It is 1994 and the socially awkward yet well-meaning Andrew is having something of an existential crisis. He cares very much about foreign affairs and the brutality of the ongoing war in the Balkans, but not quite as much as he cares about Penny, a "posh" graduate from west London with whom he bonds over idealistic discussions on foreign policy. "I couldn't believe my luck," says Andrew, "it was as if I'd found another person at a party who liked exactly the same difficult to get into indie band as me: Balkan Slaughter."
It's rare for a novel to have such a strong opener, but within just the first few sentences, Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals had me hooked. Co-creator and writer for Peep Show, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat and so many other TV comedy greats, Jesse Armstrong has that very particular brand of dry, awkward British humour down to perfection, and any sucker for the loveable anti-hero so typically found in those storylines will find instant gratification in his debut novel.
Partly out of a naïve desire to do something to stop the war, but mostly as a consequence of his unforgiving crush on Penny, Andrew becomes one of an unlikely group of peace activists stumbling their way through Europe to Bosnia.
Armed with little more than a few sacks of rice ("for sick and dying babies, OK?"), Andrew, Penny, Simon the poet, "Onomatopoeic Bob" and the gang set off in a Ford Transit with the aim of performing a play so moving that the Bosnian army puts down its weapons. The fact that nobody has any real experience of war or indeed theatre is a minor detail – after all, they convince each other, "revolution is impossible until it becomes inevitable".
Inevitable complications of the personal and practical nature provide moments of comedy genius which fans of Armstrong's scriptwriting will appreciate. In true Peep Show style, Andrew inadvertently throws himself into cringeworthy yet believable situations – how far across Europe can they travel before Andrew's comrades discover that he can't really speak Serbo-Croat?
Pithy and honest, Armstrong makes sure to mock the absurdity of war while keeping in tune with the really important things that matter to twentysomethings like Andrew and his peers: sex, daytime drinking and Primal Scream. The truth of the matter is that Andrew is far too busy engaging in his own secret war against love rival Simon the poet to think too deeply about peace in the Balkans.
Their haphazard mission is led by a fearsome American activist named Shannon – no doubt modelled on Susan Sontag, who took her own peace play to Sarajevo in 1993. Stumbling their way through borders with a combination of luck, candour and Penny's aristocratic family contacts, the group outwardly yearn for something "real" … that is, until they actually come face to face with it.
Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals combines the best of sitcom-style drama with just the right amount of gravity to make it a substantial read. The awkward humour and deliberately whingey tone from some characters might not appeal to everyone, but Armstrong's debut manages to be clever and fun while also retaining grittiness. I hope this is the first of many.Reuse content