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.