If you are a young male wanting to write fiction, there are two options open to you. If you were so inclined, you could take three months out of your magazine reading to bang out the usual derivative sputum about young males going through perceived identity crises involving past girlfriends and first children, in a waste of words riddled with pop cultural references and rancid sentimentality and registering somewhere below "might care" on the moral equivalent of the Beaufort Scale. Or you could attempt something different and try to write a novel which engages with some of the more interesting questions facing society today. Danny Leigh, to his credit, has gone for the second in his debut The Greatest Gift.
Matthew Viss is an upmarket concierge who works for an agency that offers a range of services to clients - everything from organising laundry to booking a hotel room to providing a temporary surrogate parent. He is very good at his job. The novel opens with Matthew Viss about to jump from the ninth floor of his apartment block. En route to the ground his life passes before him and is communicated to us in a series of flashbacks. We learn that he was emotionally starved as a child and that as a consequence he gives things obsessively - time, money and, more alarmingly, blood - in order to feel needed.
The idea at the centre of this novel - the telling of a man's life story as he falls to his death and it flashes before his eyes is one of quintessential "now-why-didn't-I-think-of-that?" originality. And the setting and principal theme is also very promising. Firstly, The Greatest Gift is set in America at a time when that nation's enduring economic and cultural pre-eminence is in question for the first time in over a century. Secondly, the service industry is an emperor with no clothes which badly needs a hosing down but which also exerts an enormous influence over the largest economy in the world. But what, if any, is the relationship between the two?
Leigh's ambition cannot be faulted but, in trying to explore this question, he stumbles into a significantly high proportion of the pitfalls awaiting the debut novelist. Everything he writes is underlined with the idiot pen, his readers not trusted to fulfil their side of the deal. The humourless narrative labours under the surfeit of characters and situations and information that our plummeting hero is forced to mull over, little of which add anything to his story. Stylistically Leigh also tries too hard, neologising and switching perspectives and fonts with all too earnest abandon. In place of a new understanding of an important cultural and social dynamic, we are left merely with a cod-psychological examination of a man giving on empty, and some horribly under-nuanced liberal clichés.
At one point, our jumper is watching an ad-break during which "assured young men and full-lipped young women" smile down the phone: "And in their smiles I saw the horrors of the world. An African child, pot-bellied from malnutrition, head shrouded by flies. An army of homeless, massed outside the toy shop, feral, disenfranchised. Day-old crack babies screaming from withdrawal. The wrongfully imprisoned. The terminal, the bereaved, the lonely."
This may well peel your onions, but reading The Greatest Gift I wound up praying for the thud at around page 146, 200 long pages before the end.
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