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
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.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 2 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 3 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 4 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling