Before Douglas Coupland did JPod, before Joshua Ferris wrote Then We Came to the End and before, even, Ricky Gervaise launched The Office on an unsuspecting world, Matt Beaumont wrote e, a novel set in an office, composed entirely of emails and inter-office memos. Ah yes but – you might say – you’re not possibly comparing Douglas Coupland and Joshua Ferris (writers of lit-turr-a-churr) or Ricky Gervaise, world-bestriding comedy God and buddy to the stars, to someone who pops out the odd slice of lad lit here and there are you? Well, in point of fact I am. If e had been written by someone who was allowed to be writing that kind of fiction (the Douglas Couplands of this world), it would have been held up as our very own Generation X – and e squared would be feted in the same way that Coupland’s Generation A will no doubt be feted. The reason it isn’t is in some ways down to literary snobbery and in some ways down to the way in which Beaumont is presented.
But first the novel itself. A mite chunkier than it’s predecessor (clocking in at a whopping 500 and odd pages), e squared is set in an ad agency (or should that be Thought Collective) named Meerkat360 and is composed entirely of emails, texts, IMs and blogs. A few of the characters from e pop up (arch tyrant David Crutton, design dude Liam O’Keefe, flakey PA Susi Judge-Davis) but it’s largely new characters and one need not be put off by having missed out on e first time round. There are maybe two dozen plot strands (as you might expect of life in a busy… erm… Thought Collective), ranging from David’s attempts to secure a massive cigarette advertising campaign to Liam’s urgent need to cough up a few of the old readies to stave off savage beatings at the hands of sundry loan sharks – offering Beaumont the opportunity to wax lyrical on everything from the moribund corpse that is Big Brother to the state of the economic nation.
For those of us who can get by the snob reflex there’s lots in e squared to get a huge kick out of. Similarly, those people drawn in by a cover that nods and winks (like a Dickensian character given to nodding and winking) in the direction of Graham Linehan’s IT Crowd series will not be disappointed, Beaumont and Linehan operate in the same area (in that they’re not afraid of making you laugh). But there are those that would sneer all the same and having read mostly everything that Beaumont has written I can say with hand on heart, the sneerers are the ones who are missing out. There is a French subplot (itself another hangover from e) that could have been excised (imho) and a sense that the book could well have been better (more swaggery and confident) if he had done as Coupland did and ditched the connection to e altogether (renaming his characters, having this run as a ‘new’ book with a more spiritual than literal connection to e) – but really we’re splitting hairs…
To come back to what we were saying at the start, though. You know how JK Rowling had different covers for the Harry Potters (which was pretty divisive in some quarters I know but bear with me): I think it would be interesting (in terms of getting Beaumont apprised by the kinds of people who normally sneer) if he was presented as a UK Coupland. I actually genuinely think there is enough overlap between the two writers to win Beaumont a bigger audience. I think if someone who was a fan of Coupland picked up a book by Beaumont, you’d have a fair old time. If you’re interested in dabbling, you could do a lot worse than start dabbling here, with e squared… The most important thing to say about the book is that it’s fun – and fun is not something you see all that often in books for grown ups (I know that there is a whole tranche of largely worthless ‘escapist’ fiction but that isn’t the same). To read something fun, to be entertained – well, there’s a lot to be said for that and a lot of credit due to someone who can perform that difficult trick. So kudos to Beaumont and kudos to anyone who can get over themselves enough to enjoy the book in the first place!
Any Cop?: e squared is a blast. squared.