BOOK REVIEW / Headline to come into
English Settlement by D. J. Taylor Chatto, pounds 17.99; Strap to coem ino this psca heryeStrap to coem inStrap to coem ino this psca heryeStrap to coem in
Saturday 27 January 1996
However, it's not just his oesophagus which is constricting Mr Marshall. His entire life is currently throttling him - he is having a bad attack of "dem thirtysomething blues''.
On the surface, his existence looks as shiny and enviable as some testosterone- charged sports coupe. Of course, behind the lustrous surface lurks a less glittery underside. It is 1990, the venal glory days of the City are well and truly dead, and Scott - like every other financial whizzkid - is wondering when the downsizing axe is going to fall on his neck. His private life is a jumbled mess. He has a dying father, a psychotic girlfriend, a dubious management consultancy with a very dubious fourth division football club, and an all-enveloping sense of cultural displacement.
For Scott Marshall - the narrator of D.J. Taylor's English Settlement - is an American in London (albeit one with an expatriate English mother who hasn't set foot on this island in years). And, like all expatriates, he suffers from a bad case of Mid-Atlanticism - of feeling precariously balanced bet- ween two cultures.
Mr Marshall also has another major predicament on his hands: he is the first American I've ever encountered in fiction who sounds like a supercilious by-product of the English public school system. Or, to be a little more blunt about it, he doesn't sound American at all. My credibility meter immediately entered the red zone when I encountered passages like this:
''My father was not altogether a subtle man, but in the matter of England he displayed a rare and wholly efficacious delicacy. Saturated in England and Englishness, albeit of a momentously specialized sort, we questioned the incidental detail of this grand obsession rather than its wider architecture".
David Mamet beware - when it comes to awesomely accurate renderings of American patois, this Taylor guy is the momentously specialised business. And note the street-smart idiom he employs when describing Scott's arrival at his place of business: "Reaching reception with its clutch of toothy, well-groomed traffic, I flick my KLS pass at a seneschal and waft by unimpeded".
Riveting. Worthy of James Ellroy. And, of course, when I was doing Latin during my New York schooldays, we were taught to greet all Central Park West doormen with the salutation: Salve, seneschal!(a seneschal for those of you who didn't benefit from a Yankee education, being "the steward or major domo of a medieval great house").
Then there's Mr Taylor's remarkable command of American socio-political nuance. Scott's racist southern grandfather voted Republican until Gold- water's defeat in 1964. How intriguing - as no southern redneck would have dared support the Republicans (the party of Lincoln, after all) until Ronnie Reagan came along. And then there's Scott's brother who sells timeshare apartments to movie stars in Montana. Benidorm-style timeshares in a state where the average movie-star ranch is 1500 acres? I love an author who does his research. As real estate faux-pas go, this is up there with: "And then I moved to London and rented a fabulous gothic castle in Cricklewood".
I could go on - because English Settlement is not simply riddled with fundamental inaccuracies; it is also street-dumb. Besides Mr Taylor's inability to make his narrator sound remotely American, the world Scott inhabits bears no relation to contemporary life.
If you set out to write a State of England/Between Two Cultures, novel, the least you owe your reader is accurate reportage when it comes to workaday detail and the rhythms of speech. But, like so much bad literary fiction these days, English Settlement has no connection to life- on-the-street; rather, it is set in a preposterous Biba of preening and all-pervasive smugness.
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