An author who's not writing but drowning

A quarter of a million pounds for 100 pages of an unfinished novel. pounds 100,000 for four sample chapters and a synopsis. pounds 250,000 for 40 sheets of A4. The back-of-a-fag-packet first-novel deal on the basis of an e- mail synopsis can't be far away.

Newspapers love these stories, and publishers love to provide them. And surely, in the case of hard-to-promote first novelists, a little bluff and glitz is justified in order to create a high profile in a packed market? This month there is an exceptional chance to see the pitfalls of these short-sighted attempts to generate a buzz round a young novelist.

Penguin was prompt to send out a press release announcing its signing of Richard Mason, a 20-year-old Oxford student, with a two-novel deal. This dazzling newcomer had written a literary thriller, The Drowning People, narrated by an old man who had murdered his wife. Now the book is finally out, stories and interviews have started to appear, stressing the luck, the good looks, the charm and the advance - bulked up to $1m with film rights. How did Mason manage it? "I got myself a good agent," he told the Telegraph. Penguin should have put a dummy in his mouth before letting him inform the trade organ the Bookseller: "I've always wanted to write novels - best to get the bad ones out of the way young."

Let's get one thing straight: it is no mean feat to have completed a reasonably coherent novel by the age of 20. Just typing it would be an achievement. But on completion The Drowning People should have been consigned to Mason's sock drawer for ever.

For a start, Mason does not keep up the attempt to write as a 70-year- old for long. Within a few pages we have flashed back ("Oh yes, it's all flooding back now") to the narrator's twenties and his doomed love affair with the beautiful, aristocratic but unstable Ella. Ella just happens to have a cousin, Sarah, who is so like her that even James gets confused. A double, eh? That's handy.

Because Ella and James are acutely aware that they are in a novel called The Drowning People, their love-talk seems to revolve exclusively around marine life: "People move in schools, like fish. It's safest that way," says Ella. James is enraptured by her "holistic insouciance". "I've spent the whole evening despising myself for being so like all the other fish," he moans. "I dress like them; I speak like them ..." Dress like fish?

Mason's chief talent seems to be for grabbing a mixed metaphor and swimming marathons with it. A new friend asks James about his plans for the summer: "They're cast in stone." "Stone can always be broken, can it not?" "Not this stone." When metaphor deserts him, he falls back on cliche. James, a musician, goes to study in Prague with a master who has "a wizened head of silver hair; a hooked nose; black pointed eyes". Prague is "a city of arched bridges; sharp steeples; gracious domes". Not like London, then, with its blunt steeples, ignoble domes and rhomboid bridges. When even cliche flees his eager embrace, he shacks up with oxymoron: Fortune, we are told, is "a capricious force ... she bestows fleeting immortality and takes it back when it is needed most". When James and Ella sleep together ("it was a time of manifold consummations, for love was a varied catalyst"), they find "our nights together - snatched, secretive and few - were eternities." Fleeting immortality? Snatched eternity?

Stop, stop! For Richard Mason has delighted us long enough. Could Penguin not have worked on the text? Why expose a young, evidently callow writer like this? A publisher who had expressed interest in capturing Mason, but had lost out in the ensuing rights auction, admitted to me there were "flaws" in the novel. But, he insisted, Mason should be praised, in a culture fixated on tales of gritty urban angst - the I-shoved-the-poppers- up-her-nose-and-shagged-her-in-the-alleyway school - for his bravery in, yes, swimming against the tide, in writing a lushly romantic tale with no swear words, no explicit sex, and hardly any drugs. Well, Donna Tartt got there first and did it better.

It may be, of course, that Mason is his own enemy. With a cleverness that he displays rarely in his 300-page debut, he plucks an epigraph from one of Keats's letters: "I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, and the quicksand, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice." This is Keats consoling himself for the relative failure, artistic and commercial, of his lush epic poem Endymion. In Mason it just looks like a cheeky attempt to forestall criticism. He is no Keats. This is no Endymion.

`The Drowning People' is published by Michael Joseph (pounds 10).

Robert Winder's television review: page 9.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain