Artwork by Fossfor
A Week In December
by Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulks has presented me with a dilemma. I am not sure if I am left liking this novel for what it is or if I have lingering feelings of regret because it isn’t quite what it might have been. That being said, I’m not sure if Faulks set out to write the Great British Novel that defines the decade just gone in the first place...
Taking the plot first, we have a group of intertwined characters, brought together by an upcoming dinner party to be hosted by the wife of a Tory candidate. There is the morally bereft hedge fund manager, his wife and their alienated son. The bitter literary critic who has nothing but contempt for the ‘modern novel’. The impecunious young barrister who yearns for love and a world where learning is still valued. The naive young Premiership footballer from Eastern Europe and his centerfold girlfriend. The affable Lime Pickle magnate, recipient of an honour and father to a son enmeshed in radical Islam. And not to forget Jenny, the Tube driver who circles beneath London whilst living another life in virtual reality.
Faulks places his characters in an imagined Britain that is disturbingly and deliberately close to some of the more unpleasant aspects of reality. How about a literary award sponsored by a Pizza restaurant. Not so shocking perhaps. Now consider a gameshow where contestants share a house; being removed one by one through the public vote whilst their every move is scrutinised and debated by a leering panel of celebrity experts. Got that already? Now consider that the contestants have been chosen for the particular psychiatric disorder they suffer from. Ah now we’re uncomfortable. But would you watch? Are you sure? If you didn’t how could you express your outrage over dinner with friends?
Faulks is challenging us; making us think, making us question how close we are to what we suppose we could never become. It’s no accident that the Islamic radical is one of the more rounded and likeable characters and the fund manager is more amoral than immoral; doing what he does because he happens to be clever, and getting away with it because as a society we value cleverness far more than wisdom.
Oh and let us not forget the learning to be had here. If you want to know how one man can bring the financial world to its knees or how easy it can be to manipulate impressionable youth then this is the book for you. The technical details of the former are fascinating but quite hard going and I suspect for some readers they will break the flow although I had no such issue. Mind you I liked A Brief History of Time...
With the above said, I come back to my opening comments. But let’s be clear first about one thing. Faulks is a master of the craft of writing. Turning the pages is never a chore and for the first hundred I found it damn hard to stop. Not a word of a lie; I picked it up meaning to place it on the bedside table for later and somehow lost an hour. I felt sure I was going to be given something profound, to achieve new insight, to be telling everyone it was important that they read this book. By the end though I felt that what I had in my hand was clever, satirical, blackly funny (very funny) in places and effortless to read, it wasn’t enough to entirely define who and what we have become. Whilst I never stopped caring about the characters portrayed, I found my attitudes to them remained the same from start to finish and that was somewhat disappointing and rather surprising to me. I wanted to be challenged, to be given ambiguity, to find good and evil under the same skin. It’s very hard to do but we know Faulks is more than capable. Perhaps the issue is one of space, too much for less than 400 pages? As I said before, there could be half a dozen embryonic novels here. But then again maybe Faulks never set out to write Bonfire of the Vanities but is so good that he cannot help but hit some of those notes in a deliberately contained black comedy? Or just maybe it’s time. I can’t help but wonder how this will read twenty, fifty or a hundred years from now. A definitive novel of the early years of the new millennium or just a very accomplished period piece. I’ll leave my children a copy in the time capsule...