Sunday, 30 January 2011

A week in December, by Sebastian Faulks

Fiction or reality?

Sebastian Faulks has written a novel covering one week in December 2007, set in London. It following the intertwining lives of a handful of characters, and aims to be a state of the nation novel, in the tradition of Disraeli, Gaskell and Dickens. It is up-to-date, with descriptions of second worlds on the internet, ‘reality’ TV programmes and sickeningly rich financiers (though what’s new there?).

The story opens with a hostess drawing up her guest list, which introduces us to some of the main characters. The bombardment of names and details is hard for the reader to digest. I had to turn back and reread the first eight pages to absorb who was who, and what they did. The novel is almost ends with the actual dinner party, which neatly brings some of the characters together in conflict, lust and other interactions. I noticed that one person on the guest list, a schoolteacher called Radley Graves, was not mentioned at the dinner, which may be an error and a missed opportunity on the part of the author.

The final pages are devoted to the climax of one drama: a Muslim boy who jettisons his backpack of bomb fuses in the Thames, and visits his girlfriend instead. The final scene is of the evil hedge fund manager, John Veals, who stands at the window of his office, on the verge of his scheme’s success, and laughs.

The parallel is clear for the reader to draw: Veals does ignite his bomb; his financial bomb. He has obtained insider information about a bank, and set up a series of massive positions for his hedge fund, with the aim of making much money, and helping to topple the bank in the process. Since the book was published in 2010, the reader knows about the fall of RBS, HBOS etcetera in the financial crisis, and so the conclusion to the story does not need to be told explicitly.

One part of my brain was saying that Faulks is na├»ve and does not know how things work, or at least paints too unrealistic a black-and-white picture of hedge funds. Yet just after reading this book, I have had occasion to study some examples of ‘rogue traders’ and ‘rogue fund managers’, and have been reading about insider trading cases at hedge funds such as Galleon and Moore Capital, and dubious actions at Gartmore and Henderson Asset Management. Suddenly I did a mental flip, and perceived Faulk’s portrait of John Veals in the novel as deadly accurate.

Veals, the hedge fund manager, lacks an emotional centre and a moral compass. His family is a train wreck, with his wife lonely and semi-alcoholic, while his son gets hooked on drugs in his bedroom upstairs. Hassan, the would-be bomber is a parallel life, whose parents are also unaware of how far their son has slipped down a dangerous slope – though they talk and debate with their son far more.

The withering satire on many other types in British society is accurate and wincingly painful, whether it is a cynical literary critic, or a foreign footballer, or his girlfriend earning money from pornography on the side, or an aspiring politician’s wife. The layers of the satire become somewhat painful to read and depressing. It is a bitter book.

There are some redeeming features, though they curiously point to the redeeming power of literature. A modest girl, who drives Circle Line trains, likes to read books. An underemployed Barrister is similarly a sympathetic character with a wide knowledge of books. He has the intellectual curiosity to read the Koran, and criticises it as being simply full of assertions. This appears to me to be Faulks’ own voice attacking Islam, together with the story of the corruption of the young Hassan. As far as I know, Faulks has avoided a Fatwa.

No comments: