Saturday, 31 July 2010


This looks familiar, I thought, on first unloading Michael Burleigh’s ‘Moral Combat’ from a tote at work. Wait a minute... Having attended a covers meeting whist on work experience with a publisher, I can tell you that every aspect of cover design is taken very seriously. Are the colours inviting? Does the image convey the warmth and humour of the book? Could we give the paperback a wider appeal if we make it look less literary? Did this book not sell because the colours were dreary? Will this stand out from all the other books on the shelf? So I can only imagine the horror in the HarperCollins and Penguin camps when they realised that they had used exactly the same image for the covers of ‘Moral Combat’ and the paperback edition of Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War’, published within weeks of each other. I had found the cover of the latter particularly stunning; its moody colour scheme is enhanced by its striped matte and shiny finish, and a pixellated image really cannot do it justice. Unfortunately, side by side it is upstaged by the stark simplicity of the Burleigh book.

I put them on opposite ends of the History table.

Friday, 23 July 2010

‘Eleven’ by Mark Watson

Simon & Schuster, 19 Aug 2010

How does David Mitchell do it, I used to wonder. I see and hear him on television all the time, even in the advert breaks, and he’s an acclaimed writer too? Then I found out there were actually two David Mitchells, which was disappointing and relieving in equal measure. But Mark Watson, who is about to publish his third novel at the intimidatingly young age of thirty, is indeed the comedian Mark Watson. And ‘Eleven’ is really, really good.
As one might expect from a comedian, Watson has an amusing turn of phrase. The book was quirky and fun to read, but you do get the impression that Watson has Something to Say. Although he quite definitely lays down his ideas on the importance of taking responsibility for the people around us, the book sparkles with suggestions of ideas that demand further thought. In Watson’s world, failure to act is portrayed as an active rather than a passive evil, and as such there are consequences. We see what drives the characters to act the way they do, but nothing can stop the relentless chain of events that follows on from the central character Xavier’s failure to intervene when he sees a boy being beaten up. Meanwhile, Xavier gets a cleaner called Pippa, whose forthright ideas clearly mirror Watson’s own. She tells Xavier that his actions matter more than he thinks they do, and that simply passing by when others might need help is an act as significant as any other. A former champion discus thrower forced to abandon her athletic career and work as a cleaner, Pippa has vowed to be the best cleaner ever, and is relentlessly positive and pro-active in her approach to life. I did begin wonder what kind of cleaner Mark Watson would have made had the writing and comedy not worked out.
The panoramic scope of the novel makes it feel like a film, and there are obvious similarities to ‘Love Actually’ in the way it follows a diverse cross section of loosely linked characters. But where Richard Curtis’s film is trite and cloying, Mark Watson’s book does not offer easy reassurances. While Curtis’s antagonists (devil woman trying to tempt Alan Rickman to cheat on his wife being the prime example) seem to have little reason to behave as they do other than to push the plot along, the characters in ‘Eleven’ were much more skilfully drawn, even the least sympathetic. And while Curtis reveals a real streak of nastiness in the way he treats some of his characters (the sister of the Portuguese woman, who falls in love with Colin Firth, fat and still single at the end of the film, obviously should have learned to say no to those biscuits), by contrast Watson casts a compassionate eye on them all, including an estate agent desperate to treat his bad breath and gain the respect of his colleagues, and an obese teenager fruitlessly trying to lose weight.
Watson’s world is a closed system where there is one fixed cause to each event, which neatly goes on to spark another. It’s not the subjunctive, the mood of possibility, that Alan Bennet explores in ‘The History Boys’ ; rarely in real life are cause and consequence so well-defined. But it works, because one can take the novel as the world in microcosm, and Watson seems to be playing with the idea of the author as God. This is his world and he knows the fate of all the characters in it, from the Indian shop keeper who will die in three years, and the neighbour boy who will grow up to make a major medical breakthrough. Within this frame of destiny, the choices the characters do make are of paramount importance. Based on the evidence provided by ‘Eleven’, I think that were we to nominate someone to play God, Watson might do a fair job. There is an endless optimistic move to empathy and responsibility; the unpleasant restaurant owner will eventually come to consider and regret the unfair sacking of the teenager who washed his dishes, while the television personality comes to regret her affairs and value her husband once more. Every character is treated with respect and understanding, and even when a character does something terrible, we understand why. It is this deeply human aspect that makes ‘Eleven’ so appealing.
With the recurrence of fate and destiny in the novel, it comes as no surprise that the narrative loops around and the diverse consequences of his original (in)action eventually come unknowingly back to Xavier. Having fallen in love with Pippa, and faced her contempt for giving advice on late night radio while choosing to ignore the struggles of his neighbours, he is forced once again to make a decision. The ending did come as a shock, visceral enough to make me gasp on a crowded Tube train. Although at times it seems a little simplistic, ‘Eleven’ has a certain lingering quality, and is as unsettling as it is entertaining. As much as I love goofy and endearing Mark Watson the comedian, it is the author who really shines.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Book Group: Then We Came to the End

More than a week to go until the book group meeting, and I’ve already had a complaint about the selection.

“It reads like a supplement,” says Jane. I am apprehensive, although some of the best discussions have been about books that most of the group disliked. In February eight people showed up to slaughter Joyce Carol Oates and had a great time. Jane, however, does not come to the meeting to refine her opinion of ‘Then We Came to the End’ as “trite” or “superficial” or “forced”.

A few days later a customer comes in and remarks on the book group flyers. “I recommended that for my book group, it’s one of my favourites,” she enthuses. “Everyone else hated it, though.”

“I hated this,” Carlotta announces proudly at the meeting. Really? “I couldn’t finish it.” What was wrong with it? “I’m a real character person, and I felt that this didn’t go into enough depth.” I do think it’s a bit overwhelming at first, I say, there are so many characters. I think Ferris is trying to evoke starting a new job and that brief period when you’re learn everyone’s names and it’s hard to keep them clear in your mind. But stick with it. I did think the characters were very well drawn, once they emerged from that collective “we”. Carlotta remains unconvinced. “It just didn’t appeal to me.” How far did you get? “Umm, first sixty pages?” Oh. “And the ending. Since we’re talking about it.”

What did everyone else think? Quite liked it, is the general consensus. The bit with the chair was funny, but it’s bit too close to home sometimes...

“I think that’s what I didn’t like about it,” says Carlotta. “It reminded me of my first job. I would check the clock on my computer every thirty seconds or so...time and life ticking away. It made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Doesn’t that make it a success, then?” someone says.

“Yeah, maybe,” ponders Carlotta.

“I thought he did a really good job of creating that workplace atmosphere.” Mary says. “The pettiness, the bureaucracy...”

Where do you work? I ask.

“A publishing house.”

Funny you should say that, actually...

“I suppose it is a book for our times. More poignant now...” says Carlotta.

When was it written? There is a general scramble for the publication information at the front. 2007. Ah, prescient.

“It must always have been harder in America though,” says Carlotta. “Because there’s so much less support over there if you’re unemployed.”

Someone asks if Ferris has written anything else, and I say that I didn’t think ‘The Unnamed’ was anywhere near as good. I did enjoy reading it in that it felt like being in the company of an old friend, but I didn’t really think it was that clever or dazzling. The highlight was a sweet and funny bit with a father and daughter watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Everyone laughs. The ending wasn’t so great, I say. Kind of like the ending to this. I actually really hate it, I confess: “just you and me”. Awful. I think he balances the “we” perspective really well throughout, but to end it like that is just cheesy and gimmicky. I think he might have been aiming for thought-provoking, like, “Who’s you? Who’s me? Who are we all anyway?”, but I can’t even tell. And yet the closing paragraph before the epilogue just gave me chills:

“In the last week of August 2001, and in the first ten days of that September, there were more layoffs than in all the months preceeding them. But by the grace of god, the rest of us hung on, hating each other more than we ever thought possible. Then we came to the end of another bright and tranquil summer.”

It’s the way it anticipates September the 11th and all that followed without directly stating it. This is an era silently drawing to a close. When you look back on America of the late 1990s and very early 2000s there’s a sort of listlessness and an innocence. But maybe that’s because we’ve redefined it after that watershed moment.

“Interesting. But I didn’t even notice that,” says Mary. There is general agreement.

Maybe I’m reading too much into things, I say.

*Names have been changed.