September 4, 2009

William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms

Posted in Bloomsbury, Boyd William at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms

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.

About these ads

44 Comments »

  1. Nick said,

    I also loved Any Human Heart, but I’ve never been drawn to any of the others. OT sounds like a true curate’s egg, I shall probably pass on that one too.

  2. Lee Monks said,

    So it’s not merely a Banville as Benjamin Black ‘entertainment’ then? Perhaps he fancies himself as the man to bridge literary fiction and pulsating Tesco-shelf ubiquitousness? I remember being genuinely excited at the prospect of Any Human Heart, and this fills me with…meh. Though curiosity will doubtless prevail eventually.

  3. John Self said,

    Well curiosity is the only thing that drew me to the end of it, Lee. Yes, I was entertained through some of it, but if it hadn’t been Boyd’s name on the front I would have given up on it early on.

    Curate’s egg is one way of putting it, Nick! Looking now at the only national press review I can find, I see they come to similar conclusions, though sometimes more bluntly worded:

    …a long, frivolous book that is only a few flowery furnishings away from being an airport thriller. … The book shows all the usual signs of haste, the most obvious being deficient prose.

    I have no doubt it will sell very well, though I’m surprised that that’s enough to satisfy a writer of Boyd’s calibre.

    EDIT: Reviews by Waterstone’s booksellers aren’t much more positive. “Easy philosophical sentiment and moral dilemmas that would be more at home in a Jodi Picoult story.” Ouch!

  4. Mary said,

    So many people recommended “Restless” to me. It was a pleasurable quick read but I didn’t believe in the central character at all and a few days later I couldn’t actually recall the narrative – this book sounds rather similar. I have fond memories of his earliest, very funny, comic novels `A Good Man in Africa’ and `The Ice Cream war’. The problem I had with both `Confessions` and `Any Human Heart’ was the misogynist attitudes of the hero. For sheer page turning `readability’ I think Boyd is up there with Sebastian Faulks but like Faulks they’re both at the top of the second division ( for me anyway – before I get jumped on!)

  5. John Self said,

    I must admit Mary that I haven’t read the early novels you refer to, though I did read Stars and Bars which I thought pretty forgettable. In my view this book is probably not as good as Restless, though looking back at my review from the early days of this blog, it sounds more positive than my memory of it (which to be fair is pretty blank).

    As to the misogyny of John James Todd and Logan Mountstuart in New Confessions and Any Human Heart, well I’d take the view that both characters (particularly Todd) were intended to be quite unsympathetic, at least to begin with. I did feel some empathy for Mountstuart toward the end of Any Human Heart, but to me Todd in The New Confessions was largely a self-justifying monster, and all the more interesting to read because of it.

    I’d agree Boyd is uppermost in the second division, though much more like this book and he’ll be in danger of being relegated. I haven’t read enough Faulks to comment on him.

  6. Nick said,

    Mary – Sebastian Faulks’ sheer page turning readability? I wouldn’t agree there. I tried Human Traces and eventually gave up because of the incredibly long-winded, over-detailed, rambling prose. And I’m not the only one.

    • Mary said,

      Yes I think I’ll have to revise that last comment ( I’m realising I can’t get away with throwaway remarks on this blog!) I’m thinking about Faulk’s`Birdsong’ and `On Green Dolphin Street’ which I enjoyed reading though both were flawed for different reasons. Nick you’re right about his more recent novels – `Engleby’ lies gathering dust upstairs at this very moment. I couldn’t get past about page 20. I haven’t tried `Human Traces’ having been put off by the poor reviews.
      I think I’ve bracketed Boyd and Faulks together because they both write well ( at their best) and they can handle a narrative and characters and they’re British. They also both write novels that range across a series of historical moments which I find interesting. I read so many American novelists who are so much better ( Ford, Norman Rush, TC Boyle, Samuel Baxter…. ) but I wanted to raise the flag half way, two cheers etc .

