Almost a British Balzac

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A  W E E K  I N  D E C E M B E R
by  S e b a s t i a n  F a u l k s

Prospect, September 2009

The old-fashioned skill of writing novels seems in Sebastian Faulks’s case to have got more Greeneian as he has got older: the sense, with each new book, of the writer boarding a moving train, on each occasion timing the jump with an improving carelessness, then settling into an available seat or strolling through the carriages, narrating the lives of the passengers and witnessing everything that occurs.

Why is this old-fashioned? Because it’s a skill that makes an explicit pact with the reader: the novelist, writing for private reasons, understands that the loyalty of his readers is found on the public footpaths of adventure, romance, conflict, entertainment. In Faulks’s case, it has produced a disarming novelist. He makes it look easy because he has worked hard at the aspects of his style that compel attention—at that nonchalance and narrative magnetism.

He did not start out that way. His first two novels were rejected and the third, A Trick of the Light (1984), is out of print. The next, The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989), is more admired with hindsight, in the wake of the worldwide success of Birdsong (1993). After Charlotte Gray (1998) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001), two successful mixtures of insouciance and popular drama, came a hiatus. The novelist seemed to want to add intellect to storytelling: Human Traces (2005), a 19th-century epic about the science of madness, took 600 pages and five years to emerge. Stresses show in its self-consciousness—but his contention that intellectual force could coexist with narrative simplicity was proven by his disturbing and bleakly funny first-person mystery, Engleby (2007), about a student misfit who becomes a murderer and successful journalist. His enduring interest in mental illness is an unusual counterpoint and inconclusion to the cut-and-dried dramas of his plots.

Last year, there was an entertaining aside in the form of a centenary piece of James Bond merchandising, Devil May Care: Faulks was appointed to the task by the Fleming estate, one imagines, for precisely the same railroad qualities of event and momentum. Now, not much more than a year later, we have the latest Faulks train ride. And, in A Week in December, he has set himself an unexpected test. His critics have held it against him that his theme is not TS Eliot’s “now and England,” but a past of seductive nostalgia and glamour in France, America or elsewhere. “Contemporary Britain seems to me frivolous—apt and ripe for journalism—but it is difficult to see much grandeur in it,” he told an interviewer in 2005. “I find most novelistic accounts of it thin.”

Yet contemporary London and its culture are the locomotive of his new novel. One part satire, two parts diagnosis (this is a very straight-backed book), it is fuelled by a series of urgent social and moral negatives. The reader turns the pages to the clackety-clack of actuality, of modern isolation and alienation, greed and corruption, envy and fear, the hot metal rhythm of a materialist disorder.

The device Faulks uses to bracket the action, which takes place in the week before Christmas 2007, is the planning of a dinner party by Sophie Topping, wife of a newly elected MP, and the occasion of the dinner itself. Mrs Topping doesn’t really feature thereafter, but the opportunity is taken to set out the cast of Faulks’s comédie humaine, notably his four landmark characters: a hedge fund manager, a lime chutney millionaire, a bilious book reviewer, and a failing barrister. Through these we in turn meet sons, daughters and lovers—an Islamic radical, a skunk-addict, an undiscriminating bibliophile Tube driver—while key cameos fill other spaces in the cultural spectrum, including a new Polish signing to a Premier League club and his ex-topless model girlfriend.

This is a Balzacian enterprise, to which the social and physical labyrinth of London is central and in which the characters are propelled through the plot by a tumult of urban energy and events. The plot is really a braiding of two strands, each a plot in the conspiratorial sense: an assault by the hedge fund manager, John Veals, on a high street bank through a chain of unregulated transactions intended to net him several billions, and a plan by Islamists to blow up an NHS hospital.

