Saturday, April 07, 2012
Reflections on "A Week in December"
I've only read one other book by Faulks - not Birdsong, unusually, but Human Traces. That book was remarkable, as a work of historical fiction, as well as the articulation of quite complex ideas. This had elements in common with it. Faulks continues to explore the idea of the voices that humans hear in their heads, this phenomenon which sets us aside from other creatures, now in a present-day context. There were also an abundance of intertextual references. The framework of preparations for a dinner party reminded me of Mrs Dalloway, there were references that I guess were fairly deliberate to Brave New World, and I suspect (though I haven't read it) that The Bonfire of the Vanities was thrown in there as well.
Faulks writes within the book: "Culturally, it had remained impossible for a realistic British novelist to transcend Leicester or Stoke; the place names alone seemed to laugh at the idea." This is, I guess, a postmodern touch (forgive my artlessness, I'm really not fluent in literature yet). Other significant playing was with the character of the narcissistic, bitter critic, R. Tranter, obsessed with wanting to find fame and yet not celebrity by any means. But unusually for a realist book, it seems that most characters found some redemption, even including Tranter.
What literary interest can there be in finance? Why should I care about it? Does it really tell us anything important about the human condition? Of course - it shapes our world. On the basis of The Devil's Casino, and All the Devils are Here, I'd say that Faulks has done a good job of trying to comprehend and then explain what exactly happened - better than the job done in these journalistic accounts, and without breaking the narrative! He highlights the underlying moral vacuum, but where I think Faulks goes wrong is in making his character John Veals, the hugely successful fund manager, so thoroughly unsympathetic. One thing which emerges from the journalists' analysis of the events is that people are people. You can't really have sympathy for the devil - but most times, it seems, he is actually in disguise. Had the banking industry said, "We are going to invent financial instruments that will bring down the economy of the Western world and bankrupt nations," of course everybody would have been appalled. But they didn't: they just promised to look after our savings and our pensions, and provide us with money for houses and the things we wanted.
The exit of the UK from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism should have been a wake-up call - or maybe by then it was already too late. Financial organisations made a killing betting against the wealth of a nation. The "market" by now no longer bore any resemblance to the place to which a farmer would take a cow to sell. It was a ravening beast, capable of devouring anything it felt like, including whole countries. Margaret Thatcher said, "You can't buck the market," apparently a statement of her philosophy, but in truth signifying the capitulation of Western political power to a more powerful force.
It's a brave author who goes into print discussing the Muslim religion, following the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Faulks has nonetheless done so. He accepts that mainstream Islam, as a religion, provides comfort, structure and identity. But he argues that its roots, like all such religious grounded in revelation, look more like the product of psychosis than something which transcends humanity. Gabriel, the unsuccessful barrister, compares the words of the Koran with those of his schizophrenic brother's delusions.
Unlike with finance, in the context of religion, Faulks' "devils" are in disguise. The driving force for fanaticism isn't the ranting of imams, but calm, gently-spoken and apparently normal people. Hassan, the young Muslim, finds himself in a group planning an appalling atrocity with the word jihad barely mentioned.
It's a stern portrait of the religion. Christians should take little comfort, however. In this "state of the nation" novel, the fact that Faulks has nothing of significance to say about Christianity constitutes a sterner rebuke.