No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

2011/29: A Week in December -- Sebastian Faulks

...Veals believed it was important for him to be aware of other people, natives and visitors alike, however partial and bizarre their take on life. Since his own reality derived from numbers on a computer terminal, he thought it wise to keep an eye on flesh and blood; there might still be something he could profitably learn from them. (p. 39)

Set in London in December 2007, A Week in December reminds me of a contemporary Dervish House: the interconnectness of apparently disparate characters, the richly-drawn urban setting, the sense of impending calamity. Faulks deals with questions of identity, of self-image, of real life and online / virtual life. The major characters share particular random experiences: they pass one another in the streets, they encounter each other's avatars online, they're obsessed with the same soft-porn model, they're forced to leap out of the way of a cyclist (the same one each time?) with no lights.

There are seven major viewpoint characters: John Veals, a hedge fund manager; Veals' son Finbar, who spends his days getting high and surfing the web; Jenni, a Circle Line tube driver; R. Tranter, an embittered literary critic (or possibly Faulks getting his own back on the broadsheets); Hassan, newly involved in radical Islam; Polish footballer Spike Borowski; and barrister Gabriel Northwood.

I wish Faulks had limited himself to these viewpoints: we get occasional passages from other points of view, such as Hassan's father Farooq 'Knocker' Al-Rashid, a businessman about to be awarded an OBE, or Veals' wife Sophie, the only person who has ever made Veals laugh. On the other hand, these subsidiary characters, drifting in and out of the edges of the major narratives, cast light on the protagonists.

Faulks plays games with names: Parallax is pretty much Second Life, YourPlace ('this parody of a human world' (p.47)) is Facebook, the Pizza Palace Book of the Year prize bears considerable resemblance to the Costa Book Awards. One can't help but suspect that some of the characters, too, have real-world counterparts: but if A Week in December is a roman a clef, it's one that works on multiple levels, no decoder ring needed.

Every character finds meaning somewhere, whether it's Jenni's online avatar in Parallax, Gabriel's visits to his brother in hospital, Tranter's retreat into 19th-century literature. The things we choose to do, the kinds of meaning we search for, are what matters.

It feels to me as though part, at least, of the point of the novel is the importance of passion, of subjectivity. There are two characters (well, at least two) who could be interpreted as villains: one is hot-headed and somewhat misguided, one is cold and emotionless. Faulks doesn't hammer home the comparison, but by the end of the novel it's clear where his sympathies lie, and where he's led the reader.

This novel has very mixed reviews, tending towards the negative from fans of Faulks' previous work. I liked it rather more -- or enjoyed it more -- than, for instance, Birdsong: perhaps it's the familiarity of the contemporary UK setting, the in-jokes of platform art on Underground stations, Tranter's anonymously vitriolic online reviews, Finbar's fantasy football team ... A Week in December is blackly comic, minutely observed and utterly engaging.

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