I’ll begin with an apology and a confession. Not contrite, nor embarrassed, more concerned with my failing powers of memory and recall, discrimination and taste, my goddamn inability to differentiate between Tims. When this novel came up for review, I grabbed it, thought, ‘Yes, that will make a good diversion, something slightly different, not post-modern fiction, not brutal noir, but a solid piece of state-of-the-nation prose, a story not too demanding but not lightweight. Tim Binding. Tim Binding. Tim Binding. Now, I’m not so far down the fog-misted road of senility that I mistook him for the Louisiana novelist Tim Gautreaux. No, no, no. My senescence is closer to home. When I opened the padded envelope, I hoped for a novel by Tim Pears. The problem is, I always get Tim Pears mixed up with Tim Parks. So, it wasn’t a Tim Pears novel I was looking forward to, it was a Tim Parks novel – something like Europa, Rapids, or Cleaver. I expected the golden ticket of a Judge Savage but received The Champion. What a Wonka. Downcast, I opened the pages. I confess this isn’t the novel I wanted to read and therefore not the review I wanted to write and I apologize if any disappointment infects my words, inflects my tone, inflicts on you a brutal desire to make me shut the fuck up. But here goes: a review of a book I didn’t want to read or spend time thinking and writing about.
Our guide to post-Thatcher Britain, Charles Pemberton, is something of – what my grandmother would have called – a ‘fussbudget’, he is a prig, he is teeth-achingly dull, armpit-scorchingly wet, and without the personality or the humour to be a Roth or Bellow-like kvetcher. He is a small man in a nameless small town in South East England; he lives between the hell-like whirl/cess pool of London and the tinkling Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm excitement of Brighton. He is an accountant. He is John Major without the Steve Bell underpants, without the affairs, without the glamour. He’s a pissy, whining, snivelling little shit straight out of the pages of an H.G. Wells’ novel – a Mr. Polly without the warmth or a Tory Mr. Lewisham. This is Diary of a Nobody devoid of humour; Charles Pemberton is Pooterish to the max. To offset this we have the figure of Clark Rossiter – Large to his friends, Large to the reader in case we miss the fact that he is Large-r than life, he Large-s it in the pubs and the sports field, gives it Large in the City and the bedroom, he’s LARGE – got it? And, snigger-snigger, his real name is Clark (see that?), the old switcheroonie, Charles should be Clark because he’s a glorified clerk and Clark should be Charles, good old Charlie boy, because he Chucks it about – his personality, his money, his schlong, his Largesse! Oh, the mirth.
Large gets the plaudits, the champagne, and the girls, while Charles (never Charlie) gets the cold-shoulder, the sherry, and the godbothering girlfriend. Now, I’m not sure about you but a woman who sat naked at the bottom of my bed reading aloud from the Old Testament before we fucked (sorry, ‘made love’) would put me right off my conjugal Deuteronomies. But Charles, having lost his virginity (age 64?) to the Jezebel Katie, comes over all aquiver at thoughts that ‘if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people’ (Leviticus 20:18). And he is cut off from the people; he’s an outsider, a peeping Tom without the balls to peep. The dynamics of the two main characters plays out front of stage before a backdrop of Thatcher’s resignation, Major’s village-lawn view of Britain, Maxwell’s early bath, the rise of the City barrow-boys, and Lloyds ‘Names’, but events are over and done with in a sentence, the characters’ thoughts on any political subject are at best sketchy, and the novel – to this reader anyway – is tinged Tory blue, flushed the colour of Maggie’s royal blue twin-set or loo-blue toilet cleaner. Any satire linking the late eighties and early nineties with the contemporary financial downturn and ConDem government is lost in the petty jealousies, half-hearted affairs, and plodding plot of a ‘country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers,’ whose principal character’s main interests appear to be dressing up as an American on the Fourth of July, eating hot dogs, and keeping secrets – like the Bible-thumping girlfriend – from one’s mother, even though one is of a certain age and one runs one’s own business and no doubt is able to wipe one’s own arse.
At least when Large is on stage, the novel has a character of some substance – he could be John Self’s wannabe younger brother. In fact, the novel itself is like that – a poorer relation to Martin Amis’s Money, the not-quite-as-rich cousin to Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle, the annoying little brother of Drabble’s The Radiant Way, the red-headed stepchild (with a blue rinse) of Hollinghursts’s The Line of Beauty, or the blind, deaf, and mute conjoined twin of David Peace’s GB84. If the reader wants satire, satire about the egregious eighties, the neoliberal new-media nineties, then I recommend Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose tetralogy – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk – in which the characters are as equally unlikeable but fun to be with.
It’s taken me over 1,000 words to say that the petty motivations and emotions of the characters in no way correspond to the changing world in which they gripe and posture, a suicide, a dodgy geezer, a severed arm, a trophy wife and a bullying mother are not ‘evocative of Dickens’ (as KFC is ‘evocative of chickens’?) but of the Daily Mail, of NIMBYism. If the novel’s intention is to satirise reactionary middle-England then it does not go far enough and founders in a John Major-like greyness despite Large’s blinking blinkety bling.
Any Cop?: The Chump – more bust than boom.