  7. Cliff Knoetz said,

    Dear Mr. Self,

    I salute this attempt to delve beneath your normal high water line, but to proudly display a true tide-mark of achievement I fathom you’ll need to plunge into danker depths than these. How can you compare this to the work of Reilly? You mention no excessive punctuation, no wasted acreage of page, no onam onoem no sound words – where, if you’ll pardon my brusqueness of tone, is the challenge in this?

    Still, hope isn’t lost while you continue to try. Remember that.

    Yrs n ll srsnss,

    Cliff

    • John Self said,

      OK Cliff, so I overegged that one. It was just Boyd’s cavalier use of “milliseconds” as a real time measurement – I mean, centiseconds I could have lived with – that put me in mind of Matty. And I do hope that some readers here venture over into your amusing bloggerel.

  8. John Self said,

    Oddly, Mary, those are the two Faulks I’ve read, though I can’t remember a thing about them (except that I mustn’t have liked them enough to want to read more of his stuff).

    I’m interested in your list of American novelists. I know Scott Pack is a big fan of Charles Baxter, and I’ve heard great things of Norman Rush (Mating, I think, is the title that springs to mind). By Ford you mean Ford Madox Ford I take it? I have this odd thing where I think I like The Good Soldier – because of what it represents in literary terms – even though I couldn’t finish it. And I have Parade’s End but it’s such a behemoth that it’ll be some time before I get around to it.

  9. Nick said,

    Mary – Let’s hear it for those excellent American novelists, and if British writers are not so good, let’s not mince words. No point in patriotic loyalty for the sake of it! I’ve just read Updike’s Terrorist, which is another American triumph….

    • Mary said,

      On your recommendation I’ve just started reading `Terrorist’ and so far it’s very very good………….

  10. Mary said,

    My `Ford’ is the great Richard Ford rather than Ford Maddox Ford whom I find very heavy going. I thought I’d give `Parade’s End’ a final go last winter and although stonking great texts hold no fear for me I’m afraid I seized up after only a few pages.His style was just too oblique for me.
    I meant to write Charles Baxter (not Samuel Baxter) who wrote the wonderful `Saul and Patsy’ about a Jewish academic who moves to the mid-west to work at a high school. Norman Rush’s `Mating’ discovered in a second hand bookshop in Brighton was one of my greatest reads in the last ten years. So good, that athough I’ve got his second novel `Mortals’ and I’m longing to read it I ‘m using defered gratification in order to give it some serious and special time. I have a soft spot for TC Boyle too – `Drop City’ has a particular resonance for an old hippie like me and it’s very funny.

    • Lee Monks said,

      ‘Mating’ is fabulous, I don’t know anyone else that’s read it. And there’s nothing quite like it, either, as far as I know. Except, perhaps, ‘Mortals’ of course.

  11. Stewart said,

    Have you seen Mark Lawson’s hour long interview with Boyd (on BBC iPlayer)? Much is given over to previous novels, it almost being as if Lawson doesn’t really want to talk much about it either.

  12. John Self said,

    Oops, I can’t believe I scoured my brain for writers named Ford and forgot about Richard! (Doubly embarrassing as Ford Madox Ford wasn’t even American.) He has a new novel out next year called Canada, I believe. His first novel in 20 years that isn’t about Frank Bascombe.

    EDIT: I hadn’t seen that Stewart, thanks for the link.

  13. Richard Ford does spend a fair bit of time in Canada, mainly in Newfoundland. So I would expect a maritime novel. It could be quite interesting — Newfoundland is to Canadian fiction as Ireland is to the United Kingdom.

  14. Sam said,

    I would just like to say I quite enjoyed all three Bourne films.

  15. John Self said,

    Careful Sam, this blog is publicly searchable, you know.

  16. Nick said,

    I will nonetheless concur with Sam, Bourne Trilogy is highly watchable if you seek action. The books are of course better (and have not much in common with the movies).

    I’ve never read Boyd, and after your review I think I never will.

  17. Biblibio said,

    I always feel a little sorry for authors who want to go against their typical style and do something… not amazing. Think of the expectations readers would have from a famous “literary” author who decided to sit down and write a cheap-thrill type of book (whether romance, horror, action, etc.). They’d rip it apart, even if it’s better than the standard. I always feel like it speaks a bit for pen names. Let the author experiment without getting all the rap for it…

    Or just don’t publish truly bad books. But that’s just a crazy notion.

