I read and reviewed Charlie Hill's debut novel "The Space Between Things" a while back. Published through a tiny press, and often chaotically edited, it had enough vim and humour - as well as a subject matter, the forgotten road protest/dance movements of the early 90s - to make me look forward to what he wrote next.
"Books", a short, funny novel that has come out from Birmingham's Tindal Street Press, is a much tighter affair than his debut. We are still in the world of a scruffy Birmingham demi monde, but here this backdrop is less what the novel is about. Richard runs a bookshop in a marginal area of the city - picking up trade from the students on the one side and the suburbs on the other. Yet after his girlfriend leaves him for another man and - worse - starts reading "The Da Vinci Code" he decides that he needs to have a midlife crisis and become as bad as he can be: which means drink, drugs and one night stands. Now, although that was pretty much the plot of that debut novel, in "Books" its merely the character design.
For in Richard's world there are two types of books; good ones, that "hit you over the head", and the rest. It is not Dan Brown that is the model for the latter type, but Nick Hornby oddly enough. Gary Sayles (note the surname) has written three protracted-adolescent ladlit novels, but is having an abrupt change into the midlife crisis novel for his fourth "The Grass is Greener." Yet Sayles is like the Jack Vettriano of writing, able to nail the vapidness of modern taste without a smidgin of irony. His books are written for accountants, middle managers and office workers. They see in him their own lives, not savagely ridiculed, but reflected back to them with a smug sense of recognition, and they sell by the bucketload.
Yet the novel begins in an odd place. Richard has gone on holiday on his own, and there in the same hotel is another displaced Brummy, Lauren, a psychology researcher at the university, and keen amateur photographer. Richard is bowled over by her, but in his being "bad" phase, doesn't quite know how to get involved with her. Fate intervenes, as a woman drops dead in the hotel bar, whilst they are both there. This becomes the unexpected connection between them. For Lauren is researching just this kind of sudden inexplicable death, and Dan has a theory... that it is the books that are killing people. For the dead woman had the new Gary Sayles book in manuscript. Sayles is books are not just bad, but potentially lethal, and this latest one is so designed to appeal to its demographic that it inadvertently puts them into a catatonic state from which they can't recover.
This central theme is deftly played with, as they form an unlikely double act. She's as lost as he is, having been driving the car during a crash that killed her boyfriend, whilst his business is almost an anti-business, refusing books he doesn't like, chasing out the wrong kind of customer. There's a bit of opposites attract about the love story - in that he brings her out of herself, mainly by him annoying her, whilst in Lauren he's found someone worth staying around for. But their growing interest in each other takes place mostly in moments, for each scene of the book is there for a reason.
The structure of the novel does a good job with what could be difficult material. How can you keep the tension up when you know there's a book out there that kills? Richard's in an unique position - as he runs a bookshop - he tries hard to get interest from the press, but his "press contacts" already know of him as a conspiracy nutter, so that doesn't work. Lauren doesn't at first believe his theory, but comes along to it. In a controlled test, he gets to read Sayles' previous novels, to see what affect they have on him. The theory is he's had enough Bukowski etc. to offset the effects - and it seems that maybe its only the new novel that is so toxic that it kills, and only then those who've been made immune by his previous books.
Describing such hokum is probably unnecessary - for in this short, fast, pacy novel you go along with whatever Hill throws at you. When he places us with Gary Sayles - who is beginning to believe his own hype even though his books are surgically rewritten to make them even more appealing to a demographic - there is a darker side to the comedy. A 3rd strand of the novel emerges as well. Two impossibly comic performance artists have decided to make Sayles their next project as they poke and provoke the mainstream. For me, this was the strand of the novel that worked least well. The novel is quite old fashioned in some ways, provincial in the best way - i.e. set in a noticeable place, but whereas the drunken bookshop owner, lonely female academic and megastar novelist all could be archetypes they seem believable, whilst the two performance artists seem drafted in from central casting from a sitcom from 20 years ago. Its all good fun however, and the humour - which I enjoyed in his previous book - is not lost in this more refined setting. In fact, the structural tightness of the novel really helps, as it allows little set piece scenes to drive the plot along as well as being funny. The short chapters and long descriptive chapter titles are in themselves partly satirising the Nick Hornby type of "list" novel.
Comedy perhaps changes less than other genres, and there's quite a few echoes of David Lodge's "Nice Work", a similarly staged love story set in Birmingham. As the publication date of Sayles' novel gets nearer we head to London for the big launch. Sayles has had a new idea - he will leave the people behind and say goodbye by getting someone else to read his work. The performance artists have been posing as his biggest fans. In the mean time, there is something familiar about Sayles' wife that Richard can only just recall. In a flurry of chaos all the plots converge on a brilliantly stage managed final few scenes, where inevitably Richard and Lauren's madcap plans can hardly change the trajectory of publishing history.
What makes "Books" so refreshing is that its a high concept idea that is then deftly played out in an everyday scenario. Although Hill relishes the digs at popular fiction, it is, in some ways a Hornby-like book itself, with a nice old fashioned love story behind all the frippery. Hill is far more interested in the humour than the satire, so though there will be a pang of recognition next time we pick up a Dan Brown or whatever, we never feel that he's laughing at us, but bringing us along for the ride. After all, his "hero" is a total mess despite reading all the right books.
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