calls The Quickening Maze Adam Foulds’ fiction debut. Grief does funny things to people.)
Love and Summer is set in the fictional Irish town of Rathmoye around the late 1950s. It depicts a tiny ripple or flaw in the fabric of an otherwise eventless summer.
Compact and ordinary, it was a town in a hollow that had grown up there for no reason that anyone knew or wondered about. … Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there.
In fact, “that nothing happened was an exaggeration.” The book shows that things have been happening to people, even if not spoken about, for decades: and they will go on happening. As the book begins, Mrs Connulty, the matriarch of a family central to life in Rathmoye, has died. The late Mrs Connulty “had been disappointed in her husband and her daughter,” and even her beloved son, Joseph Paul, did not achieve his ambition to become a priest. “The vocation slipped away from him, lost beneath the weight of his mother’s doubt that he would make a success of the religious life. In the end her doubt became his own.” His sister, whom we know only as ‘Miss Connulty’, is buttoned-up, for reasons initially unspecified (“She had been young when the trouble happened. She hadn’t let herself go when it was over. She hadn’t since”).
The Connultys are not the only family haunted by the past. Dillihan, the farmer, is crippled with guilt and shame over the death of his wife and child many years ago (“on Sundays he went to early Mass because it was less crowded”), but has since remarried, to Ellie, a girl introduced as a housekeeper: “We’ll try her so,” he said to his sisters. Ellie, for her part, felt “it was a kindness when she had been offered marriage; it would have been unkind on her part if she’d said no.” But she is young and perhaps with unacknowledged ambitions of a life greater than Rathmoye can offer, and feels with a special heaviness the weight of its stagnant days:
She sat in the yard in one of the kitchen chairs, with her tea and the Nenagh News. A pickaxe had been found in the boot of a car when its driver was arrested, declared drunk. Ore had been discovered near Toomyvara; Killeen’s Pride had won twice at Ballingarry. Top prices were being paid for ewes.
This seemingly gentle depiction or rural life even affords a moment of comedy – more against the reader’s expectations than the town’s way of life – when after the funeral, Ellie can’t go back to the Connulty house because “the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.” It is Ellie who notices a stranger in the town during Mrs Connulty’s funeral. He is Florian Kilderry, from nearby Castledrummond. Half-Italian, with artist parents (both dead), he’s an exotic bird in Rathmoye, cycling around the town taking photographs.
Much more than that would reveal the heart of the story, though the central connection is not difficult to guess. So it is, as expected, to some extent a story of quiet desperation, as Florian, “in spite of tenderness, in spite of affection for a girl he hardly knew, [...] made a hell for her.” But it is full of lovely things, fleeting moments such as the sequence of thoughts about Florian which distract Ellie from her conversation, and a series of intercut scenes where Connulty brother and sister work through their own reflections on Miss Connulty’s determination to come between Florian and Ellie. It would be nice to say that this is because her mother has just died, and grief does funny things to people, but this hunger in Miss Connulty is a sort of vicarious revenge for what was done to her in her youth: “the time for pain was over, yet her wish was that it should not be, that there should always be something left – a wince, a tremor, some part of her anger that was not satisfied.”
As a tale of how the past and future unfold from the present, and how each affects the other, it could be predictable – to some extent, is – but the slightness is appropriate to the subject matter of high emotions played out in a low-key style, and of unspoken memories. A weak link is the character of Orpen Wren, an elderly man with a dementia-type condition, who circuits the town seeking answers and getting nowhere (“it can’t be much of a joke,” says one of the townspeople of him, “your memory turned inside-out for you”). His primary purpose as a character seems to be providing a sitcom-style moment of anticipation and bathos, when his confused words strike Dillahan with horror. However he does remind us that memories turned inside-out might be less troublesome than those which are so strong and true, that they continue to cause pain and problems for decades to come.
September 23, 2009
I wrote about Adam Foulds’ second novel The Quickening Maze a few months ago. But when the book was longlisted for the Booker Prize – which, ahem, I predicted – and I looked back at my post, I saw that I had said very little specific about its qualities. My excuse is that I read it in what might be described as a febrile state of mind, and didn’t write it up until a few weeks later, when all I could remember was that I had liked it a lot. So when the book went one better and hit the shortlist, I decided I had to give it another go, or face an eternal position in the bloggers’ hall of shame.
