Let’s harrumph for a minute, shall we? Let’s harrumph as all right thinking people do whenever someone younger, cooler and better looking swaggers into the room, a big swinging dick full of their own jerky confidence and preternaturally glowing with vigour, bonhomie and wankerishness. Imagine for a second that Pete Doherty was actually talented – it’s hard I know, but try – imagine Pete Doherty was the Pete Doherty we all know and, when we deign to think of him, despise – only he went and recorded an album that was – gulp – good. Such that your brain was thinking MUST – HATE – DOHERTY even as your toes and knees and hips started spasmodically jerking on some imaginary dance floor of the mind, your body some hippy committed to the groove, urging you, in its urgently physical way to just – you know – lose the hate, man, and inhabit the vibe and just – you know – go with it. This (if we can follow this shite metaphor to its illogical conclusion) is what reading Leo Benedictus’ debut novel The Afterparty is a bit like.
In one way, The Afterparty is a sort of Bret Easton Ellis-lite tale of celebrity and death and loose morals and drugs and disaffection, a la Gavin James Bower’s debut, Dazed & Aroused. We have Michael, a subeditor at the Standard who has been given his boss Camille McLeish’s invitation to Hugo Mark’s birthday bash at Cuzco because she bad-mouthed him in a column and doesn’t want to face him. Hugo Marks is a film star – think Colin Firth by way of Brad Pitt – who is shacked up with a model called Mellody – think Kate Moss by way of Naomi Campbell – and their marriage is on the skids thanks to Hugo’s possessiveness and Mellody’s infidelity (as the story opens she is knocking off a guy called Pete who is in some celebrated band or other – you imagine him to be the kind of wanker who would front a shite band like The Vaccines). We also meet Calvin, recent X Factor winner, who is still in the first flush of fame, hoovering up the drugs and worrying that other celebrities won’t know who he is. Calvin is also pretty damn stupid – but then so is Mellody and, occasionally, Michael. Intelligence, you realise banally, does not have a spotlight for itself at your average showbiz get together. But the book is called The Afterparty and The Afterparty in question is the scene of a death.
But before we can talk about the death we have to mention the other big thing about The Afterparty. The proof of the book comes emblazoned with the words INTRODUCING A NEW KIND OF NOVEL. Now. You don’t need to be Shakespeare to know that there is nothing new under the sun. Having the words INTRODUCING A NEW KIND OF NOVEL on the front of your novel is, to paraphrase John Cleese, motion to war. It’s the provocative equivalent to hanging a sign around your own neck that reads KICK ME. HARD. IN THE FACE. You’ll never quite know how hard it is for me to say that, extremely begrudgingly, it kind of is. In a way. I’ll explain why. Each chapter of The Afterparty is followed by emails between the supposed author of the book and his agent. In the beginning these form an interesting, slightly Matt Beaumont-ish undercurrent to proceedings. Roundabout the mid point, however, we start to hear talk of ‘the parallel between Petes Doherty and Sheen, as well as – of course – between Calvin Vance and that poor boy Alfie Marsh.’ Now. If you Google everyone save Pete Doherty, you’ll more than likely draw a blank but as the novel progresses you will be forced to draw comparisons between The Afterparty and the party Pete Doherty attended at which Mark Blanco died. Google Doherty and Blanco and you’ll see stories like ‘DID PETE DOHERTY AND FRIENDS KILL MARK BLANCO?’ alongside stories such as the one that had Doherty himself talking to police (how unusual, you might say) as recently as February 2011 on the subject – despite the fact that the accidental death – if that is what it was – took place in 2006. Without hopefully giving too much away, the way in which the novel is new (I think) is to try and talk about a live news story in a fictional way. We’ve had James Ellroy talking about dead celebrities and David Peace fictionalising recent historical figures and we’ve had, I suppose, the late great Gordon Burn fictionalising the news as it happened but I can’t think of a novel that has attempted to do something like this (which isn’t to say a novel hasn’t done this, I’m willing to be educated if you know better). [If you read the interview with Leo Benedictus, you’ll see I got this hopelessly wrong. Ah well. Print and be damned I say.]
This overlap with recent history creates a genuine frisson as you read, a frisson that supersedes, in some respects, the actual novel itself. The closing chapters of the book play out with a certain deadened inevitability. You read the closing chapters of the ‘fiction’ quickly and somewhat dismissively in order to get to the emailed correspondence. The Afterparty is not anticlimactic, as such – it’s a fine and fair first novel with a genuinely interesting and seedy undercurrent.It’s just that the electric interaction with a contemporary news story isn’t sustained because after all the story remains live and the novel ends and endings require a closure of sorts. This slightly downbeat divergence aside, though, Benedictus has crafted something people are going to talk about, something a lot of people are going to read and something that your average Joe Cool will think is seditious and perverse.
Any Cop?: The Afterparty shows genuine promise and we’ll watch with interest to see what Mr Benedictus gets up to next.