What if immortality is terminal?

IDLEWILD by Mark Lawson, Picador pounds 9.99

THIS is Mark Lawson's debut novel, but all those who are familiar with his journalism will recognise his trademark hyphenated neologisms: "so-what modulation", a "tell-me-about-it grin", and, above all, "the big what-if". What if the assassination attempt in 1963 had succeeded, thinks John F Kennedy. What if I'd died in '62, thinks Marilyn Monroe.

Yes, JFK is still alive, saved by good surgery and bad shooting 30 years ago. His second term in office was a disaster, especially his handling of Vietnam, and now, aged 76, he is reduced to giving speeches to the American Society of Lower Backpain Sufferers, while bitter veterans shout, "Hey hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today", and Oliver Stone makes a hagiographic biopic about his vice-president, LBJ. The New York airport which was renamed after him in our world is still called Idlewild (which means, I suppose, that this is an airport novel). Marilyn Monroe, now 67, survived her overdose, but her movie career died with a laughable adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, and she ended up marrying... well, I won't spoil it. Monroe is hoping to breathe life into her reputation with a film role as the ghost of a once great actress. Momentum gathers as she and Jack are threatened by further dangers: assassins and, even more deadly, the gutter press.

Lawson treats these protagonists and others with humane humour. Idlewild is very rarely laugh-out-loud funny, as the author might put it, but there is smirking and headshaking to be had at the expense of an America that is all too recognisably batty, whether or not its icons are alive. If Kennedy had not been killed, for instance, there would still be a convention of paranoid conspiracy-theorists considering whether, perhaps, Kennedy set up the plot himself to boost his popularity. And did you know that the "Who Shot JR?" episode of Dallas was broadcast on the eve of the (attempted) assassination's 18th anniversary? JR=JFK. QED.

Smart and amusing as all this may be, isn't it a bit pointless? Haven't we read enough about JFK and MM to last a lifetime - a lifetime which wasn't cut as short as theirs, to boot. And didn't Terry Johnson play all the fictional games there were to be played with Monroe in Insignificance? Maybe, but Idlewild is different in that the big what-if is not just the premise of the novel - there simply to facilitate the action - it's the subject.

Lawson takes the concept and wrings every last permutation from it. The central conceit, of course, is that of people in a world that didn't happen hypothesising about a different world that didn't happen. In other words, the characters themselves are interested in the what-if theme of the story. They are all crowded by the ghosts of what might have been: a would-be assassin is obsessed with Stephen Hawking's theories of alternate universes; the current president (Clinton lost because of his perceived similarity to the reviled Kennedy) believes in reincarnation, much to the chagrin of the advisers, who try to stop him mentioning his past lives in public; an anti-abortion television advert depicts a woman wondering how her "unborn child" would have grown up; an academic hopes to realise his "if-only romance"; and Kennedy and Monroe dream about what would have happened if they had died young. "Reputations are interchangeable," sighs Kennedy. "If I'd died, I'd be a hero. If Teddy had lived, he'd be a schmuck."

Lawson makes a convincing case that, although he calls his book a "counter- history", we actually spend our lives trapped in counter-histories. From the conspiracy theorist to the reincarnationist to the biographer, everyone is trying religiously to order the chaos of life by imagining it had turned out more neatly. There's even a traffic cop called Michael Dukakis who thinks that he could have been president. Just goes to show.

The irony may at times seem a little too glaring, the co-incidences too ubiquitous and the jokes too stilted and self-conscious (such as the crack, for instance, about Americans who posthumously give their names to airports: "When they die they become a terminal.") However, it's this piling up of "sick sync", as Mark Lawson calls it, this application of coat after coat of irony, that makes Idlewild so slick and satisfying. It is recognisably a first novel, I think, but one that makes you want to read the second and third.

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