Wednesday, October 22, 2003

I've Seen It In Your Eyes And I've Read It In Books Volume 2

While recently Martin Amis has been receiving untold stick for recycling all his old tics and tricks in his latest book Yellow Dog it's mildly amusing that everybody's falling over themselves celebrating the latest Ballard, who is of course guilty of the exactly same thing. Millennium People carries on where Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes left off, with a diffident middle-aged man of seemingly independent means drawn into a web of intrigue amongst an exclusive enclave of polite citizens eroding their ennui with intense and secretive bouts of violence, drugs and sex.

Millennium People does at least break free of the quaint conceit that people will have more leisure time than they know what do with: the primitive social rebellion of the middle classes that populate Chelsea Marina at least has some roots in perceived relative poverty. And this time the book's anti-hero isn't the homoeroticised Nietzschean tennis pro of Cocaine Nights but a shambling pediatrician who can't iron his trousers properly and may or may not be sexually manipulating his young fatally ill patients. But nevertheless the book hardly works as social commentary: the impossibly polite and urbane characters seem to have been zoomed into the present day from the sixties, sleepers awake in the 00s and unable to cope, and I found it very difficult to relate or believe in them.

Not that Millennium People isn't a ripping yarn: with its airport carpark rendezvous; assassination plots and terrorist atrocities at Tate Modern it's a Boys' Own adventure for disaffected 60s intellectuals. Ballard has great fun with his images of middle-class props like Perrier bottles used as molotov cocktails, but nearly five years on from the detonating Prada handbags in Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama these feel like second-hand frissons. A great piece of escapism, then, but one that still leaves you with the impression that retro-futurism isn't what it used to be.

Damon Galgut's Booker Prize shortlisted The Good Doctor is a dark and troubling work - on the surface a slight story (coming at just over 200 pages) but one which deals with some pretty fundamental questions of how a man should live his life. The book's narrator is a middle-aged doctor making the best of a bad job in a remote medical outpost in a deprived area in South Africa, effectively hiding away from a past that includes his inadvertent assistance in a torturous interrogation during his military years, and the loss of his wife to his former best friend. When a young doctor brimming with altruism and certainty volunteers to join the hospital and ends up sharing a room with the troubled older man, the uneasy alliance has a profound effect on the destiny of both man's lives.

Although many of the experiences described in the book are far removed from my own life, I found much recognisable in the lives portrayed: the transitory relationships; the words unspoken; the belated attempts to lay old ghosts and right past wrongs that lead to unexpected and not entirely satisfactory conclusions. It's a fascinating read but perhaps not one to be prescribed to those already feeling depressed. A Booker judge described the novel sniffily as 'one-note': this it may be, but it's a clear and resonant note that may haunt you long after you put the book down.

Reading Jennifer Government earlier this year gave me the taste to sample Max Barry's first novel Syrup a hip and frothy story of a young unemployed man who hits upon a potentially million-dollar concept of a dark, edgy soda in a black can called Fukk. Can he find his fortune despite the calculated efforts of corrupt corporation politics and treacherous friends, and still find time to seduce the funky beautiful lesbian known only as 6?

As with J-Gov this is a fun and enjoyable read, with numerous knowing digs at the world of marketing and business machinations, and a devious take on boardroom meeting politics - think an office-based The Sting with Fry and Leela from Futurama in the Redford/Newman roles. But while the plot is lean and linear this is again at the expense of three-dimensional characterisation - at times Syrup verges on being just as slick and superficial as the products it parodies.

I got Bella Bathurst's Special in hardback for a couple of quid at the local branch of The Works. It's essentially a coming-of-age story about a group of pubescent boarding-school girls in the Forest Of Dean for a post-exam activity break with their teachers. The witnessing of a horrific motorway accident on their journey gets the break off to an ominous start, and the girls hormonal changes combined with the proximity of the local boys proves a potent and emotional cocktail. But in this distaff Lord Of The Flies it is the girls who are their own worst enemies, either to themselves (bulimia, self-harming, denial of their true sexuality) or to each other (bullying, entrapment).

Special is an enjoyable read, and occasionally (particularly towards the beginning) flirts with greatness, but ultimately the plot doesn't quite lead into the interesting directions it initially promises. And if that's all in the name of realism, what quite was the point of the sudden (and unnecessary) tragedy that concludes the novel? Intriguing and readable then, but vaguely unsatisfying in the final analysis: above average, but certainly less than special.


Post a Comment

<< Home