The first thing that strikes you about Leo Benedictus’ second book is style. The cover of the hardback has its title and author name raised as if the whole was designed by Peter Saville. All you can really see is a key. On the back, with the exception of a bar code, are the words: Read Me. On the inside fly leaf, you’ll read the words: This book is an experiment. You are part of the experiment if you agree to it. As with Benedictus’ previous book, The Afterparty, the more unprepared you come to Consent, the better. But, at the same time, it’s worth knowing some things. We’ll tread carefully.
What we have here is a nameless narrator, who (at least) twice informs us we know who he is. Odd, you think, skipping back, scouring the pages for something you might have missed. Gradually we learn he came into some money (much as the narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder did) and the money allowed him freedom, which in turn sowed the seeds of a habit. Our narrator likes to follow people. When we meet him, he’s been following people for a while. He follows until he has had enough. Sometimes he picks up with someone he once followed again. For much of the duration of Consent he follows a woman called Frances. We also hear from Frances too. Frances works in the corporate world. Despite a modicum of success, Frances achievements are wobbly, easily dismantled, subject to external pressures. We loiter in the precincts of Frances’ life: she likes to run, although not as frequently as she knows she should, she has a housemate, Steph, who spends most of her time at her boyfriend’s, she reads, she likes the odd pain aux raisin of a morning.
Relatively early on in the book it becomes apparent to Frances that someone is trying to undermine her. She thinks it is her boss, Will. When she is first informed of the trouble she is in, she snaps and gives him both barrels. (Ah, you think as you read: that feels like a misstep, someone in a corporate environment – particularly someone who has done well – would know not to let their guard down like that. But Benedictus has his back covered.) The trouble Frances finds herself in gradually worsens. It’s almost like someone is out to make shit for Frances… Now who could that be? That’s almost (almost) all you need to know to make a decision on whether this sounds like a book you might like.
There are just, possibly, two more small things to know about Consent. Or maybe three if we dally with a the title a moment, which I think we shall. If you approach this prickly pear in the same way as you would a film like Funny Games, you wouldn’t go far wrong. So that title. Consent. You’re kind of giving it by creasing the cover and starting in. Consider that the prequel to a direct warning. Consent can be quite unpleasant at times. There is violence here. Predatory behaviour. Not the same kind of predatory behaviour you’ll find in a book like Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts. Consent gets mightily dark. Audition dark. The second thing (and this comes with an epilogue too): have you ever seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life? The story of small town all round good guy George Bailey and his struggle to overcome life’s obstacles – one of whom is the nasty old local businessman, Potter. There’s a scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where Potter, having done just about everything else to drive Bailey out of business, tries a different tack and offers him a job. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, George?” he says after listing all of the nice things he’ll be able to buy for his wife now that his ship has finally come in. For a moment, George’s eyes glow with greed and then his conscience reasserts itself. “No, no, no,” George says after shaking Potter’s hand – there’s a great James Stewart moment as he looks at his hand after the handshake and the mist clears, it’s as if Potter has left some slimy unguent in Bailey’s palm. Reading Consent is a little like that. It leaves a bad taste. The kind of bad taste some readers (readers of Palahniuk, say) really like. But it isn’t entirely for us.
We said there was a slight epilogue to this too. Consent is clever in the same way that The Afterparty was clever. It’s clever in its construction. It has to be. It’s clever like a neat joke. And like neat jokes it would probably repay a re-read if you enjoyed it, to see how Benedictus cleverly built his pyramid. But there is a corresponding downside to the neatness that manifests itself in such things as the bequest, or in the speed with which Frances’ one-night stand departs (in such a haste to prevent you wondering, wouldn’t the police have taken his details too…?). Some things can only happen as Benedictus prescribes because any slight deviation would blow the whole concoction to kingdom come. The reality is tenuous, at times, is what we are saying. Credulity is eked out. And sometimes (as in the way clever Frances behaves un-corporately too quickly) we’re prepared to take it because of the eventually revealed set-up; and sometimes… well, sometimes we’re not.
Any Cop?: Fans of The Afterparty will lap this up we think, and fans of Palahniuk’s better offerings will get a kick out of it too. It’s dark as pitch on a black night in the height of winter, and at times it’s a little neat, but for all that it’s an almighty page turner that will have you in its grip until the final page.