Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sebastian Faulks

People love or hate Sebastian Faulks. I heard such incredible things about him in the '90s that it led of course to disappointment. Birdsong, declared the 13th most popular novel in Britain in a BBC "Big Read" survey in 2003, let me down when I read it: one of my friends recommended this as a "sexy" novel, had fallen in love with the hero (her own husband was busy managing a hospital and God knows what else), and praised it to the skies. What I noticed about Birdsong was that the affair between the hero and the French woman turned sentimental very quickly.  The man was basically emotionally a woman.  I don't mean the woman was "on top," or anything like that:  I simply mean he was more emotional than the average man.  
But the novel was very well-written--rather as Pat Conroy's are.  Yet there is a point where these two writers deliberately turn away from literary and go pop, though they’re perfectly capable of writing a literary novel.  I like pop novels but World War I romance isn't one of my genres.  So I dismissed this.
To further complicate my feelings toward Faulks, he wrote the new James Bond novel a year or two ago.  Ugh, ugh, ugh!
But his new novel, A Week in December, is exactly my cup of tea.  Reading between the lines of reviews, I knew I would enjoy it.  I love books with ensemble casts of characters, especially when the author takes the time to describe their professions in detail and to a certain extent defines the characters by work.  And Faulks does a convincing job in this novel, set the week before Christmas in 2007, of showing us the characters' attitudes toward work.    
Jenni Fortune loves her job.  She is an Underground Tube driver.  A thoughtful woman who loves books but also plays a complicated internet “virtual reality” game at night, she is tense because a “jumper” was injured on the tracks during her drive.  Ironically, the jumper is suing the railroad, because Jenni couldn’t stop the train in time to avoid hitting him (nor could anyone, and she knows this).  Although the lawyer, Gabriel, explains that she isn’t responsible nor is she being sued, Jenni can’t quite take it in.  Gabriel is a depressive.  He doesn’t care about his job.  He doesn’t understand people who love their work.  And he is interested in Jenni.  She doesn’t fit into the class of people he knows best.  And she is a reader, staring at his Balzac books in his office.
One of the main characters, Veals, is an emotionally dead financier who lives to make semi-legal trades--and Faulks is very detailed in his explication of Veals’ job.  We learn, too, all about his paranoia--he never says anything important in his office, because the place is bugged and his employees could gossip.  He prefers to do his business on an orange phone in an alley.  His son is a dope fiend (well, he smokes a lot of marijuana and has made deals at a pet cemetery).  His wife is appalled by her family.
My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell and is a kind of small-time Veals, who trades on a much smaller level--criticizing literature.   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  He is one of the funniest characters in this novel.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.
None of this interested Tranter.  His years in the business had trained him to go straight to the fiction pages, which he read with the eye of a fund manager scanning market prices.  The difference was that Tranter had no investment and no favorite; he didn’t want to see a modest growth, still less a boom.  He was interested only in bad reviews.  Crash was what he wanted:  crash and burn--failure, slump, embarrassment.
See what a good writer he is?  Fluid and precise.  I’m only halfway through this novel but it’s one of the most entertaining I’ve read this year.
Now i’m going to have to go back and read Faulks’ other stuff.  I have read Charlotte Grey and I liked it.


verity said...

This one didn't do it at all for me I'm afraid; I loved Birdsong and his wartime novels which are based on wonderful research but I just thought here he was trying to do whatIan McEwan did somewhat better in Saturday said...

what a great review! Totally agree with you about Faulks and Birdsong, and might just give this one a try, after your insightful comments.

Frisbee said...

I can tell from the reviews that there's a split on this book . The Birdsong lovers don't care for his new "state-of-Britain" novel, and vice versa.

I didn't care for Birdsong but I've simply fallen in love with this novel and am wondering, Why didn't he win a prize? The Birdsong lovers are probably wondering, Why didn't he win a prize for B?

De gustibus non est disputantum!

Buried In Print said...

Interesting! I've seen this in the library a dozen times and didn't even pick it up to pet it: now I feel delinquent.

Frisbee said...

It's very enjoyable and well-written. I got hooked on the first page.