The Quickening Maze describes two years in the lives of those in and around High Beach Private Asylum in Epping Forest, in the late 1830s. The asylum comprises Fairmead House – “full of gentle disorder, idiocy, convalescence” – and Leopard’s Hill Lodge , “full of real madness, of agony, of people lost to themselves.” For a short book, the cast of active characters is considerable. Central are Dr Matthew Allen, owner of the asylum, “chemical philosopher, phrenologist, pedagogue and mad-doctor”, as one academic described him; Alfred Tennyson, then a budding poet who stays near the asylum (for the “different atmosphere”) while his brother Septimus is admitted there; and inmate John Clare, nature poet, out of favour with London publishers (but “the painful heat of hope” is always there) and increasingly out of his mind.
Allen, a responsible and patrician ruler of his community of lunatics, is no stranger to incarceration himself, and longs to make amends for his days in debtor’s prison by renewing his fortune through technological innovations. “He was tired, very tired of the mad and their squalor, and the stubborn resistance to cure of the majority. His mind strained for an idea of something else to do, some expansion.” Tennyson has to contend with the attentions of Allen’s daughter Hannah, on the hunt for a husband: when the Tennyson brothers arrive in their carriage, “through the trees she felt them approaching, an event approaching.” Once she sees them both, ”she wanted desperately to know which of these two men her interest should fall upon.” (Sadly for her, Tennyson, like John Coetzee, is “deficient in animal spirits”.) Clare’s madness renders him both free of responsibility but imprisoned by his fantasies: he seeks Mary, “the sweetest of his two wives,” in reality a childhood sweetheart who died. “Time’s walls were the strangest prison.”
Clare is happy only when he is communing with gypsies outside the asylum walls, away from its structures and society. The nature poet feels at home amidst loving descriptions of the dismemberment of deer (“the men had to kick at the dogs who were crowding round the trench to lap at blood”). He perceives his identity to shift: he is Byron, or Jack Randall, boxer. In a novel featuring two poets, written by a poet, it’s no surprise that the prose is so beautifully punchy, expressive and compact, visual and sensual:
For hours as he walked, he re-enacted the incident with much more satisfying and violent conclusions. He could have unleashed his strength. He could have given Stockdale a lick of boxer John, and that would have shown him. Repeatedly Stockdale staggered away, apologetic and impressed, feeling his face, blinking at the blood on his fingertips. John was magnanimous, feeling that as long as the blackguard had learned his lesson, they would say no more about it. Or he didn’t, and John carried on until the man lay knocked out on the ground, breathing through scarlet bubbles.
The fine prose – really a delight in every paragraph – made The Quickening Maze a pure pleasure to read from start to finish. (Even when a scene begins, “He hasn’t evacuated for three weeks now…” and some eye-watering treatment ensues.) The language is beautiful but unforced – and despite its lavish eye for detail, it’s also spare enough that the reader can never let up attention. It gives the impression that Foulds knows his characters so well that he has stripped their scenes bare of unnecessary explanation, leaving just enough for the reader to recreate his story. A winning scene takes place between Allen and his brother Oswald, “frightened, scared and strict,” a Sandemanian; the short scene fills us with the family past so effectively that it makes a satisfying story in itself (“Typical of him to arrive stealthily like this, unannounced, and full of messages about himself, all his little flags flying”).
But the wide net of characters is also the book’s main weakness. Flitting from person to person, though all are well drawn, gives the book a diffuse and unfocused feel. The individual stories, despite the geographical overlap, do not have much in common other than as portraits of various struggles through “the maze of a life with no way out, paths taken, places been.” When Foulds does attempt to bring together most of the characters in one place – for the wedding of Allen’s daughter Dora – the result is one of the weakest scenes in the book. I began to think that Tennyson, and Hannah’s search for love, could have been omitted altogether, and the meatier stories of Clare and Allen’s respective ups and downs given the prominence they deserve.
Nonetheless The Quickening Maze remains a seductive and devourable read, a pointer to Foulds’ considerable gifts. His first book won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year prize, his second the Costa Poetry Award, and his third has been Booker shortlisted. To adopt the author’s practice of providing flashes forward to what the future holds for his characters, let me predict a safe place in Granta’s next Best of Young British Novelists issue. Meanwhile, clear a space in your reading schedules: Adam Foulds is here to stay.
September 19, 2009
Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room seems to be a popular favourite among those reading the Booker Prize shortlist. Its shortlisting was the tipping point I needed to make me read it after KevinfromCanada offered it early praise, which had lodged it in my mind as one to watch … or read … eventually. However it may have been the high expectations thereby established which made it something of a disappointment for me.
The Glass Room has been described as a book where the central character is a building, the Landauer House in Mesto in the Czech Republic (based on the real Villa Tugendhat in Brno, designed by Mies van der Rohe). It is commissioned by Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a motor magnate and his wife, when they meet architect Rainer von Abt while on honeymoon in Venice. Or, as von Abt prefers to style himself, “a poet of space and structure.” The Landauers, in love with the future, agree to let him build their new home, but von Abt wishes to work not in stone and concrete but in glass and steel.
‘Ever since Man came out of the cave he has been building caves around him,’ he cried. ‘Building caves! But I wish to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit.’
This glass space (der Glasraum) turns out to be the extraordinary open plan lower level which he designs for this modernist masterpiece. “The impact of the place overwhelms visitors, especially those who are used to riches being expressed in things, possessions, the ornamental bric-a-brac of the wealthy, and instead discover here the ultimate opulence of pure abstraction.” It is an extraordinary creation, but it is beautiful only while the Landauers are happy in it, living full lives and surrounded by family, workers and friends. The most significant friend is Hana, introduced to us in a miraculous four-page scene where her relationship with Liesel Landauer is established: and if the book has a central human character it is her.
Hana’s introduction coincides with discoveries of divisions between the Landauers. They sleep in separate rooms; Hana is disliked by Viktor but loved as a sister by Liesel; while Viktor, a man of energy and appetite, begins to find one kind of satisfaction elsewhere. It is Hana, too, who nods to the reader by reminding Liesel that “it’s too good to last. … The good times. All this. The world we live in.” Sure enough, the 1930s are passing, the Nazis are on their way, and their new laws elsewhere in Europe mean that “Viktor has come to feel his Jewishness.”
When they leave the house, not only does it lose its life (“A house without people has no dimensions. It just is. An enclosed space, a box”) but also its purpose in the book. The Landauers occupy their house for the first half of the book – about 200 pages – and we know them intimately. After this, the house passes through various uses – a laboratory for Nazi racial profiling tests, a therapy space for disabled children – but the characters come and go, are never well established, and all the time I was thinking, “But what about the Landauers?” Fortunately we do return to them regularly, and Hana continues to play a central role, but her relationship with Stahl in Part 2 ends in melodrama which seems out of place. Thereafter the pace steps up too quickly and the book never regains the poise of its first half.
The Glass Room, with its wide time frame, cast of characters, and historical overview, is an ambitious work, but it seems to show above all that books like this are hard to do well. It also seems keen at times to hit the reader over the head, as when highlighting the futility of racial profiling. When Stahl tells Hana that the tests are “very straightforward”, she responds (in the last line of a chapter), “But human beings are not straightforward. They are very complex.” The point is reiterated, in ironic terms, 70 pages later. There are also a couple of coincidences or neatnesses which strain the reader’s credulity.
Mawer has written a workmanlike piece of literary fiction (it even says Literary Fiction above the barcode on the back), but in a Booker shortlist that contains a novel as arresting and original as Coetzee’s Summertime, this doesn’t seem to be quite enough. It is a well done example of its type, and contains plenty to chew on from 20th century politics to the eternal mysteries of the human heart – but it never set my pulse racing, except once, with a risky homage to another writer (“Behind the glass wall snow is falling. It is falling over the whole city, out of a sky as heavy and sombre as a funeral shroud. It is falling on the soldiers in the Sudetenland, and the soldiers in the Czech lands as they try to consolidate the hurriedly improvised border. It is falling on the triumphant and the dispossessed, on those that have and those that have not…”).
While they are exiled from their home, Liesel Landauer occasionally wonders when they can go back. “But you can’t go back, can you?” someone else tells her. “You can only go forward.” I must admit that for the last hundred pages or so, the only thing keeping me going forward through The Glass Room was momentum. It is a book of many aspects, some done well, but as an account of Jewish suffering in Europe under the Nazis, it seemed particularly weak. This might have been because whereas other such books I’ve read were based on experience, Mawer is clear that his work is the result of thorough research. It may have been this that gave the book for me a certain soullessness, as though the cold glass and steel of the Landauer house was what the story was constructed out of too.
September 15, 2009
Nevil Shute was always one of those authors I intended to read, but my excuse for not having done so was that his books weren’t available in nice editions in the UK. (I didn’t say it was a very good excuse.) Until recently, the curious House of Stratus kept him in print here, in editions that looked more like textbooks than novels. Now, Vintage Classics have reissued all his novels, though only four (A Town Like Alice, Pied Piper, Requiem for a Wren and this one) have been given cover illustrations. The rest are, I understand, print-on-demand editions and have identical text-only covers a little like Faber poetry books.
When I saw that On the Beach was published in 1957, three years before Shute’s death, I wondered if it was a rare example where an author’s most famous book is one written late in his career. The reason why On the Beach is so well known is easily seen: its bold conceit is that it describes the last months of human life on earth following a nuclear war.
The 50s and 60s were a boom time for popular dystopias, and the loose environmental future-fear of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! probably explain why they’re once again in vogue. Shute’s springboard in On the Beach, however, was specifically Cold War-related: China and Russia have exploded thousands of nuclear warheads in territorial battle. This is conveyed in a needless ten-page dialogue to explain to the reader how the nuclear devastation came about. I’d have preferred it to remain unspecific, though the details were probably more effective and frightening for readers at the time (the book is set a few years in the future, in 1963).
As a result of the war, the whole northern hemisphere has been devastated by radiation, and no humans survive (though dogs and rabbits will outlive them: no mention of cockroaches though). Winds are bringing the radiation south, and one of the last countries to be affected is Australia. By the time we join the narrative, even northern cities like Darwin have succumbed to radiation death, and Melbourne is a holdout. We join a series of largely undifferentiated characters for their last days.
Rather like The Death of Grass and The Day of the Triffids, the spirit of 1950s British stiff-upper-lip remains (Shute was born in England but settled in Australia after the war.) There is little hysteria, other than one affecting scene – at least to a new parent like me – where a couple discuss what will have to be done to their baby when the clouds come. The only signs of a crumbling of social order are in the last days, when shopkeepers no longer care whether they receive payment: but continue to turn up each day and serve their customers. Unlike later writers such as Golding or Ballard, Shute seems to be assuring us that the veneer of civilization is robust. At times the stoicism seems parodic, as characters joke about the suicide pills being made available by the government.
“Everybody’s after these,” she said, smiling. “We’re doing quite a lot of business in them.”
He smiled back at her. “I like mine chocolate coated.”
“So do I,” she said. “But I don’t think they make them like that. I’m going to take mine with an ice-cream soda.”
(Smiling seems to be Shute’s shorthand for characters who are in a good mood. When they’re really happy, there’s a lot of grinning.) Out of context it looks like a satire on social mores (“You’ve got to take what’s coming to you and make the best of it”), but even when a character does express fear, they’re quickly tramped down. One character wishes she were dead already: “it’s like waiting to be hung.” “Maybe it is,” says her companion. “Or maybe it’s a period of grace.”
This made me think of parallels with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, where the characters and their truncated lives represent us all. Similarly, On the Beach could be an extension of all our lives taken to the extreme: we all know that we will die sooner or later, so why bother continuing to plant flowers for next season, taking part in car racing, or any of the other quotidian tasks that the characters here do? As a distraction? As work for work’s sake? (“Even if we don’t discover anything good, it’s still discovering things.”) Because the alternative is, literally, nothing?
There is the occasional joke, sometimes gallows humour (“Before the war it had probably been the best club in the Commonwealth. Now it certainly was”), and sometimes a sort of poking fun at how human insularity is abandoned at just the wrong moment, when one woman says she can’t imagine how American towns must look devoid of life, then adds, “I never saw them, of course. I’ve never been outside Australia.” Surprisingly, there is almost no suggestion that anyone expects a life after death, though this enhances Shute’s bleak vision.
