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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Friday, 13 December 2013

When a novel sucks you in

If you read much recent fiction you'll sometimes get that feeling that - yes, that is exactly right, I have been there, this is precisely how I felt, I know this place, I know these people.

It first happened when I was reading  Geoff Dyer's autobiographical novel The Colour of Memory.
There's a bit where he's describing a sunset over Acre Lane, Brixton, and I imagined myself cycling in the opposite direction, from Clapham and into that exciting exotic world that so many of us wanted to inhabit, back then in the early 1980s.

That was a book that was making me kick myself every other page - why hadn't I written this, or something like it?


Reading John Lanchester's London blockbuster, Capital, I'm getting even more hyperlocal vibrations, in fact at times I feel like I am trapped inside the book. The sensation is there in a way that it is not in many other novels based partly or wholly in this part of south London, simply because he makes it clear exactly where most of the action is happening. And most of it is within a quarter mile of where I am sitting now.

With its cast of multi-ethnic characters - from the posh white Anglo-Saxon bankers to the Polish builders, the Hungarian nanny, the Pakistani shop-keepers, the Zimbabwean refugee traffic warden - this novel could seem a little too obvious.

It has one of those spiralling or tessellated plots, with a fragment of one plot line laid down on top of the part of a previous one, building up to some strong false climaxes. It's based around such stock London subjects as greedy city types getting their comeuppances in the 2008 crash, mistaken arrests of Asians  under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Banksy-style street art pranks, car parking, the curious world of premier league footballers and their managers, etc.

So yes, it is a bit clich├ęd - and you can find similar cast-sheets in the big London novels of the past decade , including two Zadie Smiths, one Alan Hollinghurst,  Blake Morrison's South of the River , etc -- but its got a lovely rolling plot-line that keeps you reading.

Though perhaps if you're not a Clapham resident the urge to read on to find out exactly which street Pepys road is based on will be lacking. The amount of research Lanchester must have undertaken is impressive - or perhaps he just lives here. He must have visited the hospice up the road (Trinity Hospice) and its sister church on the Common, Holy Trinity.

He gets most things absolutely right; maybe it's stretching it a bit to suggest a 17-year-old Senegalese football prodigy would relax by listening to Fela Kuti, but then again, why not - his dad might have introduced him to the Black President way back.

It's odd how these patches of the city have been so thoroughly trampled over by writers, though. The Common is a character here just as it is in Green's End of the Affair or Nell Dunn's Up The Junction.
You start thinking about what book Penelope Fitzgerald must have been writing in her study in Alma Road while Angela Carter was blending Clapham and Camberwell for her magic toyshop. Clapham often features as the low-point residence in a number of writers' ;lives - Sylvia Plath, Greene, Natsumi Soseki - and it is certainly no longer offers much in the way of a hospitable climate for the impoverished literary exile.

Just plenty of juicy and venal subject matter for highly clued-up writer-reporters like John Lanchester.







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