Marks of weakness, marks of woe

Justin Cartwright thinks he has written The Great London Novel. Nicholas Lezard disagrees; In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright Sceptre, pounds 15.99

The title is a snip from Blake, his poem "London": he wanders through each chartered street, marking, in every face he meets, marks of weakness, marks of woe. Cartwright is very good at picking up marks of weakness: his protagonist is a weak man whose weakness leads him gradually into disaster. What is more, he is from London. Well, he works in London. London is a town Cartwright has been trying to get to the bottom of for some time now. If you want to get to the bottom of London, take the tube: "And now Anthony sees, as the mineshaft walls rush by all coated in mineral waste of some sort, that in the face of the capriciousness of this city ... this pride in one's own weaknesses and follies, so characteristic of Londoners, is quite sensible."

Not bad, is it? Apart from that limp "of some sort", and the fact that the sentence as a whole succeeds more by virtue of its euphony than its contribution to knowledge. The paragraph continues: "The boy with the fraying Mohican opposite catches his eye. He scratches his balls as though there is some complicity and indeed there is a bond of understanding."

Indeed? I doubt it. Anthony Northleach is a man in young middle age, a newly-promoted company director of a struggling firm, a rugby nut, born in Africa and - a little surprise to stop us from imagining him to be like every other rugby nut we know - obsessively fixated on Nelson Mandela. But that is inside knowledge. Anthony's exterior is unremarkable; like Richard Tull in Martin Amis's The Information, he is now invisible to passing women. That line about the understanding between him and the Mohican is pure guff. It is only there because Northleach (did Cartwright struggle to think that name up?) is Cartwright's representative on earth, and the novelist likes to think that there is a bond of understanding between himself and everyone on the planet. And I don't know about you, but if I want to telegraph a common bond between myself and my fellow tube-travellers, I don't scratch my balls.

Anyway, Cartwright certainly knows Northleach well. His travels around the city on 5 February 1990 dance to the tune of his own interior monologue, a relentless parade of banal observations and received opinions. Like: "irrationality survives. That's why religious cults are springing up and alternative beliefs, often quite mad, are flourishing. Like suppressed memory and satanic abuse. You don't want to underestimate the pulling power of the irrational." Et cetera.

The technique reminds you of Joyce, but is it meant to do so? (How can't it?) After a few dozen pages of this you wonder how much more you can take. After a few more, you wish you were reading Ulysses instead.

There are interludes: scenes with Jason, a young black pimp, and the prostitute "Channelle", pathetic crackheads with vague but unrealisable plans to escape from their predicament. The pages devoted to the workings of Anthony's mind outnumber those about Jason and Chanelle by about ten to one, suggesting that Cartwright's bond of understanding with them is a little more tenuous. But you can tell their destinies will cross with Northleach's, and they do.

Their fates are bracketed by a prologue and epilogue set in the mind of Julian Clapper, a freelance writer called up for jury service. The trial will determine the events of the day, but Clapper gets everything wrong due to a misguided concern for the underclass. Clapper, a pitiful figure to begin with, emerges as deeply unpleasant, as if Cartwright had taken violent exception to him for private reasons in the intervening pages.

With its po-faced nod to literary precedent, its tiresome, fin-de-Thatcherisme wisdom after the event and its eager, puppyish concern to be The Great London Novel, its ambition is embarrassingly plain, which is a pity. because Cartwright is very good at turns of phrase and local description. When something actually happens it is efficiently tense. But there's no point in Cartwright trying to be Martin Amis, let alone James Joyce. Amateurism is honourable in rugby, but not in prose.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick