Thursday, March 09, 2006

Shock tactics

"There's not many kids that got into fights in the street because some kid calls your dad a 'reactionary class traitor'. It was like living in one of them books written by Chinese women about life during the Cultural Revolution."

Alexei Sayle, Overtaken, p. 11.

Having raved to my mate Peter a few weeks ago about the really rather t'riffic Barcelona Plates and The Dog Catcher, he was really rather t'riffic and sent me Sayle's novel, Overtaken.

First, it's a much more leisuredly read than the boy's bumper book of space.

Secondly, it's got the same sharp observation as his short stories, the same wicked turn-of-phrase and sudden reversals so out of left field that they overturn the whole tale in a sentence. Yet it's not quite the revelatory experience as the shorts - which are perhaps the best examples of the medium I've ever read.

I've been trying to understand why I feel a bit disappointed, despite all the good stuff packed into the book.

Comic novels often have the feel of sitcoms and comic stage plays, with extreme sorts of people in contrived situations. But prose, being slower and less immediate, and with the reader in control of the speed it plays out, leaves plenty of space for real character depth, to explore motivation, to add detail.

What might play out fine and frenetic between actors can therefore feel vapid in print. Farces are facile and silly, but keep the audience busy in just keeping up, and they won't notice until long after it's over.

The plot itself reminded me in some ways of another disappointment - Iain Banks's Dead Air. A crass, ranty rogue as narrator is shocked by cataclysmic tragedy and decides to show a few of life's bastards the error of their ways - in a variety of crass, ranty ways. Having been shown by example, the narrator uses shock therapy to enact ethical change... This sets up all kinds of unlikely adventures, with both the villains and narrator maybe learning something along the way.

In this case, narrator Kelvin is a 30-something property developer without a care in the world. He's just as crass and unthinking as those he comes up against, and for all the places and plays they've been to, his life with his five best friends is witless and banal, a stream of mobile phonecalls saying nothing.

(You never overhear anything intersting being said into a mobile, do you? Not ever...)

As well as talking through any journey, they natter through films and plays without a thought for anyone else. That they drive to the same places in different cars is a good indicator of their casual selfishness, as well as becoming a bit of a plot point.

Trouble is, in my head it comes with the voice of a bloke I used to know who'd regularly say stupid, crass things for effect. Stuff about race and class and women you'd find, if you argued him down long enough, that he really didn't believe in or care about. It was a cynical stabbing of people's emotional buttons, to make conversations a bit more abrasive.

More to the point, though you're clearly not meant to like Kelvin, there was never any point where I was rooting for him, either. Even when terrible things happen to him, he's a hard bloke to sympathise for.

Sayle's book is chock-full of wild, grotesque archetypes doing wild, grotesque things. More importantly, there's plenty of times when he leaps artfully out of the way of such cynical plotting. For example, what looks like another crude set-up with Kelvin (the narrator) and an old queen turns out to be a deft little gag about yo-yos.

It's constantly funny and diverting, with deft flashes of something more substantial. The result is something that doesn't quite reach genius (as I genuinely think the short stories do), but whose fingertips brush against it at times.

Looking forward to Sayle's next, Weeping Women Hotel - when I eventually get to it.


Anonymous said...

I also found Overtaken a bit underwhelming in the aftermath of the truly marvellous short story collections. But do pursue The Weeping Women Hotel. It's bloody marvellous. In fact, I've started reading Overtaken again in case I missed something first time, so much better did I think the new one was...


0tralala said...

Cheers, Deej. Exactly what I was hoping to hear. I shall avail myself of it at my earliest opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Deej: The Weeping Woman Hotel is as good as the short stories were, but then in full length novel form. He said he'd chosen to focus on writing the novel as opposed to doing it in between other things and when you read it, you'll find that easy to believe. Overtaken read like a really good draft version; overall structure was impressive, but it read like he put all the seperately written bits together without editing it.
The Weeping Women Hotel is quite beautiful really, even quite moving at times.


Anonymous said...

The one bit I really do like in Overtaken, apart from the recollection of how seeing Archaos made us all want to join the circus somewhere about 1990 it brought me, is an astonishingly deft and absolutely spot on sequence about a page long about 1970s left wing playwrights.
It made me laugh out loud and weep inwardly.