Tuesday, 20 March 2012

"A Week in December" by Sebastian Faulks

Three years ago I wrote a blistering criticism of Faulks' "Engleby".  I posted it on a private blog, so could SF have read it?  Who knows.  My central criticism of "Engleby" was that it was formulaic.  To write a novel, I surmised, you just think of an event and work backwards.

Now whether Faulks ever knew of my criticism or not, he certainly answered it.  This book thinks of a non-event and works forwards.

The non-event is a terrorist attack on the London Underground.  The book takes you two-thirds of the way before revealing that the attack target is not the tube, but then the ending is different anyway.

The working forwards is in the title.  The week works as a time device unfolding a series of characters,each of whom is moving towards the end of the week and the non-event referred to above.

I didn't much enjoy "Engleby" because in that book the main character is a deeply repellant person.  Not everyone in "W I D" is repellant, only the bankers.  Faulks certainly nails the bankers and their role in the world financial crisis.  He has some witty faux banks to offer: "Lemon Brothers", "Bare Stern", "Goldbag" and "Moregain Sucks".  These are cleverly done.

Other characters are actually sympathetic, notably the impoverished lawer (I know, an oxymoron), Gabriel Northwood.  I was particularly intrigued by the failed novelist, R. Tranter.  Is this SF's alter ego, I wonder?

The book certainly crystallises a view of London during the late noughties, after the world banking crisis, and encapsulates many of its problems - psychotic drug use by neglected rich kids, the parallel world of the internet, and yummy mummies all get a look in.  It is enjoyable to recognize these pictures of life as we know it.

The book is let down by the author's inability to resist the opportunity to lecture.  He lectures (as in Engleby) on the failures of the education system.  If it were really as bad as he satirises, no one would read his books.  They would only read the £1 offerings that top the best-seller listings around World Book Day.

He lectures on the religion of Islam. After taking time and a sympathetic approach to get inside the head of a would-be suicide bomber, he then uses Gabriel's visit to his psychotic brother in a mental hospital to draw parallels between paranoid schizoprhenia and the origin of the prophet's teachings of Islam.

Finally, the ending is a damp squib.  It's interesting how many writers fail to deliver a resounding ending, after painstakingly building up a convincing world view.

Sharp and unforeseeable plot twists, and a satisfying ending, as exemplified by the works of Dickens, mark out the truly great from the work of the merely talented writer.

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