Sunday, September 23, 2007

Different takes

Sebastian Faulks, the writer of such acclaimed war novels as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, turned to psychoanalysis in his last wok of fiction, Human Traces. London’s Observer called it an “ambitious study of psychiatry in its infancy.” Faulks takes the spirit of that inquiry to a considerable conclusion in his latest, Engleby.

Mike Engleby is the product of just another family – an abusive father, a distant mother and a loving sister. A loner given to irritating disquisitions into the supposedly sublime, you wouldn’t want to make friends with a man like him. Overanalyzing everything to death, Engleby’s narration literally stuns you with its never-ending verbosity:

“With every atom of my being I long to be nineteen again…But if I can’t manage this simple maneuver through the dimension of time that we poor, incompletely evolved homo saps can’t fathom or bend to our will, why should anyone else? And even if they did, why should we listen to what they claimed to find?”

After attending the local grammar school in Reading, he lands at Chatfield, a public school, where his education is restricted to learning the tricks of abuse (he is ragged in his first year, and himself becomes an abuser in the second), and where really the seeds of his later acts are sown. Because he is sharp, he makes it to an unnamed college at Cambridge, where he falls head-over-heels for Jennifer Arkland, a fellow student.

But is it love, or something darker? Engleby follows every act of Jennifer’s closely, keeping a close tab on her whereabouts, paying undue attention to her utterances and even going as far as stealing her letters. Naturally then, when Jennifer goes missing after an evening party, he is one of the prime suspects.

However, our smooth-talking protagonist is able to extricate himself of any culpability. Sure, he loved her, he seems to say, but that is that. For the reader’s part, one does wish to give the benefit of the doubt to this vulnerable rebel who displays a preternatural tendency to pondering the unbearable lightness of being.

Years pass, and the memory of Jennifer recedes. Mike Engleby, who has renamed himself the more palatable Mike Watson, achieves some degree of success as a journalist. His interviews with Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingtone, liberally garnished with smart-alecky comments, are priceless nuggets about British politics and culture of the ’80s, and the novel, for a while, perks up into lighter territory.

The grand dame herself also makes an appearance, in what is the latest round of English novelists’ recent fascination with the UK’s Iron Lady. In describing her as a woman with a “peculiar force,” Faulks pays her a tribute not dissimilar to one offered by Alan Hollinghurst in The Line of Beauty. Faulks writes:

“Mrs. Thatcher’s entourage consisted of about a dozen men in dark suits with carnations, blue rosettes or both…Even the older ones made repeated attempts at looking more dignified as they waited; then a whisper would start, and a giggle passed through them, making them look like ushers at a gay wedding.”

Yet, in spite of his supposed worldly successes--a partner with whom he now lives (though not happily) and general overall stability--something’s not quite right with Engleby. Disconnected fragments from the past keep presenting themselves to him, and these flashes give intermittent peeks into sinister memories that are as confounding to the reader as they are to their recipient.

Why, for instance, does panic set in whenever he reads reports of maimed/decomposed bodies of women discovered from pits? Why is he prone to misanthropic bursts of rage which end in blackouts (“I’ve found, at moments in my life, that this emotion [anger] can cut free from the thing that provoked it and become an independent force.”)?

By the time Engleby reveals that he nicked Jennifer’s bike on one occasion all those years ago, the reader is haplessly grinding his teeth and wondering if he is in the company of a self-deluded, Patrick Bateman-like psychopath? So, who is Mike Engleby? Is he really amnesiac, or a dual personality, or worse still, a perfectly sane but iniquitous narrator?

Different people will have different takes on this novel once they are done with it. For some, it would be a cautionary tale of obsessive love gone awry. For others, it would be a murder mystery replete with courtroom antics, and for others still, it would serve as a sort of philosophical inquiry into human frailties and the limits of consciousness. It is to Faulks’ credit as a writer that none of these interpretations are wide of the mark.

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From Chicago Sun-Times

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