A developing love affair between the barrister and the Tube driver balances these machinations in a panorama in which the book reviewer, Ralph Tranter (or perhaps R Tranter, “Art Ranter”), plays the Fool. He is an envying, hating presence whom Faulks seems to use more as a lightning rod for his feelings about his critics than as a necessary character, although he does earn his place on comic grounds. Reading the first novel of a rival reviewer who has recently turned to fiction, “Tranter threw back his head and laughed out loud; it was worse, far worse than he had even dared to hope. He shivered with pleasure… And now, [he] reflected at his desk that Monday evening, the stuck-up little bastard stood between him and the Pizza Palace Book of the Year award.”

Both of the novels’ conspiracies—the bank fraud and the bomb plot—are laid out for the reader with Faulks’ habitual impressive expertise at detail (although I found him less clear on the complex financial instruments at work—a series of undetectable loopholes—than James Buchan in his clairvoyant 1996 thriller, High Latitudes). But the important thing about the fund manager, Veals, is inevitably that he is no longer human. As “ever more arcane” financial products circulate in ever more false markets, Faulks makes it clear that men like Veals have become increasingly detached from the purpose of money—from human connections and reality. Veals is a sort of antithesis to the ambitious social climber in Balzac’s original Comédie Humaine, Rastignac, believing himself “a man alive to the spirit of his time” but possessing nothing but negative ambitions. In a sense, Faulks seems to say, his destiny is one we’re all at risk of: that we will end up betting on life defaulting, rather than using our lives as instruments of connection.

So while Veals is about to make more money than he could spend in a hundred lifetimes, his wife is declining into alcoholism and his son is watching reality TV and smoking the skunk that will catapult him into psychiatric hospital. Yet evil, in A Week in December, is a condition and not only the result of bad actions. The parents of the novel’s Islamic radical, Hassan, are as loving as can be; Hassan is disaffected by teenage turbulence and in need of certainty, which in his case becomes the certainty of the will of God. Faulks is interestingly alive to both Islam’s purity and its inhumanity. Through the figure of his barrister, Gabriel, reading the Koran as background to a legal case, he sharply attacks its hundreds of pages of assertions that amount to the voice of Allah saying “Believe in me or die.” The Koran’s unarguable certainty, Gabriel realises, is identical to that of the voices heard in hospital by his schizophrenic brother.

Has Faulks found grandeur in the contemporary? He has undoubtedly found a way to command a tragicomic dystopia of the here and now. I’m attempting not to sound like R Tranter when I say that I think one isn’t very moved by his characters’ fates—the click of chess pieces being moved is a little too audible—and this is perhaps because the demands of the plot have prevented him from going deeper. Like an idealist or moralist, he knows the end of his journey from the outset, whereas (ironically) the materialist knows neither his origin nor destination, and witnesses everything in an unforeseen way.

Simultaneously, it’s impossible not to enjoy Faulks’s vitality, his rich detailing, language and timing. There are jokes, often good: a reality television show named It’s Madness, in which mentally ill contestants compete for free private treatment and a £50,000 car; a virtual reality game called Parallax (a girl band named Girls From Behind is a rare foot wrong). The fictionalising of reality produces exhilarating swipes at, among other things, literary prizes—“There was a rumour that [Tranter’s book] was going to be a longlisting for the Handivac”—and exam standards (“‘it turned out [the Toppings’s son] got a B in one of his A levels.’ ‘Shit!’ said Roger. ‘I didn’t know you could still do that’”). One running motif stays an enigma, an unidentified cyclist, riding on the pavement with no lights on, who brushes the lives of most of the characters.

In the seething dystopia Faulks has created there remains another mystery about which one can’t say much without introducing a spoiler. But if there is a Balzacian architecture and ambition about A Week in December, and Balzac is by no means foreign to Faulks’s European sensibility, there is yet no emotional closure, no catharsis, no final fever here—nothing to match, say, the suicide of Lucien de Rubempré in Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low. Maybe Faulks is planning a sequel. Or is this his judgment on the stasis of contemporary Britain? If so, you may be disappointed by the novel’s closeness to reality. On the other hand, you might find that, like watching Richard Curtis’s Love Actually—another contemporary pre-Christmas setting of interrelated lives in which ultimately nothing bad happens—you could read it again and again.

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