  18. kimbofo said,

    “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.”

    Just how long is this book? And it can’t be much of a thriller if it takes 200-odd pages to get going!

  19. John Self said,

    It’s 400 pages Kim! It does get going before that – see my reference above to page 8 – but it was halfway through before I’d allowed the bad taste of the clunky cheesy thrillerdom of it to leave my mouth, and just let myself follow the (pretty silly but involving) story.

  20. Lee Monks said,

    No compulsion to read this at all, really, but here’s a good interview with the man himself from today’s Guardian.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/sep/12/william-boyd-life-in-writing

  21. Phillip said,

    I have just finished Ordinary Thunderstorms and my feedback is overwhelmingly positive. The story gripping and a ripping good read. I am going to give my copy to my Dad, and I think John Self said it well above – I think the ‘cheesy thrillerdom’ is the biggest strength and the biggest weakness. When you are looking to be taken for a wide ride, in the hands of a master story teller, this is the book for you. Highly recommended.

  22. John Self said,

    I’m glad you liked it Phillip. I gave my copy to my brother-in-law who’s also enjoying it.

    I don’t know if you’ve read any other Boyd but I can recommend several of his books – see the intro above.

  23. John Daly said,

    Thanks for a very good review, I have read everything by William Boyd and this by far is his worse book. ‘Restless’ I also agree was his most over-rated. I wonder about his own thinking behind this novel, it really is not a credible story, at times he does do what he has always been good at, he writes up the absurb and ridiculous about aspects of individual behaviour under pressure. Was he writing a comedy and changed his mind half-way through But anyway it does not work against the narrative of a basic thriller plot. I fiound it unusually for him to have truly cynical undertones and unlike you I had no feelings for any of the principal characters including ‘Mhouse’.

  24. John Self said,

    Thanks John. I do hope Boyd returns to form soon, or could it be that, like the Coen brothers, he’ll never return to his highest levels? Incidentally, my brother-in-law, whom I mentioned above, told me last night that he loved Ordinary Thunderstorms and asked if I had any similar books he could borrow. I gave him Richard Price’s wonderful Lush Life, without much hope.

    • John Daly said,

      John
      Sorry disagree! I really enjoy Cormac Macarthy and thought The Coen brothers interpretation ‘ Of No Country for Old Men’ was excellent, particularly given the difficulty of capturing his sparse and lyrical prose style. Though it is far from my being my favourite of Cormac Macarthy’s I wish that they were filming ‘The Road.’
      Will look up’ Lush Life’ for myself.
      John

  25. John Self said,

    Well I was being a little mischievous when I said that, John, though I really don’t think the Coens have done much that’s really interesting since O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There (and I know there are fans who think even those two are second-rate). The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty obviously weren’t their own material, but even No Country left me cold. Admittedly I haven’t seen Burn After Reading, but it got pretty lukewarm reviews. With more remakes and adaptations in the pipeline (True Grit, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), I’m not expecting great things from them anytime soon.

    EDIT: I’ve just seen that they’ve released a film in the US a couple of weeks ago called A Serious Man, which I hadn’t heard about. It’s been well received, so I hope I’m proved wrong.

  26. Lee Monks said,

    Burn After Reading is hilarious and brilliantly done; I would say that it escapes being considered one of their minor pieces (Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty being far and away their worst – bad, bad films in their own rights by any comparison) by sheer wit and invention. Not to mention an ensemble at the top of their respective games. It’s just a great black comedy, pure dazzle.

    The Man Who Wasn’t There, though, is their last great film, I’d go along with that. I hear the newie is ‘a return to form’, though as I’ve just said, BAR marked that for me.

    ‘The Road’ is currently in production with Viggo Mortensen starring. Cracking book, no idea what they’re going to do with it. Commercial it ain’t. Presumably Viggo has a bit of power these days after the Hobbity stuff.

  27. Nick said,

    I like No Country, but indeed the quality of the Coen’s movies is decreasing.
    I was really bored by Burn.