On the Beach is old-fashioned and a traditional popular novel, with a good deal of exposition in dialogue (“We’re all going to get it. We’re all going to die of it. That’s why I want to tell you just a bit about it,” begins one such reader-friendly prompt.) Yet part of the appeal is the fustiness of the dialogue and telling – which presumably they weren’t when it was published half a century ago. (Abbreviations, unchanged in this new edition, are equally archaic: frig for refrigerator, and bizarrely, it’ld for ‘it would’.) A period piece, the interest of On the Beach – a prime slice of apocalypse fiction from the middle of the last century – is more cultural than literary. For a book by a writer known as a popular storyteller, there’s not much story in this book, other than The End is more and more nigh. I intend to read one or two of his others to see if they appeal, but I do wonder, if it wasn’t for the high concept idea behind On the Beach, whether Shute would still be read today at all.
September 11, 2009
Simon Crump’s book Neverland would probably have passed my (and many others’) notice but for two small matters. First, it was shortlisted for the Guardian ‘Not the Booker Prize Prize’ as a result of an enthusiastic voting campaign by Leeds United fans. Second, this book which offers us several fictional presentations of Michael Jackson was published, coincidentally, shortly after Jackson’s sudden death in June of this year. Indeed, Crump says that he finished writing the book a few hours before Jackson died.
I described Neverland simply as a ‘book’ above because it seems to straddle a line between novel and stories. The back cover refers to it as a “collection”, yet it clearly has unity of purpose and, to some extent, character – though the extent of that unity of character is not always clear. There are 72 ‘chapters’, many of which are stand-alone, flash fiction type stories, varying from a few lines to a few pages. Others are parts of longer narratives. One of these describes a very long conversation between Michael Jackson and Uri Geller, where Michael breaks biscuits in two (“his eyes grew a shade darker”) accompanied only by the “muted hum of the Frigidaire” as he fails time and again to get around to asking Uri a question, and mispronounces the word ‘electric’. It’s a series of running jokes, and like most running jokes, all the broken biscuits and muted hums become funnier the first few times, reach a plateau, and then become annoying.
The book is full of gags like this, that are either very silly or don’t quite work. This seems deliberate on Crump’s part. He cripples his jokes, just as Stewart Lee does when he drives a gag into the ground through overlong repetition, which in itself becomes funny, then not funny, then funny again. The fact that the joke is not funny is itself a joke. It might be taken as reflection of the mixture of horror and amusement that anyone watching Michael Jackson’s life over the last couple of decades will have experienced.
The dumb kid had written Par Avian on the envelope instead of Par Avion, so the letter had been delivered by bird and as a result was almost six months late.
The main narrative in the book, broken up through its entire length, is related by Lamar (“250 lbs of fine lookin hombre“), a former assistant to Elvis who falls asleep for 16 years after the King’s death, and wakes in 1993 to take up a post in Michael Jackson’s entourage. (“There’s Disney music coming out of the fiberglass rocks in the rosebeds…”) Here, Michael is still married to Lisa Marie Presley, and Crump passes up no opportunities to make the reader squirm with the grotesquerie of life in Neverland (“I made love to Lisa in my Mickey Mouse pyjamas … One day she’s going to give me a little boy of my own”). Michael is innocent, demanding, deluded.
There are other strong stories, the best of which is ‘Gold’, and where Michael appears as a Klondike prospector. Yet here, as with other stand-alone items, the connection with Michael Jackson seemed tenuous at best, and I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that these stories had been running around in Crump’s mind independent of the Neverland project, and that he simply named a character Michael in each one to corral it into the pen. But then Crump positively encourages such misreading – you can see the glint in his eye from here – by having the Michael in Lamar’s story speak in Wikipedia entries, or to have British pop culture references from Pulp to Cannon and Ball pepper the dialogue.
Yet as Crump wrote the book while Jackson was still alive, the predominant sense is of Michael as a figure of fun. There is no indication that the real Michael Jackson had considerable talent (if long since squandered), or any appeal to people who are not (as a group of fans in the book is described) “spasticated.” Now that he has – temporarily – been rehabilitated, the tone of the book may seem out of touch and out of time; or it may seem like a refreshing antidote to hushed and over-respectful biographies. And anyway, the book is not without its own peculiarly expressed sympathy.
