The Apologist, by Jay Rayner

Making a roaring trade out of empathy
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The Independent Culture

It is a brave writer who apologises for his novel in the preface, but Jay Rayner has apology taped. His third novel is a timely satire on the crocodile tears of international politics, the touchy-feely culture of contrition where politicians queue in sharply-tailored sackcloth to say "sorry" for the world's ills.

It is a brave writer who apologises for his novel in the preface, but Jay Rayner has apology taped. His third novel is a timely satire on the crocodile tears of international politics, the touchy-feely culture of contrition where politicians queue in sharply-tailored sackcloth to say "sorry" for the world's ills.

The Apologist's tear-streaked narrator is, like Rayner, a restaurant critic on a London broadsheet. When a chef pastes Basset's savage review to his oven door and gases himself, Basset is moved, for the first time, to apologise. Apology tastes sweet, and Basset, a man of huge and esoteric appetite, is hooked. Chasing the ultimate "apology high", he ends up as Chief Apologist for the United Nations, circling the globe in a private jet delivering fulsome apologies for historical "hurts": a broad category of offence, from slavery to the Chinese opium wars. Rayner deftly exposes the cynicism at the heart of the soggy-shoulder tendency.

Under the statutes of his Orwellian UN Office of Apology and Reconciliation and its philosophy of Penitential Engagement, apology is index-linked to financial reparation. The louder you sob, the less you pay. In the overheated climate of class-action law suits, Basset's world-class empathy is the most marketable of skills.

The architecture of the novel, with its sturdy extended metaphors of self-gratification, is perhaps more serviceable than elegant. (Basset, a chocolate connoisseur, nearly dies of a surfeit of sweetness when he discovers an allergy to the most refined product of the cocoa bean.) Similarly, the "political" characters occasionally come across as on-message functionaries of the ambitious plot.

Rayner's real gifts, however, are revealed in the narrative's soft centre. A beautifully-written sub-text of family history shows the author to be no mean empathiser himself. Relieved of structural responsibility, Basset's father, brother and girlfriend comfortably fill their space, inviting the reader, in the most companionable way, to explore their relationships beyond the printed dialogue. Basset proves himself an attractively unreliable narrator, and his unself-pitying reflections on body image make you want to run out and, yes, apologise to every fat boy you didn't dance with at the school disco.

You sometimes wonder, though, if Rayner - whose gastronomic expertise informs every page of his novel - really has the stomach for satire. The Apologist is fast and funny and apposite, yet there is a fastidiousness, a decent reluctance on the part of the writer to press his advantage. Lacking either the edge of Orwell or the comic ferocity of Frayn, Rayner's political observations are more pastiche than polemic.

The timeliness of the novel is a terrific coup, and Rayner could hardly be expected to predict the flurry of apologies that recently issued from the White House and Downing Street. Yet in his round-up of "apologisable" atrocities, events in the Gulf remain a howling lacuna. The Apologist runs hard on the heels of the zeitgeist, but it never quite closes in for the kill.



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