    I didn’t like ‘The Road’. To quote myself (there is no limit to my ego):
    “I was very disappointed by this book.
    Maybe its interest wanes if someone has read a lot of science fiction.
    The book is quite touching but I found it also not very imaginative and very repetitive and Providence’s recurrent role in the story is at best really upsetting. (I’m starving…oh some apples. I’m cold.. oh a blanket. A flaregun… oh some bad guys). The plot completely bored me.
    The writing is perfect though.

    I much much much preferred ‘All the pretty horses’.”

    I’m not looking forward for the movie

    • john daly said,

      I agree and have my reservations about The Road but suspect that in time it may become a cult book amongst teenagers and then a school textbook. If so it could be worse. But try Blood Meridian which is a much deeper novel and really I suppose is about the same issue, will we survive American fatalism?
      I will cheer myself up with some chocolate, 60 percent proof.

  28. Lee Monks said,

    Nick, if you were bored by Burn, I suggest hard drugs as a potential alternative! It’s an unflaggingly daft film, certainly, but I found that charming. Boring is the last word I’d attribute to it. It’s an absurd, almost too energetic comedy. Please don’t watch any Bela Tarr films any time soon!

    And whilst The Road isn’t McCarthy’s best, it’s compulsive and atmospheric. A few clunky moments, perhaps, but it gets away with it.

  29. Lee Monks said,

    PS John, there’s an interesting piece on the Guardian website about the US government clamping down on book-bloggers…insane stuff…

  30. Nick said,

    No really Lee, I was bored by Burn. I really couldn’t get into it. I was so disappointed I watched it a second time several weeks later; I couldn’t understand my coldness towards this movie when all my friends really loved it. Well, I still cannot account for the fact I don’t like it, I just don’t.

    My favorite Cohen movie is O’ Brother. No, it’s Fargo. No, it’s Barton Fink. I don’t know, there are too many excellent ones.

  31. Lee Monks said,

    I’d go for Fink or The Man Who Wasn’t There. Or Arizona. Like you say, tough call.

  32. Richard said,

    Back to William Boyd….. I have just finished Ordinary Thunderstorms and found it riveting, enjoying it as I have enjoyed all of his (11 ?) novels. What I enjoy most about Boyd’s writing is his black humour, very much evident in Blue Afternoon, Ice Cream War, Armadillo…….. but not Ordinary Thunderstorms.

  33. Scylla said,

    Well, William Boyd..I really liked Any Human Heart and The true Confessions but I read Reatless..(.given to me ) and was rather confused that he seems to have changed genere . Then on a trip to London bought Ordinary thunderstorms…and so far am struggling to get past the first 100 pages. Right now I feel let down, so different from his previous novels.

  34. Andrew Prior said,

    I bought Ordinary Thunderstorms because it had the name William Boyd on the cover and wouldn’t have continued reading beyond the first ten pages if it hadn’t. Really…..what’s Boyd doing writing such drivel when he can be writing something worthwhile?

    However, I admit I do find drivel engrossing…..and found myself reading to the end! Well done William…however, a request….get back to your traditional genre.

  35. John Self said,

    Really…..what’s Boyd doing writing such drivel when he can be writing something worthwhile?

    My thoughts exactly Andrew. I recently received a proof copy of Jim Crace’s new novel, All That Follows, which sounds from the blurb as though he too has taken to the thriller form. I wonder if he will make a better fist of it than Boyd did.

  36. conor bowman said,

    I have just finished reading Ordinary Thunderstorms. I think that some of the criticisms of its lack of depth are justified, as are the observations of its not quite fitting into the thriller genre. Overall though I enjoyed it and, as someone else did, raced through the second half. It’s not as good as Human Heart, but I think it is a couple of terraced streets ahead of Restless. I believe WB is capable of more and I feel that Ordinary Thunderstorms is a positive rather than a retrograde step. Happy Christmas.

  37. [...] very well last year’s disastrous (and successful) decision by William Boyd to write a pulpy thriller.  Fortunately Crace doesn’t let us down in this way.  In fact, he is clever enough to [...]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,525 other followers

%d bloggers like this: