Thursday, 18 August 2011

A Week in December (Sebastian Faulks)

--The blurb--
"Over seven days we follow the lives of seven major characters: a hedge-fund manager trying to bring off the biggest trade of his career; a professional footballer recently arrived from Poland; a young lawyer with little work and too much time to speculate; a student who has been led astray by Islamist theory; a hack book-reviewer; a schoolboy hooked on skunk and reality TV; and a Tube driver whose Circle Line train joins these and countless other lives together in a daily loop. The writing on the wall appears in letters ten feet high, but the characters refuse to see it - and party on as though tomorrow is a dream."

--The review--
Having enjoyed Sebastian Faulks' previous historical works, I had believed that there would be no reason why I would not also gain pleasure from reading his next snapshot of (albeit modern) history. It was therefore of great disappointment to me that in this novel, there appears to have been the same decline in quality as I am also starting to see in the works of other authors of a similar generation.
I'm still not sure where this decline has come from. Is it born of a desire to be 'cool'? Or 'edgy'? Or 'political'? Or is it just laziness? By using surroundings and products by name with which readers are already so familiar, you cut out the middle man: the need for description. If the reader already knows what you're talking about, you don't need to describe, and there is a nasty hackneyed side effect too. Even if you try to replace some of these 'brand names' with made-up conflations, as Faulks tries to do (e.g. 'YourPlace' for a certain social networking site), we as readers get the feeling that he is trying too hard, and yet not hard enough at the same time, and that some of the richness that we seek to find in literature is therefore lost. It's hardly the savage social satire that it is deemed to be on the book's back cover. Thankfully (in a way), it seems that Amazon reviewers agree with me: today the average review score (aggregated on the basis of 199 reviews) is a mere 2.5 out of 5, and of those 199 reviews, a whopping 124 give it 3 stars or below. In short, the whole thing is mediocre at best.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is my view that some distance is required before trying to pass comment on the times in which people live. The fullness of items of historical or cultural significance simply cannot be known yet, and in his hastiness, I feel that Faulks gives too many aspects of life in the 2000s undue importance (we will know in ten years or so, I suppose, who is right). Secondly, several characters are only drawn very sketchily, so that we do not empathise nearly enough with them, even though they are supposed to be main characters. This stretches to aspects of their day-to-day existence as well: we do not know anything like enough about Finn's obsession with reality TV show It's Madness, or of Jenni's deep interest in Second Life-style program Parallax, or of their effects on the characters, to understand and care enough about them (and subsequently the plot) ourselves. 

Other facets of the story are given far too much emphasis, such as the hedge-fund manager's scheme and the blossoming romance between two of the protagonists. These two latter personages are just so mismatched that even though we are given plenty of detail about the development of the relationship, we still don't believe in it; the trade engaged in by John Veals again, is given too much attention, to the point where readers who have little to no interest in or understanding of finance that they are unlikely to be galvanised into reading on (I just skipped these pages). The hack book-reviewer is more interesting but is not given enough page time (nor is Adam, the lawyer's brother), and the only character developed proportionately is the student led astray by Islamism, and his family. 

Is all of this because Faulks has tried to do too much? Certainly the link between all of them and Jenni's Circle Line train is nowhere near explicit enough to give the novel a coherent narrative architecture, leading to something of a patchwork effect. There are some links made between the characters, but they are vague and few, and lack the main link that is suggested in the blurb. The overriding conclusion is therefore that Faulks has failed, in spectacular style, to achieve what he had set out to do. It is a shame, to me, that writers seem to be increasingly thinking that you can't be doing the world of literature any good these days unless you're talking about 9/11, or lambasting bankers, or dropping in a veiled reference to Facebook (or preferably all three). Too many of the storylines are just left to fade out unresolved, compounding the disappointment felt by the reader in the quality of the novel.

It is to be hoped, then, that Faulks will have got back to the drawing board - and seriously - in order to redeem himself for the next release. 

Other works by Sebastian Faulks
A Trick Of The Light (1984)
The Girl at the Lion D'Or (1989)
A Fool's Alphabet (1992)
Birdsong (1993)
The Fatal Englishman (1996)
Charlotte Gray (1998)
On Green Dolphin Street (2001)
Human Traces (2005)
Pistache (2006)
Engleby (2007)
Devil May Care (2008)

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