David Szalay has the remarkable ability to evoke a period as fully and realistically as the best historical novelists; the period he excavates and displays, however, is only a few years past, 2006 and 2007. Szalay’s characters are rooted in that time’s lonely pursuit of wealth and apparently consequence-less greed. In his debut novel London & the South-East Paul Rainey is an alcoholic salesman selling advertising in a magazine with no readers and spending most of his working day in a particularly depressing Wetherspoons. In Spring, Szalay’s characters encounter the consequences of their pasts, finding that they need to adjust their ambitions and diminish their expectations of relationships: “No more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay.” At the height of the internet boom James’s company was worth millions (on paper but then came the bust) and now he lives in a grimy ex-council flat (the description of his bathroom is a character in its own right) while his uncertain income depends on a horse he co-owns with a parasitic Old Etonian. James’s approach to gambling, and affairs, has changed from his internet days: “There was a time when he might have staked everything on her. Now he just wanted to hold on to what he had.”
James meets Katherine and they begin a hesitant relationship based on their memories of the failures of past loves, Pinteresque misunderstandings and an inability to express their feelings. This is almost the anti-chicklit novel, there is no Greek chorus of friends for the main characters to rely on, finding the right partner doesn’t transform their lack of ambition and there’s nothing kooky about the chaos of their flats. The London they drift through has more to do with the atmosphere of a George Gissing novel than Bridget Jones, a sense of all-pervading pessimism (if it hadn‘t been eradicated at least one character would probably suffer from TB).
Szalay’s skill, and vision, as a novelist can be seen from the painterly observation he displays: this is a miniature stage that never feels as if he is using broad strokes. There is a casual detail in every part of the writing, Szalay establishes his characters (and their situation) through interior lives that are unsure of what it is they feel and desire: Katherine’s smile “does not even pretend to be sincere. To that extent it is, in its way, a sincere expression. It expresses something.”
Along with the observation of urban life there is a precision about Szalay’s language that transforms the reality of the novel from the mundane into offering the possibility of more, at one point he describes the coming of a dawn as: “The sky is overcast except in the east where it seems to have been torn open and flame-blue pallor is sinking through like pigment into water.”
Any Cop?: David Szalay’s writing is almost confessional in its accuracy and understanding of his characters, the evasions and confusions of a failed relationship and a pitch-perfect portrayal of the London his characters know.