At Hay, Ian McEwan said he hated comic novels: "It's like being wrestled to the ground and tickled, being forced to laugh." Even worse, surely, if a comic novel is not funny: in which case, is it still a comic novel? Faber clearly thinks Rodge Glass is a comic novelist (the front-cover quote calls him "A very good comic writer"), but Hope for Newborns, his second novel, is not really funny. But Faber's problem is obvious: it's hard to know what else to call it, or how to categorise its author.
The narrator is Lewis Passman, a young man dividing his time between recruitment consultancy, his father's barber shop and his online relationship with the mysterious, alluring Christy, with whom he once had a teenage fumble that remains the closest he has come to sex. The Victory Barber Shop, opened by Lewis's Jewish grandfather in central Manchester after the boat supposedly taking him to New York docked in Hull, is being targeted (somewhat implausibly) by anti-war protesters objecting to its proud support for Empire, the Army, our boys in Iraq.
Lewis's brothers Chuck and Philip fly in from Texas and Toronto for their mother's 50th birthday party, which she attends in silence, as she performs every act since suffering a breakdown eight years previously. Lewis, meanwhile, is being bullied by Christy into leading a more ethical life and then lured into breaking the law to procure funds for her foundlings' charity that gives the book its title. Lewis, as naïve as a newborn himself, falls under Christy's spell, and she becomes the focus of his long-deferred dreams of escape.
The novel is set in Manchester, but place is unimportant. Apart from naming the city, and pinpointing the Northern Quarter on two occasions, there's very little sense of Manchester at all. A throwaway snatch of dialogue offers the oft-repeated, questionable sentiment that the IRA did the city a favour by bombing it.
But just as Hope for Newborns is not really a comic novel, nor is it a novel about place. It's about family, responsibility, culture and community. Glass's characterisation is excellent and there is a certain grim pleasure in his descriptions of the awful building in which Lewis and some other lonely men rent flats: "We each suspected everybody else's [life] was as miserable as our own."
Nicholas Royle's anthology '68: New Stories From Children of the Revolution' is published by Salt