Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Don't. Just don't.
The first bad thing I might say about Engleby is that for some reason, it put me in a foul mood; as if by some sort of literary osmosis I had absorbed Michael Engleby’s uniformly critical point of view and had turned it on the world and my unsuspecting wife particularly. She was not a happy bunny. The first good thing I might say is that this didn’t last long, especially as the next book I picked up was a Charles Portis novel which quickly dispelled the gloom.
Is this a triumph of the suspension of disbelief, of verisimilitude, of getting the reader to buy into the character? Or is it simply because the only point of view we get for 350 pages is that of “Toilet” Engleby himself? It’s hard not to warm to him even if you don’t like him or his fairly stiff opinions, and that must be a victory for Faulks. His protagonist protests that his memory is spotty – spotty enough that the major crisis in the novel is not really uncovered (officially – the twist was so obvious I guessed it from readingA the dust jacket, but more on back covers and dust jackets later) until some moments of lucidity in the last quarter of the book. What we’re told, by reviewers and the back cover (easy now, don’t get sidetracked yet) is that the reader can’t trust Engleby to tell it straight. And yet you can almost forgive him his lapses such is the prowess of Faulks’ narrative. His insight into class and education in the 50s, 60s and 70s is quite amusing, and the meander of his journalistic career, with cameos from Jeffrey Archer and Margaret Thatcher, is enlightening as well as droll.
But, and here is the big bum note from the old sacred cow slayer, I would never have read this book if I had the choice. I say that like I didn’t have a choice, as though it were life or death, but the truth is having read the Bond novel that Faulks chucked out a few years back, and having seen the types of flaccid liberals who bought his so-called historical novels, I had chalked Faulks off as another of the mainstream literary giants who would be studiously ignored by me from here on in. The fact I owned this (and a recurring theme it is if ever I heard one) is down to the hoarding instinct of the bookseller, hungrily grabbing any old tat that the publishers send you just in case it turns out to be a signed proof edition of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. My “special slip-sleeved edition” was just such a capture, and would have slowly gone fluffy and discoloured with mildew had it not been subject to random chance (I should stop letting my wife pick what I read by lottery). “And why is that?”I hear you ask (in my imagination). I’ll tell you why: the synopsis on the back cover is truly terrible. It makes it sound like a Cambridge coming of age novel, a Brideshead pastiche or another book by Jonathan Coe (after What a Carve Up! he lost me). What I may have preferred to see, and I understand that this isn’t pandering to the lowest common denominator, would be a five-point reference system, with two self- and external-references (i.e. “better than Charlotte Gray by a mile!” and “not as gory as American Psycho”) and three further recommendations about style, tone and themes – for example; monologue, blackly humorous and socio-pathology etc. That’s still quite a brief prĂ©cis, but it’s one that may (I stress may) have got me interested even if it’s not entirely representative. Nonetheless, it would still be better than the tripe on the back of this edition. There’s one guy on there that quite clearly didn’t get past chapter 5 before vomiting up his review. There could even be a multi-level reference, with a lowest common denominator factored in – if you’ve got five GCSEs or less, read this bit etc. But I’m off on one again, so I’ll wind my neck back in and return to the point, which one of my chums reminded me was the book, not my special set of social and moral prejudices.
I liked it, and was surprised by it, but only because I was not expecting something intelligent and engaging. The fact that despite it being 350 pages long it’s a deceptively quick read is not necessarily a good thing, considering that I can read the entire Metro in two and a half minutes, but it does help to navigate the rather torpid diary entries. However, the concluding section, and I shan’t offer a spoiler for you, is reminiscent in nature of the last half hour of A.I., the overly long and curiously disappointing Kubrick / Spielberg collaboration. And have I mentioned the cover reviews?

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