‘The background to a device that has been produced to set cash tills ringing’ – Gold by Chris Cleave

I have to say I put off reading Gold, the third novel from Chris Cleave, for quite some time. This despite the fact that I enjoyed his second novel, The Other Hand, a great deal – enough to go back and read his first novel, Incendiary (which I also enjoyed). One of the things that grabbed me about The Other Hand was the way it was marketed: the copy I received included a short letter from Cleave’s publisher extolling its virtues which felt like a genuine, heartfelt and honest approach to recommending the book. ‘We’re not telling you about The Other Hand,’ the line went. ‘You have to read it to find out how good it is.’ I did read it. It was good. Certainly good enough to have me looking forward to his next book. Leastways until I received it.

Two things account for the brick wall: (i) Gold is about sport (ii) They’ve tried exactly the same marketing device again. Taking each in turn: Gold is about sport, the title refers to gold medals and the earning thereof, coming at the time of the Olympics this feels like a crude commercial device has been centred at the heart of the novel, not sure I like that at all; similarly, Gold attempts to eschew telling you what it’s about on the flyleaf because:

‘if you’ve read THE OTHER HAND or INCENDIARY you’ll know that what his books are about is only part of the story – what really matters is how they make you feel.’

The novel also includes another letter from Cleave’s publisher. Part of me thinks you can’t really blame someone for doing something twice if it worked the first time. Another part of me thinks you can’t step in the same river twice. To actually read the book, I had to figuratively hold my nose, plunge through a fog of ugh, sport and ugh, ugly marketing device phoniness and start reading. Thankfully, I at least can tell you what the book is about. It is possible. There are no magical tricks. It’s quite straightforward.

There are two cyclists, Zoe and Kate. They have been friends and rivals for a number of years. Zoe is incredibly driven, intense, successful, given to stray, casual sexual entanglements. Kate is a homebird, of sorts, married to Jack, another successful cyclist, a cyclist Zoe had her eyes on years back. Jack and Kate have a daughter, Sophie, who has leukaemia and a predilection for all things Star Wars. We meet them in the run-up to the qualifying rounds for the 2012 Olympics. Zoe’s face is on billboards all over Manchester. Sophie has taken a turn for the worse. Zoe and Kate’s coach Tom is thinking perhaps this will be his last Olympics. Meanwhile, in Europe, some pen-pushing sorts have decided to cut back on the number of entrants, which means Kate and Zoe will be going head to head for a single place:

‘This was what had become of the world that children used to ride their slow bicycles through in careless arcs. Time had been restructured like bad debt. The long languid hour had been atomised. Manifestoes were shrunk to memes and speeches were pressed into soundbites and heats were truncated into finals and it wasn’t the official’s fault if the consequences of all this devaluation was that an old man would now have to choose between two riders who’d grown up with him, and a girl suspended between life and death would now feel that fragile cord unravelling.’

A lot of the experience of reading Gold is contained in the above quote: there are good bits (the restructuring of time, the atomised hour), serviceable bits (the old man having to choose) and bits (the girl suspended between life and death) that feel like the crude mechanisms Simon Cowell employs to create the idea that his soulless endeavours actually have meaning. Gold isn’t, imho, a bad book but it is a book that suffers as a result of looking to the main chance. The character of Sophie feels like a cipher to ensure the drama reaches a certain pitch as Zoe and Kate go head to head at the climax of the book. After the head to head, Zoe experiences a short change of mind that I didn’t buy at all. There are other problems, not least the fact that, although the book is set in Manchester, it doesn’t feel like Manchester at all – it has the same ring as Richard Curtis’ London (ie it doesn’t really matter where it takes place, it’s just a background to the characters, who are themselves the background to a device that has been produced to set cash tills ringing).

There’s a danger that a review such as this becomes easy to dismiss (‘oh,’ a certain reader will cry, ‘you just dislike this because you think it’s populist’). It genuinely isn’t the populism of the book that makes it disagreeable. It’s the sense that creating a populist artefact was on the mind of the author and the publisher as it was being written. It’s right up there with that moment in Nick Hornby’s About a Boy when the Hugh Grant character is sad and goes home to listen to the music we all listen to when we’re sad. I remember at the time of reading that thinking ‘but what does he listen to?’ I wanted detail, not an overreaching attempt to fashion an everyman. The same applies here. Narrative and characterisation take a back seat to emotional manipulation. It might work in Hollyoaks. It doesn’t work in a serious novel.

In Stone Arabia, a novel by Dana Spiotta published almost at the same time as Gold, the narrator attempts to describe a feeling and the feeling sums up the experience of reading Gold better than I can:

‘It reminded me of watching a certain kind of film. Not some deep and powerful film that moves you, like The Bicycle Thief or Brief Encounter. Not even a sentimental classic, like Carousel or It’s a Wonderful Life. I mean some Lifetime channel Made-for-TV menopause drama that you stumble upon in the middle of the night. Some embarrassingly manipulative estradiol-targeted story with predictable yet random tragedies, with kids and infidelity and self-pity.’

Any Cop?: Gold will probably sell by the shedload and generate a proper wedge of gold for all concerned. Reviews such as this may be tiny pebbles tossed against a remarkable popular edifice. Even so, we think Cleave can do and is better than this. And next time, please ditch the ‘it isn’t what the book’s about, it’s what the book makes you feel’ malarkey – that has gotten seriously old.

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