Top critical review
Archer's magnum opus
on 14 September 2013
Many people are familiar with the Bible story of Cain and Abel. In the Book of Genesis, they are the two sons of Adam and Eve, and thus siblings. Cain was the first human being to be born, while Abel was the first to die. It seems that Cain killed Abel out of jealousy and anger after God rejected Cain's offering while accepting Abel's. God then cursed Cain and thus we have the term 'the mark of Cain'. Jeffrey Archer's 'Kane and Abel' is a tale of human potential, but unlike the Bible story, the two warring principals are not siblings. Kane is the scion of a rich New England banking dynasty. Abel, on the other hand, is born illegitimate and raised by a peasant family in Poland. The comparable Bible story is an economic battle in an early agricultural society misinterpreted as a moral battle; Archer's story is, likewise, only a moral battle on the surface. The two characters talk frequently of things such as loyalty and honour, but this is just talk. In truth, this is a story about a power struggle in which both men demonstrate a willingness to pursue their own selfish ends using uncivil means. This is partly motivated by the sense of a penal curse that each man puts on the other - a 'mark of Cain', if you like - though this motivation is much more powerful for Abel who, for reasons I will not divulge here, harbours a primal hatred for Kane. But Abel is also undoubtedly jealous about the fact that Kane already possesses the 'acceptance' of their shared 'god', capitalism, and much like the Biblical Cain seeks to punish Abel. Archer's Abel sees Kane as a target in possession of everything he, as a poor immigrant, hasn't got and wants. Having accepted Kane's pagan money-god, Abel must work and strive and lie and cheat and generally debase himself in order to prove in the eyes of 'money' that he is the equal of Kane and thus worthy of the pagan god's acceptance. That is not to say Abel seeks approval. What matters to him is only attainment and thus acceptance as an apparent equal according to the universal scorecard of money. Thus in a reverse of the Biblical story, it is Abel who carries the 'mark of Cain': but in this story, it is an empowering amulet that brings him closer to the 'god', not more distant as in the Biblical story. It is Kane who provides the novel with its inevitable trajectory while Abel is the striver and chancer and thus the 'outsider' seeking 'acceptance'.
While Abel and Kane may not be related by blood, the author (in my view, cleverly) makes these two characters symbolic 'twins' throughout the story in that Fate repeatedly brings them together, sometimes in ways seemingly inconsequential, but always in a way that is significant to their converging fates. Some people have sneered at the author for putting these coincidences in, but I enjoyed that aspect of the story. In fact, I regard it as the best feature. 'Kane and Abel' is written by a stylist who knows his readership market exactly. Its enervated characters are like something out of an Edwardian-set TV drama, and include more than the fair share of anally-retentive bank executives - one of whom says: "There's no fool like an old fool but I'll back you young man" (that's pretty typical of the standard of dialogue here) - two punctilious Jewish attorneys and a seedy private detective who works on Saturdays. Although I actually quite like Jeffrey Archer, I have never been an admirer of his fiction writing. 'Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less' is awful rubbish. (The TV adaptation is even worse, if that's possible). 'Shall We Tell The President?' is just as bad. Both novels, and much of the rest of his work, suffer from colourless prose and lack the kind of emotional involvement and appealing dialogue that could really hook a reader. On the other hand, lots of people claim that they are hooked to his writing - witness the reviews on this site - so I suppose it's a matter of taste and opinion. We can also assume from Archer's sales levels that he is a multi-millionaire author, whereas I am not, so who am I to judge? I will judge anyway, as is my right, but while Archer may be a lousy writer, his success means he has to be taken seriously. At his best, Archer is capable of writing a compelling narrative, but it's analogous to fast food. Some people, knowing they shouldn't indulge, just can't resist doing so anyway. They do so even though they know it won't do them any good. As I read Archer's prose, I have this feeling of time slipping away from me, and maybe a few brain cells too.
Admittedly, in 'Kane and Abel' we are presented with a slight case of authorial schizophrenia. It's a 'slight' case because although 'Kane and Abel' does run contrary to the grain of Archer's writing career in that it is, genuinely, quite a decent novel and unquestionably Archer's critical best - his magnum opus, in fact - it does also follow a familiar authorial pattern. Parts of the first chapter are as good as anything I have read, but that only accounts for a tiny part of the whole work. True, 'Kane and Abel' has an intriguing and addictive quality about it in much the same way that a good bit of juicy gossip might have. There's a feeling of wanting to know what happens next, and I kept wanting to know what would happen next to Abel Rosnovski, by far the more interesting of the two characters. However, after a while the reader senses a repetitive pattern enveloping the experience. Rather like a tedious, self-conscious pop anthem, it all goes on for a bit too long and starts to become tiresome, if not intrusive on the reader's time and resources. At 550 pages, it's just too much given that the quality of the material is, for the most part, decidedly average. I'll happily read 550 pages of Dumas, Twain or Irving and come away a better, nicer person, but I can't read 550 pages of Archer without feeling a little resentful. For the most part, Archer's prose is flighty and rhetorical, but we're not in unfamiliar territory and what Archer has produced here is not unique.
