Joy, By Jonathan Lee

Less funny business, please

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

And now, an example of working life, as seen through Jonathan Lee's new novel: "Isabel is in advertising. She exaggerates for a living. Just as a new brand of tampon is transfigured into a lifestyle choice for active mothers, a friendly pat of encouragement ... from an interested in-law becomes, to the advertising executive, a serious attempt at intercourse."

Well no, it doesn't. Such typecasting of working life was funny in the days when champagne flowed, firms offered golden handshakes and money supposedly trickled outwards from the Square Mile. Now, when job openings are shrinking at their fastest rate for three years and unemployment is edging ever-closer towards three million, things have moved on.

This makes it hard to settle into Joy. The book centres on the attempted suicide of a young lawyer who once commanded a six-figure salary and was on the cusp of promotion. So what happened? We find out through some of the closest people in her life. They include a disengaged husband; a cocky colleague (and illicit lover); her belligerent PA; a hygiene-obsessed personal trainer ... You get the idea. 

As someone who worked in a legal firm for six years himself, Lee constructs office scenes easily, weaving together numerous characters and dialogues with flair. Occasionally the writing crackles. But unlike his first novel, Who is Mr Satoshi? (2010), it suffers from a lack of direction. What is left, too often, are the frothy self-obsessed concerns of the cappuccino-clutching corporate classes.

There are, among these, a few insights. For example: "In the 21st century a person's phone is the clearest window onto their soul ... their messages, their pet names, their pictures, the SIM card that is a deeper form of truth". But after a while, these observations become banal and self-involved. The real life bickering over the dividing lines between Finchley and Hampstead, and an encounter on a train with a baseball-capped William Hague, stamp this as a book for the urban elite. Excruciatingly long footnotes irritate rather than entertain.

One can't help hoping that this is one of the last in a wave of novels rooted in the New Labour boom years, in which someone's unhappiness inside the service economy makes for an entire novel. Instead, one suspects, unless it's a career in banking, characters will be grateful if they're doing anything at all.