Wilson, a biographer of Jesus and Paul, an historian of the Victorians and the loss of faith in God, and a veteran novelist, is also a journalist. His authorial breadth serves him and the reader well in this sprawling blend of social commentary, Fleet Street satire, and theologically tinged thriller set in today's London. Imagine Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" updated to a stand-in for Robert Mugabe, insert Lugardia for Rhodesia and Zinariya for Zimbabwe, and place as the protagonist a British colonial, first a soldier there, then a celebrity monk preaching liberation theology against General Bendiga's corrupt regime. The regime, supported by and supporting Lennox Marx's "red-top" tabloid "The Daily Legion," finds itself clashing by a psychomachia within a teenager who carries many secrets and scandals inside his fevered consciousness. We hear the multiple personas of a teenaged boy, Peter, who takes on the fearsome voices of one possessed, perhaps by demons as much as by schizophrenia. He's a modern version of the man who lived among the tombs that was cured by Jesus, who drove out the devils into the Gadarene swine in that eerie Gospel episode.
It's an ambitious novel. The fates of a few characters, such as blackmailed Ed Hartley, the conceptual artist Hans Busch, or counselor Kevin Currey, appear too muddled. This may be intentional, to show the cruelty of their predicaments, but I wondered what roles they served; the Happy Band's ultimate goals also remained shadowed. Still, these are minor shortcomings that do not detract much from the cumulative interest that accrues as, once you're into the novel a couple of hundred of its five-hundred pages, the novel begins linking its many subplots.
Wilson, better than Nicola Barker's experimental novel "Darklands" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US recently), evokes how many characters inhabit a young man's mind. In demon-haunted Peter, we hear an array of stock figures from stereotypical England, stolid then and multicultural now. Wilson wittily, but with compassion and justice, enters Peter and many other figures with intelligence, energy, and tact. This novel, although about sensationalism, by its balance of tell-all gossip and elegant restraint, manages to convince you of the reality of even the exaggerated figures he-- especially at the "Legion"-- delights in parading.
The novel captures a grimy, rainy, weary capital, especially its southern bank and inner suburban districts, those less chronicled. The chav, the Coldstream Guard, the campaigning padre, the frightened child, the Bahamian immigrant, the social climbing Eurotrash, the careful spy, the frustrated mistress, the overeducated scribbler, the sashaying hack: all sound as they should.
The city, too, enters, seen from a decaying urban park: "From afar, beyond the neglected graves of ten thousand south Londoners," Catford's "high-rise blocks" and Bromley's "endless streets" sulk. "Today they suggested a limitless waste of life, a humanity which stretched sadly as far as the eye could see, indulging in its youth in the activities which so obsessed the graffiti-artists in the bandstand; scurrying, in middle age, to the bus stops and railway stations which, even in the heavy rain, the eye could discern, to go to work in London, to pay for the mean residences which stretched in endless terraces; lying, eventually, in the cemetery whose identical headstones made their cruel commentary on the rows of houses of those who were buried there." (360)
God seems absent from here, often if not always. Wilson gives Father Chell two magnificent sermons, one a rant on liberation theology, one a eulogy about the death of the "God of the Philosophers" on Calvary replaced by a post-resurrection deity who "had looked very much like the gardener sweeping the path" in the Garden. (300) Father Chell speculates later about the departure of God from humanity as symbolized by the Ascension-- the human construct rises into the sky that we populate with gods. Meanwhile, in the city where some still pray, the voles and dogs and cats "breathed and moved and fed without the need to project their mentalities into the indifferent surroundings, or to look for personality in the vast impersonal processes of the natural world." (426)
Wilson's omniscient narrator holds back, rarely directly editorializing, but when the craft justifies such an entrance, the effect's moving. While not a showy writer, Wilson takes care on every page. In the indirect first-person voice that eases in and out of his main characters, he makes comparisons to Bonhoeffer, Homer, Marx, Dostoevsky, Christ, or Shakespeare that reflect the level of a character's own knowledge. One journalist, having compromised on early promise for a steady income: "Now he sounded like a man who was so used to mixing with, and writing for, people stupider than himself that he was in a world where just to know the names of great writers was something for which you expected applause." (214)
Such allusions, occasionally deployed, work well. "On the TV news, when the idiocy or wickedness of politicians had forced another great section of humanity into a position where home was a place of dread, one saw them queuing at borders, streaming down dusty roads or railway tracks, many an Aeneas with old Anchises on his shoulders, refugees, old women bundled in prams, fly-blown babies. And always such bedraggled figures in flight had grabbed, quite arbitrarily perhaps, their 'things'. But why in such circumstances of despair had they bothered to take anything at all, unless that was merely clutching at an object, as a child clutched a comfort-blanket, offered in inconsolable circumstances a faint alternative to consolation?" (295)
England here has little pride left. The parks once meant for adults now find their cafeterias, playgrounds, and benches coated with trash and scrawls. "The Queen, no longer a radiant young woman, now looked like an old frump made out of pastry, grumpy and about to crack into floury powder." (476) The ceremony of welcoming Lennox Marks as a Lord shows to such as Chell how primitive, beneath the Americanized fast-food, muggings, petty crime, and fumes and endless swearing of a dumbed-down populace, ritual endures in "the tribal hierarchy which still persisted here. This man, for all his dependence on modern techniques of communications to make his millions, on plate-glass towers and computerized newspaper production, wanted nothing more than to drape himself with dead animal skins and, mumbling imprecations to the spirits, make obesiance to his tribal chieftains." (490)
The loss of national will-- as a Brigadier explains with the IRA battling for a compromise so as to make the Ulster statelet "seem implausible," and so come to power-- dominates a cowed yet cock-headed Britain. Wilson may find hope in a few individuals that as always refuse to serve their prostituted masters. But, these by the end of this story seem few. The position of the kingdom, dependent on oppression to keep its post-colonial power, manacled to capitalism that presents both the only workable situation at present and the method by which billions suffer to serve a billion, deepens the ideas that the characters fumble with, as journalists, readers, and perpetrators in a society with little belief and lots of junk. Wilson reports in an often much funnier (if rather scattershot in its many easy if deserving targets!) prose than my serious excerpts may have indicated, but his moral analysis can be scathing.