Mounting issues

Mounting issues

Lead Review

Mounting issues

Relevant: Cataloguing urgent issues in modern Britain.

Sebastian Faulks occupies a contradictory position in English fiction. He’s routinely mentioned in the press as a surprise omission from the Man Booker lists, and yet has never actually managed to catch the selectors’ eye.

His consolation is to outsell most prize shortlistees, and yet you also sense a polite disagreement with his readership over career management.

Faulks’s Anglo-French trilogy about women in conflict — The Girl at the Lion D’Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray — gets the tills ringing and the book groups singing, but while many fans must open each book hoping for a spirited but secretive woman buying baguettes, he now prefers to offer denser, experimental works such as an epic about the history of psychology, Human Traces, or a biography of a psycho, Engleby.

So admirably high are his ambitions that, in A Week in December, he has simultaneously attempted three of the toughest tasks in fiction. The first is the state-of-Britain novel, the satirical slice through all social strata which has tantalised UK writers in the two decades since Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared. As a precaution against the biggest risk in this kind of fiction — being overtaken by events — Faulks freeze-frames his story over seven days before Christmas in 2007, as several representative 21st-century characters pursue topically symbolic projects.

A hedge-fund manager contrives to profit from the crash of a leading bank; a skunk-addicted teenager becomes obsessed with a house-sharing TV game-show; a barrister is about to defend a London Underground driver in a health and safety case; an Asian chutney tycoon prepares to collect his OBE at the Palace while his teenage son, converted to militancy, learns bomb-making through the local mosque. And a newspaper book-reviewer plots to destroy the career of a dangerously rising rival.

From this summary, it’s possible to guess how some of these strands might overlap — tube driver and Islamist teenager, for instance — but the satire of literary bitching, though acute, seems a more unusual inclusion in a book that appears to be aiming to catalogue the most urgent issues facing modern Britain.

It has been pointed out that the writer and critic DJ Taylor might well do a double-take if he were to pass in the street Faulks’s Ralph Tranter, a devotee of the “English regionalist school” and Thackeray aficionado, who reviews widely under initials and pseudonyms. The reviewer James Wood might also demand paternity tests on Tranter’s younger challenger, Alexander Sedley, a book-page superstar who undermines his imperial opinions by publishing an autobiographical novel of his own.
These sections enjoyably find a home for some choice journalistic gossip, but there’s a worrying sense that, like a beginner swimmer clinging to the edge of the pool, Faulks feels more at home in the world of books than the universe of headline news.

This impression is strengthened by a tendency to define characters through their bookshelves. The pickle billionaire improbably retains Tranter to coach him on the Queen’s literary sensibilities ahead of the investiture; the tube driver is desperate for a shift to end so that she can resume the latest prize-winning literary fiction; an Eastern European footballer is obsessed with online thesaurus and dictionary sites; the barrister pauses between briefs to think for a few paragraphs on the relative merits of the fiction of Bellow, Roth and Updike.

Such wobbles of tone illustrate the second of the alarmingly hard tasks Faulks has undertaken: the use of alternating points of view. The danger here is of the writing showing his own face beneath the make-up and, for example, Faulks has his Muslim teenager reflecting on a place he visits “having gone to seed in the mysterious way of all seaside towns,” which is a fine sentence but an unlikely insight for a young jihadist.

There has already been a media fuss about Faulks’s comments about the Qur’an in an interview, but his portrait of the Muslim family is touching and so even-handed that it could have been supervised by a BBC script-editor: the possible bomber frets about whether his feelings are racist and his father reminds him at intervals that terrorism cannot be justified by the Qur’an.

Where the novel is unequivocally successful is as narrative (Faulks was perhaps refreshed by a sabbatical in mid-composition to write a new James Bond novel, Devil May Care), and readers will race through the pages like banks through cash. Although some of the sub-plots have already happened (financial crash, tube bombs) and others never would (the Big Brother surrogate is unbelievable), we
become desperate to know the outcome of the colliding storylines.

A Week in December comes as heavily armoured as a 007 car against potential criticism. But an honest critic must surely conclude that Faulks has correctly identified the novel that needs to be written about these times, but may also have proved that British society is now so various that no single writer can capture all its aspects. However, in honourably failing to depict the entire state of the nation, Faulks has memorably skewered the British literary world.

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