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The Brainstorm, by Jenny Turner
Down among the hacks with Hegel
Friday 02 February 2007
Late in 2005 Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay mourning the passing of the Fleet Street Novel. "I do not think that there will again be a major novel, flattering or unflattering, in which a reporter is the protagonist." He was too hasty. The Brainstorm proves the genre has not died, but merely decamped to Docklands; all its protagonists are reporters and editors, and though it is not a major novel it is a very fine one.
Turner used to be on the editorial staff of The Independent on Sunday in the 1990s and her novel is set in the offices of a liberal newspaper. But - mindful, perhaps, of the injunction the Manchester Guardian took out against Malcolm Muggeridge when he wrote too openly about his time there in his novel Picture Palace - she has carefully avoided writing a roman a clef. Her liberal newspaper has been famously failing for about 100 years, and her characters are amalgams. Julie, for example, has the legs of Janet Street-Porter, the voice of Julie Burchill and the pompadour of Suzy Menkes. But as we read we forget these sources and see her instead as a fascinating comic creation. Ditto the careerist editorial assistant with the "hairdo of a newscaster" and the glamorous editor-in-chief who waves at her staff "like an enlightened monarch", all of them exquisitely drawn, satirically yet with compassion.
As for atmosphere, the book perfectly catches Docklands, its glittering, badly-plumbed towers and ever-present security guards. She renders its unearthly, ominous landscape beautifully, and with great precision. And in the wake of all the redundant Fleet Street cliches, Turner mints a new poetic diction for the profession. Under her close observation, computers become expressive, as characterful as the old hot metal presses. The screens are "radiant", "gorgeous", "forbiddingly charged"; they are always crashing and "glowing and sighing" back to life. A disused computer sits "squat like a toad"; to Turner even a kaput PC can be redolent of Paradise Lost. Her style is so considered and condensed it is sometimes as beautiful as blank verse, but sometimes it is fractionally too uptight to be enjoyable. Turner's criticism in the London Review of Books has a wonderfully relaxed erudition that this, her first novel, doesn't quite share. She is also far too disciplined to milk the comedy, although that is often just what we want her to do.
The central conceit is problematic, too. The heroine, Lorna, has had a "brainstorm" and lost her memory, and spends the first half of the book figuring out who she is, bluffing at being herself. The philosophical implications of this are rich: the novel is woven through with Hegel, and the brainstorm acts as a truly Hegelian affirmation of the primacy of consciousness, embodying his idea of phenomenology. But as a literary conceit it is laborious. You do not get whisked along by this novel, you have to grope your way into it. "Lorna laughed... She had an idea her personality was quite nice..."; "she walked... to where the ladies' toilet was bound to be." Intermittently, the technique re-illumines the world for us, achieving a true Romantic defamiliarization. A computer screen, for example, is simply "an idea made of light" - but this treads a fine line between banality and profundity. The brainstorm allows for some great plot-twists, but by the end it is all but forgotten, which makes it feel like no more than an engine for driving the narrative - a McGuffin, in short.
Yet Jenny Turner is a gifted novelist and this novel, slender but never slight, leaves you wanting more.
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