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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own