Michael was born with gold in his mouth.
He left his mom without too much trouble. He shimmied out. The midwife held him in her white-gloved grip. She struck his face and a shining nugget plopped onto the soiled sheets of the birthing table. He sang and he danced. He bit off his cord. He slipped on a white glove of his own and signed a few autographs.
‘We love you Michael,’ they all said.
‘I love you more,’ he said back.
They called a priest. After all, a minute-old baby isn’t supposed to act that way.
‘Where is the gold?’ he cried. ‘Where is the gold??’
For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back.
We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.
Neverland seems like a work of conceptual art, reflecting what the reader brings to it; though the same point might be made of most books with a flash of originality to them. It is almost impossible to extract quotes from the book without misrepresenting its tone: funny, ridiculous, surreal, mesmerically repetitive. It is likely to madden as many people than it delights, and demands a fair amount of reader goodwill. Yet, as with Michael himself, I felt considerable affection for this mad, brilliant runt of the litter.
September 7, 2009
David Denby’s Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits seeks to do two things. The first is to introduce the word ‘snark’ into everyday language, an attempt as doomed as was Malcolm Gladwell’s to augment the dictionary definitions of blink and outliers. In fact Denby suggests ‘snark’ is in common use already, meaning lazy, snide, knowing abuse, usually conducted in the public arena. Well, I’ve heard of snarky, a sort of elision of sarky and sneaky, which is not quite the same thing. He also tries too hard to find a parallel for his ideas with Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, and doesn’t explain why David Miliband appears on the cover of the UK edition.
Anyway, Denby’s other, and primary, objective is to highlight the increasing use of snark and here he is more successful. Indeed, for me the strongest part of this short book was the first half, where Denby outlines a history of such abuse, from Juvenal and Pope to Private Eye and Spy magazine (the inclusion of these last two cleverly provides a point of reference for both UK and US readers). Here he writes of Private Eye‘s origins but his comments are equally valid to describe the magazine now:
Like Juvenal, the Private Eye gang had a ruling-class mentality without a ruling-class portfolio. In terms of authority, they were outsiders, but their values were strictly those of the insiders – but insiders whose position in the great world had diminished. The attitude of the magazine was paradoxical: “We are defeated, but everyone else is ridiculous. We have no power, but we will win this game through the strength of our disdain.”
It is such monotone snarking that I find so unappealing in Private Eye‘s literary review pages. What value is the opinion of someone who only ever tells us what they hate? The same applies to John Crace’s tiresome Digested Read in the Guardian. These examples seem to embody the “negative security of perpetual suspicion” which Denby identifies from Jedediah Purdy’s For Common Things. Such ironists, says Purdy, “do not want the things in which [they] trust to be debunked, belittled, torn down,” exactly as they do to others’. “So [they] keep [their] best hopes safe in the dark of [their] own unexpressed sentiments and half-hidden thoughts.” In Private Eye too, as in Spy, Denby notes the tendency to ascribe a repeating insult to individual names – though one might consider ‘Piers Moron’ to be fair game – “as if imposing a label were some fearless act of social criticism.”
Denby identifies the features of snarking commentary, and highlights examples such as the media’s celebrity see-saw and the opinion pieces of Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Here I felt somewhat sidelined, as I do when I read Al Franken’s books and he bases whole chapters around US politicos that I’ve never heard of. Similarly, if anyone reading the book feels John McCain would have been a better choice for US president than Barack Obama (I said if), they may wonder why almost all Denby’s examples of political snark come from right-wing commentators. Denby is also fogeyish when it comes to the internet, laying the common charge that blogs and the like are a hive of mindless abuse. Well, fuck him. Snark is an entertaining read, best when telling us what we already suspected and why, rather than when trying to crowbar it all into a handy portmanteau.
September 4, 2009
I discovered William Boyd’s fiction relatively recently, with the publication of his last-but-one novel Any Human Heart (2002). It is one of his finest novels, and exemplifies his knack for laying out a life in full: in that case through fictional diaries; or, in his 1987 novel The New Confessions, via an invented autobiography. These are for me his major works (though I might think that just because they’re also his longest). Elsewhere, with novels like Brazzaville Beach (1990) and The Blue Afternoon (1993), he had a knack of doing very satisfying stories in foreign climes. With his last novel Restless (2006), he turned to the thriller, with great commercial but (to me) less artistic success. I hoped to see a return to form with his new novel.
