Midnight in a Perfect Life, By Michael Collins

Weird, but not that wonderful
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The Independent Culture

It is perhaps understandable that authors are so attracted to writing about their working lives: the frustrations, the solitude, the doubts. What is less clear is why anyone else would be interested in such solipsistic fiction. The few authors – Philip Roth, Stephen King, J M Coetzee perhaps – who manage to wring great novels from such inauspicious material do so by using the writing life as a springboard to explore other themes. In Midnight in a Perfect Life, Michael Collins aims to perform the same trick, with some baffling results.

Karl, the writer-narrator, is immersed both in spiralling debt and the writing of an epic, unpublishable novel. Forced to turn to ghost-writing for a famous crime novelist, he manages to sour even this relationship, leaving him broke, responsible for his dying mother, and about to help pay for a programme of IVF treatment. As Karl tries to deal with his disintegrating life, a beautiful young Russian performance artist is found dead. As the last person to speak to her alive, Karl is made to confront not only his culpability in her demise, but also the truth behind his father's suicide.

This is an intriguing, promising set-up; but Collins doesn't give any of these narrative strands the attention they deserve. As the plot lurches from one underdeveloped theme to another, it's hard to know or care what, if anything, Collins is driving towards. There is no suspense to talk of, no real engagement with the reader.

One is left wondering whose novel we're really reading here – Collins's or Karl's? And if it's Karl's, are we supposed to see it as a sort of satire on bad writing? Some of the sentences are straight from the James Patterson school of banality, others so clumsy and stuffed with five-dollar words that it's hard to imagine that Karl ever got a book deal in the first place.

A brief scene describing the meeting between his mother and his father shows Collins's gift for character and nuance, but this takes two-thirds of the book to appear. It suggests that had this novel been more Collins's than Karl's, it may just have escaped its writer-cliché beginnings. However, the declarative, empty prose and careless plotting only serves to produce a dissatisfying and disappointing novel – whatever its intentions.