'Kane and Abel' is a pluperfect example of what is known, generically, as the 'saga novel'. It's Reader's Digest stuff - fodder for middle-class housewives and people waiting in airports, etc. - and the struggle between Kane and Abel is the type of re-warmed, re-hashed sentimental twaddle you can read in any one of a hundred women's magazines. There's nothing wrong with that - it caters for a certain taste and each to their own - but I've always felt strongly that this sort of material should never really be described as a 'novel' in the proper sense. Dumas, an author I mentioned a moment ago, is particularly relevant here because Archer seems to like the comparison with the famous 19th. century French writer. Like Archer, Dumas had an unattractive and self-regarding aspect to his personality. He often called himself the 'vulgarisateur', which is French for 'populariser'. Yet Dumas is enduring and famous because his 'feuilleton' novels were not just 'popular' but also tender, evocative and stimulating. Archer's writing lacks these qualities. Whereas Dumas was brilliant, colourful and insightful, Archer is compelling, flat and sentimental. In most of 'Kane and Abel' and other 'novels' like it, there's precious little human warmth, no meaningful dialogue, and a distinct lack of introspection or atmosphere. These are attributes that hallmark the novel movement as I understand it, but they are missing from Archer's prose, and even when he tries to facsimile something to the reader that resembles novel quality, it feels painfully translucent or shop-worn. Where dialogue occurs, it is stilted and amounts to irony piled on irony. This is partly due to poor character development. The characters are formalised cut-outs lacking depth or sympathy.
In fairness, Archer is not alone in this kind of indulgence: he just exemplifies a long-standing trend in what might be called 'anti-novel saga-writing'. And it's a commercially-successful trend, so it's unsurprising that the plot of 'Kane and Abel' is reproduced in other Archer works, using superficially-adjusted character and plot devices. 'As The Crow Flies' and 'The Fourth Estate' stand out as obvious regurgitations of this proven formula in which the characters are karmic re-runs amidst a kind of contemporary capitalist version of the Old Norse sagas: those legendary epic 'tales of worthy men'. And just as the Old Norse tales charted the ordinary human cycles of love, power, romance and death, Archer's sagas chart the micro-human cycles of capitalism among the rich, powerful, determined, good-looking and fortunate. Whether the characters actually exhibit these qualities at any given moment in the saga is beside the point. The premise of the novel, much like the premise of the TV series Dallas (which first appeared about the same time Archer was probably writing 'Kane and Abel'), is the eternal personal struggle to acquire or embody the attributes of 'success', regardless of the true economic position or whether one is 'successful' at 'success-making'. Even Archer's mini-saga of poverty, i.e. the early life of Abel Rosnovski, is seen through a palpably retrospective lens, from the vantage point of the 'successful' or would-be successful. The material struggles of the poor are ignored or overlooked. Instead, in Archer's saga of modernist capitalism, the poor are blamed for being poor (they are 'unsuccessful') while the rich, or would-be rich (the 'successful') are celebrated in much the same way the saints were celebrated in some of the Old Norse tales. For Rosnovski, Archer's 'worthy man' - a veritable St. Olaf of capitalism - there is no material struggle, just a Randian vision of 'successful' or 'unsuccessful' people in which Rosnovski 'struggles' to fit in.
This idea of Jeffrey Archer as a 'saga-writer' rather than a novelist is reflected in some of his own utterances. He calls himself a 'story-teller'. I think that's apt. But I don't want to be too hard on the author. Somewhere inside each of us there is a better person fighting to get out. 'Kane and Abel' does have flashes of literary quality that suggest that somewhere inside Jeffrey Archer there might be a real novelist waiting to emerge. And I think that's where we'll leave this review - an appropriate simile for a story about human potential.
Just an endnote: My review here is of the original 1979 version of 'Kand and Abel'. It's important to note that Archer recently updated the novel, removing scenes, switching around chapters and so on. I have not read this latest version. My review is based on the original.