September 4, 2009
William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms
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.