Like Philippe Claudel’s The Investigation or, more recently, Jeff VanderMeer’s exemplary Annihilation, Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century deals, for the most part, with characters whose names betoken who they are or what they do. Our hero, if hero he could be said to be, is Fogg – a man who likes to hide but who is resolutely proud of the fact that his name and what he does are distinct from one another. The same cannot be said for a great many of the people he hangs around with: Oblivion, for instance, who has the ability to simply remove things from existence, and their boss, the Old Man, who is (you’ve guessed it) an old man (who has been an old man for a very, very long time it would seem). Fogg and Oblivion are recruited just before the Second World War to form part of a shadowy British government agency. You see, there was this thing – a German guy called Vomacht fashioned a box that gave out a wave that transformed some people into ubermensch, that is over-men, that is superheroes I suppose you would say. But The Violent Century is not a superhero novel (not really). This is superheroes by way of Le Carre. Superheroes by way of James Ellroy (who recommends the book). Superheroes delivered in an extremely fragmentary way, via a whole host of Ellroy-esque staccato sentences (Ellroy, you sense, is a fan of anyone who writes like him).
The novel opens in the present, Oblivion tracking Fogg down and bringing him in for an interview with the Old Man. This structure – the interview, the way in which the past is picked up and examined before being replaced and later returned to – reminded this reader of the structure of the recent Matthew McConaughey / Woody Harrelson double-header (which I really tried to like, I did, but there was just something lacking, as if the complexity of the structure was disguising some fundamental weakness of plot). We go from the present, and the interview, to 1926. Then 32, 36, 46, 36, 44, 45, 43, 42, 36. In some senses it’s a bit like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (even as it couldn’t be more different). Both books make similar demands on you as a reader, though. We come to see (and the Old Man eventually points it out to us, twice, in case we missed it) that each side has their own ubermensch and this effectively cancels out the power of them (even as it gives us some pretty barnstorming set pieces that you could easily see upon a movie screen – although the subtle dynamic between what is to all intents and purposes a serious alternative take on history would be lost if they went and spent a whole lot of money on special effects).
Tidhar is clever and well read and he uses history and research well – and yet there are all the same nagging doubts. The staccato effect of the short sentences and the short chapters hop, skipping and jumping from one moment to the next (and towards the end of the book within the short chapters themselves) is as frustrating at times as it can be exhilarating. I felt, as I read, that this was a book for someone ever so slightly younger than me, more willing to accept a certain paucity of language if the narrative had ambition (which isn’t to say that I don’t want ambition – I do – I just want it alongside writing that is doing interesting things – Tidhar’s writing doesn’t always do interesting things). There are, though, as I say, moments of the book that leap from the page and images (such as the world Vomacht’s daughter concocts, a world in which it is always summer) that definitely linger.
Any Cop?: Overall, The Violent Century would not be a novel we wholeheartedly recommend (for our money, of the brace of superhero novels that have been dribbling out over the last few years, we still prefer All my Friends are Superheroes, It’s Superman! and Soon I Will Be Invincible) but Tidhar is definitely a writer we will be watching to see what he does next.