Observant Christmas shoppers will be able correctly to infer three things from the cover of Sebastian Faulks’s new novel. One, from the image of the London skyline, that the novel aims to present a “panorama”, or panoramic snapshot, of London life. Two, from the dark storm clouds brewing overhead, that in this story at least, all is not well in our fair city. And three, from the presence of the London Eye, doing its gross aesthetic damage there in that skyline, that Faulks has departed from the historical novel with which he made his name and applied himself for the first time to the immediate present.
In other ways, he has kept to familiar territory — romance, a gripping pace and mental illness as a dominant theme. It’s established early on that the principal characters, though mostly strangers to one another, are due to gather at a dinner party at the end of this particular week in December. Meanwhile, their lives threaten to unravel in ways that complement each other well enough to persuade the reader that the dinner party will be worth the wait. But it’s Faulks’s talent for pace, rather than anything in the substance of the novel, that keeps one interested.
An illiterate first-generation Pakistani immigrant turned chutney millionaire discovers that he is to receive an OBE. He assumes that when he meets the Queen she will ask him probing questions on literature, and so hires a well-drawn bitter hack of a book reviewer (“He dismissed equally the offerings of famous old men, heavy with honours, and those of photogenic young women”) to give him a bluffer’s crash course. Meanwhile, his teenage son, Hassan, prepares to play his part in a suicide bomb attack on London. The motiveless malignity of a hedge fund manager engineers a global banking crisis while his son slowly goes mad on superskunk and reality TV. A female West Indian Tube driver, who is both hooked on an internet virtual reality game and an avid reader, begins a love affair with a depressed young lawyer.
The strategy seems to have been to round up all the new phenomena suspected of auguring ill for our collective psyche and dump them into a novel. As well as reality TV, skunk, the various fruits of the internet, a banking crisis (the year’s hot topic), Islamism and the plight of western Muslims (the decade’s hot topic), political correctness and multiculturalism are also addressed. A cast of characters rounded out by MPs, media moguls, school teachers and footballers contributes to an occasional feeling that one is not reading a novel but a 500-page bumper edition of The Observer.
Faulks has mentioned in an interview that Orwell was his “patron saint” for this novel, and thus his teachers inhabit an exaggerated, satirical world in which “English had been fused with modern foreign languages and media studies under the banner of communications”, and “training had focused on the politics of race, gender, class, with hardly a mention of pupil management or lessons”. But this is incoherent because most of the other spheres are thoroughly researched and dealt with realistically. The hedge fund manager short-sells and exploits the sub-prime market. The young Islamist reads Sayed Qutb and meets a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The footballers listen to iPods, date glamour models, eat a lot of pasta and draw 1-1 with other teams. Faulks’s version of Big Brother grotesquely gathers clinically insane people together for televised “treatment”, but this is only because the character who watches it is a skunk addict who (the newspapers have been warning us) will develop schizophrenia himself.
The book is full of laboured correspondences like this. Elsewhere, in order to hammer home a comparison he is making between literalist Islam and schizophrenia, Faulks has one patient’s inner voice tell him things like: “You can take up to three wives…if you sleep with another man’s wife you’ll be…punished for all time. In the flames.”
The best romance in the novel is a defunct one which has left a single physical trace: a photograph entombed in the memory of an obsolete mobile phone which, its battery depleted, can never again be brought back to life. This is Faulks giving modernity his best shot, and it certainly isn’t a miss, but the trope itself hints at a struggle that he has, with the book as a whole, ultimately lost. It is very clear, on the local scale, that he has been immersed in the past for most of his writing life. Hassan, on the Tube on his way to buy explosives, notices “a black-skinned youth with feet in padded white trainers the size of small boats”. If this had been written by Sebastian Faulks 15 years ago, or by a historical novelist 100 years from now, then perhaps there would be some mileage in an observation about black boys’ tastes in trainers (or the hilariousness of trainers in general). But no one these days, not even an alienated Islamist, is taken aback by a pair of Nikes. Faulks sees today’s London from very far away and only faintly makes it out. His imaginary version of it turns out to be as wooden and unrewarding as the various fantasy worlds and escapist trips he has picked out for condemnation.