Thomas E. Kennedy is a writer with a hell of a pedigree: he’s published nine novels, written and/or edited another seven books of non-fiction, and collected a Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Prize, amongst other awards. He’s based in Copenhagen, and that’s where Falling Sideways, an economic satire, is set. It’s one of a quartet of books set in the Danish capital, and though I haven’t read the others, this one alone has made me want to book flights to Denmark immediately. As well as being an engaging story with an excellent cast, Falling Sideways is a beautiful hymn to a city that I’ve rarely encountered in English-language fiction. Intriguingly, the Copenhagen Quartet was originally published several years ago by a small Irish press to quiet acclaim; it’s only now, after Kennedy’s later novels and essays gained some attention in the US, that they’re being reissued, this time by Bloomsbury – so hopefully this will help raise Kennedy’s profile here in the UK.
Falling Sideways is an ensemble piece, based around a group of workers at the Tank, a big Copenhagen business, whose actual business is largely unspecified, but seems to consist of meetings about emails about meetings; the Everyman of the modern workplace. Martin Kampman is the manipulative, power-hungry CEO, whose mission it is to downsize the company; Fred Breathwaite, American ex-pat, whiskey connoisseur, and literature lover, is the soon-to-be-axed head of the International division; and Harald Jaeger is his dissolute, desperate, and extremely horny successor. Then there’s Jes, Fred’s son, who’ll do anything to avoid following n his father’s corporate footsteps, and Adam, Martin’s son, who’s in love with the au pair and longs to rebel against his dictatorial father. And alongside them is an assortment of female characters – wives, ex-wives, lovers, daughters, a couple of co-workers and, of course, Jytte, the femme fatale au pair. Basically, Kennedy sets up both Kampman’s brutal downsizing scheme, and Kampman’s and Breathwaite’s plans for their sons; the momentum’s now set, and we can only watch as plans clash and families struggle and machinations, well, machinate.
The story’s told from the alternating viewpoints of various characters, with some voices (the Breathwaites, the Kampmans) more prominent in the mix; the overall effect is that of a layered picture of Danish life for the moneyed business class. Kennedy differentiates his characters wonderfully – Fred Breathwaite’s unexpected poeticism; Jes’s lyrical, if cynical, rebellion; Martin Kampman’s calculated venom; Adam’s inexperienced paranoia, elation and misery; Harald Jaeger’s hapless sexual frustration. The book reminded me of Tom Wolfe – particularly I Am Charlotte Simmons – in the way Kennedy manages to juggle a multitude of perspectives without losing any sense of coherency. It’s a great read; funny and poignant, dramatic without seeming overblown, and really well-paced. If I were to criticise it, it would be to highlight the comparatively subservient roles of the female characters. Most of the women here seem to act as a function of the male characters’ desires or needs: Kis is Fred’s conscience; Vita is Harald’s mistake; Jytta is a catalyst for Adam’s escape. Even Birgitte, a powerful figure in the Tank’s hierarchy, doesn’t really exist outside Harald’s desire for her – once their brief affair and its dissolution serve to throw Harald off-track, she vanishes almost entirely from the narrative. And the final image of the book – well, no spoilers, but it wasn’t for this the suffragettes marched. Karen Kampman, surprisingly, is the only one who defies this tendency – I was pumping my fist in the air for her as the book progressed. Read it yourself to find out why.
Any Cop? All that said – and I do think it’s a valid complaint – I did really, really enjoy this book. It’s smart and engaging and page-turning. It combines beautiful prose with vivid characters and an interesting, if small-scale, plot. And Martin Kampman is a horrible, power-mad villain to rival Big Jim Rennie in Stephen King’s Under The Dome. Can’t beat that.