Saturday, 11 April 2009

Engelby - Sebastian Faulks

Read: April 2007

Engleby is one of the most uncomfortable books I have read in a long time. Partly because it is impossible to believe it is a Sebastian Faulks novel, and partly because of it's subject matter. For you see, the Sebastian Faulks of Birdsong ilk has now written a satirical contemporary 'Diary of a Madman'. It is so difficult to reconcile these two styles that you are never entirely certain whether it is all a gimmick.

The novel follows Michael ‘Toilet’ Engleby through the course of his life: from poor upbringing, through boarding school bullying and University obsession to successful Fleet Street Journalism. But as Mike’s mind begins to unravel, so too does the plot, as Mike slowly gives away the terrifying reality of what may have happened.

Engleby, in many respects, seems to have been written as the British answer to American Psycho. In fact, Engleby should really have the subtitle of British Psycho. The progress of Faulks latest offering so markedly reflects Bret Easton Ellis famous liturgy of eighties American consumerism that it is disconcerting. It is a rehash, both in the focus on a self-deluding insanity of the main character and the way in which the story is told. As with American Psycho there is an inescapable sense that nothing taking place is real. Walk on parts for Jeffrey Archer, Ken Livingston and Margaret Thatcher only exaggerate the sense that this is all taking place in the mind of a madman. In each the character is sustained by alcohol and drugs, discusses pop music ad nauseum and finds his opinions increasingly important.

What differences there are stem from the differences in the cultural target of the satire. The national stereotypes portrayed are used in each to satirise the dominant view of society. Where the American Psycho (Patrick Bateman) is brash and boastful, Engleby is shy and retiring. Where Bateman is driven by perverted misogyny and greed, Engleby is oddly asexual and almost ashamed by material possessions. Where Bateman is absorbed in the 1980’s sham, Engleby is mildly disgusted by it all, all of life. While Bateman finds power in the cultural mainstream, Engleby is obsessed with big ideas and complex philosophical concepts. Where Bateman swears, Engleby finds foul language slightly distasteful. Where Bateman is ‘created’ by his privileged upbringing, Engleby’s psychosis seems to stem from his boarding school traumas. These national stereotypes serve to highlight the target of the satire, the purpose of the book.

‘Engleby’ is a complete transformation of genre for Sebastian Faulks. You have to applaud him for the bravery and bravado with which he has burst from his niche. The problem is that it is not a great book.

The main problem with ‘Engleby’ is that Faulks is not satisfied with his new direction, is not able to end the book where it should end. No, in fine literary style he has to explain Engleby’s condition to us, assuage any uneasiness in the reader by making it all smooth at the end. This lack of editorial guts turns what would otherwise be an awkward but absorbing novel into a sham expose on modern life. It is as though with one hand he is making an interesting point on the fine line between sanity and insanity in modern hypocritical Britain, and with the other easing any disconcerting thoughts by making sure we know it all turns out fine in the end. The reader is left with conflicting emotions and intellectual stagnation. This flaccid purposeless ending is what makes this such a bad book.

On the plus side, there is a complex, slowly unwinding plot about which you always suspect the ending but cannot help but read on captivated until it is happening before you. There are points of startling exactitude, little observations which demonstrate the author's keen eye. The prose is succinct and deliberate and he suceeds in drawing disparate strands together in a complex and interweaving plot. Were it to end on page 269 'Engelby' would be a fascinating read. But it is those final three chapters, the psychoanalysis of a personality disorder which ruins everything proceeding it.

There is a point, early on, in which Engleby disdainfully lambastes a series of artist's ‘late works’ as “another way of saying feeble work”. You have to wonder whether that is what 'Engelby' is.

I hope that in five years we will look back on this as one of those examples of a writer successfully jumping out of their box and dazzling the world with their dexterity. Sadly, I fear the critics may just have a field day

4 out of 10

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