When I first read about William Boyd’s new novel Ordinary Thunderstorms, I was concerned to hear that the publishers were touting it as comparable to “the action-packed Bourne films.” (I’ve seen only the third one, but I’m guessing the others weren’t any better.) I wasn’t heartened on seeing the book itself, which from the cover would lead the casual reader to believe that Boyd’s only other novel was the middling Restless (“the Richard and Judy bestseller”) – though they can’t be blamed for wanting to trade on his greatest commercial success.
Anyway it turns out to be reasonable enough marketing, as Ordinary Thunderstorms opens with what could be described as a voice-over, either playful or cheesy, and reminiscent of Orson Welles opening The War of the Worlds. “Soon, in a minute or two, a young man will come and stand by the river’s edge, here at Chelsea Bridge, in London. There he is – look – stepping hesitantly down from a taxi, paying the driver, gazing around him … He crosses the road, having no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all.”
By page 8, this ordinary hero – Adam Kindred – finds himself in a strange flat with a knife in his hand, blood on his knuckles and a man dying before him with the words, “Whatever you do, don’t -” It’s so ridiculously cute, such a Hitchcockian McGuffin, that it defied my initial instinct – to roll my eyes, tweet FFS!, and move on to something more worthwhile – and kept me reading to see how shameless Boyd could get. (The answer, I realised, when timings are described in Matthew Reilly-style “milliseconds”, and a chapter ends with the words, “And then everything went black,” is a bit more shameless yet.) For the first 50 pages or so I did wonder if what I was reading would turn out to be a story within a story à la Cloud Atlas, a manuscript a character is reading for a B-movie thriller – Boyd is not above such trickery, as his fictional biography Nat Tate showed – but it turns out he’s playing with a straight bat.
In such bog-standard thriller territory, the details hardly matter, but for the curious, we have climatology, the evils of Big Pharma, business power struggles, crackpot religion, prostitution, and maritime policing, among other elements. There is unleavened exposition, cut-and-paste description, predictable love interest, and (deliberately?) duff prose like “his left thigh and left shoulder were competing for first place in the throbbing-pain stakes,” or “the Kindred chapter in Jonjo Case’s life was about to be concluded – with extreme prejudice”. Boyd in an interview says that the book is about “what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.” But what brings Adam Kindred to this place is such a web of implausibilities that it doesn’t get the reader thinking anything other than, “This is completely ridiculous”. The clichéd presentation limits engagement with the issues. However, as I got past the first couple of hundred pages or so, the storyline did begin to get under my skin and I found myself quite racing through the second half.
Moreover, there is an interesting portrait here of the various webs of society in London and how they can break through the usual barriers and encounter one another – a little like in London Fields or White Teeth. And there are interesting characters, such as the businessman who hates his vain brother-in-law, or the mother (called Mhouse) who crushes Diazepam into her son’s food to get some peace and quiet, or the police officer who lives with her father in a sort of symbiotic dependence and distrust. There is a true sense of life to much of it. But equally there are stock characters like Jonjo Case, the ruthless contract killer with an army background, and typical implausibilities such as an everyman hero who has such an interest in delving into sinister stuff which is none of his business that he really should be driving the Mystery Machine.
As I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, began to think that it may not – or not only – have been Boyd’s intention to see if he could write a thriller-by-numbers, but also to see if he could present a multi-faceted narrative with several ’rounded’ characters (most of his novels are heavily focused on a single person). This he does, and his ability to keep the plates spinning, to work out the nuts and bolts of fiction, is not in doubt. There is pleasure too in watching the trajectories of the various characters – he goes up, she comes down – the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
By the end it felt like the best book Ben Elton has never written, or like Iain Banks on a good day. Unfortunately this also makes it (politeness forces me into the following understatement) not one of the best books William Boyd has written, at least if you’re expecting it to demonstrate his usual strengths as a writer. The flipside of that, of course, is that it displays other strengths as a writer that I didn’t know he had.