Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Ordinary Thunderstorms

William Boyd's new novel entertained me thoroughly on at least four levels: as reader, as writer, as a former resident of Chelsea and as someone who lived beside the Thames for 18 years. (I might add that I've had a fair bit of exposure to the inner machinations of drug companies as well.)

It begins with a murder — in a mansion block on Sloane Avenue called Anne Boleyn House, clearly an analogue for Nell Gwynn House where my mother stayed briefly after her divorce.

The man who has extracted the knife from the victim — thereby incrimating himself — and fled the scene without calling 999, is a climate scientist called Adam Kindred.

Recently divorced and removed from his position as a cloud-maker in Arizona, Kindred is in this unfamiliar city for an interview with Imperial College. A chance meeting with the Research Director of a major pharma firm leads him to sail straight into the most extraordinary of tempests that can burst upon an ordinary life.

And ordinary Kindred is. I never had the feeling that Boyd was particularly interested in him as a character, for he has few quirks other than his idiosyncratic way with binary decisions, and he serves here mainly as a lesson on how an intelligent person can 'disappear' in today's metropolis simply by shedding the documents and devices through which our identity is acknowledged and connected with others. Kindred obliges his creator by behaving very much like a blank slate once he has opted for invisibility.

The author has more fun with Ingram Fryzer, CEO of Calenture Deutz — named after the man who took the life of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1593 — and with ex-army freelance hitman Jonjo Case who follows Kindreds's trail up and down the Thames.

There's also a river cop called Rita Nashe — after Thomas Nashe, sixteenth century author of The Unfortunate Traveller — who at first looks as if she will play a key role in unravelling the conspiracy, but is then disappointingly reassigned to romantic interest duty.

Several other members of Boyd's rather Dickensian cast of secondary characters — beggars, hookers, mercenaries, preachers, corporate manipulators and sink estate low-lifes — have this under-developed or under-utilised feel. Yet it was only when the end was upon me that I had any sense that there might have been some sort of intermittent malfunction along the way.

We were certainly denied the classic Hollywood climax in Boyd's Costa Prize-winning last novel Restless, but here the absence of resolution is almost complete: hardly a strand in this multi-stranded narrative is ultimately consummated in the way that readers of less literary thrillers (or indeed Dickens) might expect.

What we get isn't exactly a frustrating conclusion — though I wondered why the promising allusions to the formation of super-storms at the start had deteriorated into a platitudinal discussion between Adam and Rita about the meanings possibly portended by all the connections and coincidences Boyd has woven into the narrative— but this failure to dish out justice, except in the most indirect of ways, felt to me like an authorial affectation — of the sort you might expect of Adam Kindred himself; a man we often see struggling to make the most practical choice.

So, Ordinary Thunderstorms is successful to a point as a modern corporate thriller, and successful to a point as a vehicle for Boyd's habitual literary theme-building and the particular exploration of London's sub-digital underbelly he has undertaken here.

It would have been better if the small defect in one aspect of this novel had been matched by an excess of achievement in the other, but what we have instead is a double deficiency, albeit minor on both counts.

But in one area it is a model for emulation: that of the expert delivery of the 'free indirect' style, where the prose is composed in the third person, but so clearly from the immediate perspective of the character in the frame, that the effect is very similar to first person narration. This is something that was picked up by Felix Francis, son of Dick, when Boyd appeared on the Mayo books podcast in September. He's never tried a third person story, he confessed, but Boyd had provided him with an education about how it could be done without the side-effect of Tolstoyian omniscience.

1 comment:

scott said...

Sounds great--I'm going to buy it.

Just started the new Pynchon, Inherent Vice, and it's hilarious. Much more like The Crying of Lot 49 than any of his recent novels...and "only" 400-some pages!