The House of Rumour is the sort of novel that defies plot summary. Indeed, I'm not even sure if The House of Rumour is a novel in the strictest sense. Like Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad or David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, its form uses interlinked short stories. Jake Arnott produces 22 in all, modelled after the Tarot's Grand Arcana.
In one segment, a youthful Ian Fleming investigates Rudolph Hess's flight to Scotland, dreams of James Bond and encounters Aleister Crowley. These characters, storylines and motifs are among the many that are re-cycled across the whole. Hess, imprisoned in Spandau, muses on history, astrology and Neil Armstrong's Moon landing. In 1940s California, a group of science fiction writers speculate about art, flying saucers and, in the case of L Ron Hubbard, new religions.
While the resulting plot moves crazily across time, space and genre, there is method to Arnott's narrative madness. "A story should sound improbable," Fleming is informed by his very own "M". "If it is too logical it's liable to appear contrived." The House of Rumour mixes high and low art to confront matters elevated and earthly: God and the Devil, space travel and imprisonment, transcendence and death. It employs real and fictional characters to explore the fecund interrelations between art and life. For Fleming, it was life (his work in naval intelligence) that inspired art (James Bond). For Hubbard, it was the reverse: his pulp fiction coalesced into Dianetics and the cult of Scientology.
In The House of Rumour, this liaison is on an endless loop. Fleming may have dreamt up 007 to escape his own social and sexual insecurities but in the end Bond exacerbates them: Fleming's wife and her friends ruthlessly mock his low-brow triumph. And it was Hubbard's success as a 20th-century self-help guru, not his talent as an author, that earned his writing a moment of fame (or infamy).
The ironies sparked as Arnott rubs fantasy and reality together could easily ignite a flashy, but meaningless narrative bonfire. Adept at parody and allusion, The House of Rumour is acutely self-conscious. Yet, the sheer verve of his storytelling, and the depth of his characterisation, puts flesh on the bones of his ideas.
Arnott's characters are all trying to understand the mysterious universe around them. Fleming tries to unpick Hess's amnesia. A journalist locates a missing star of the New Romantic movement. An ageing B-movie actress seeks the truth about UFOs. Whether their poison is religion or politics, superstition or science, the search for meaning takes the form of a story – one that both resonates with older narratives and immediately generates future tales.
The House of Rumour is both a bold departure from Arnott's classic gangster novels, and an extension of their excavations of buried history. Here, his canvas is broader, his method more assured. Touching on many grand narratives of the past 70 years, Arnott offers a brightly coloured portrait of our times that is alternately intimate and epic. He takes detailed snapshots of Fleming arguing with his wife in Jamaica, only to zoom out across space on the Voyager 1 to remind us that Earth is simply a minuscule dot in a minuscule solar system. The House of Rumour is a brilliant achievement that invites repeated readings.