The London Novels Paperback – 25 Apr 2005
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'MacInnes is a lyrical celebrator of London, and above all, a writer with a purpose' -- The Observer
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My only disappointment is that McInnes didn't ever rise to these heights again.
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In City of Spades we have the story of a Nigerian, Jonny Fortune, coming to America, full of energy and optimism and good will. He is the narrator for half the chapters in the book. The other chapters are narrated by Montgomery Pew, a white civil servant who becomes captivated by the African and West Indians in London and becomes increasingly entangled in their lives and culture. This literary device of having two nieve narrators, each becoming more familiar and integrated into each other's culture works superbly. But MacInnes is devious and entertaining when he has Montgomery Pew become involved in the worst aspects of African immigrant culture, interacting with pimps, drug dealers,and gangsters. At the same time he has Jonny Fortune become more integrated with a lower class white family that he seeks out because the mother in the family has a mixed race son that is Jonny's half brother. Jonny soon becomes the lover of his half brother's white sister but later is trapped in a criminal conspiracy by her older prostitute sister who accusses Jonny of being a pimp.
In contrast to Montgomery and Jonny, in Absolute Beginners, we have a 19 year old English photographer, Colin, who is wise and mature far beyond his years, who makes wise-guy commentary on the London life all around him, particularly the increasing tensions between African immigrants and lower-class working-class white males. Colin is a wise-guy in the Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye, tradition.
The plot of City of Spades was one in which characters are seen first through the eyes of one narrator, and then through the eyes of the other and the actions of both narrators integrate them more fully in each other's lives. Characters are revealed from multiple perspectives and their interactions continue to complicate the lives of our two protagonists. Absolute Beginners on the other hand is very linear, our protagonist encounters a series of characters, some a bit stereotypical and two-dimensional, over short periods of time,who eventually show back up to assist the protagonist or further complicate the plot.
City of Spades has a sense of discovery that is really delightful. Montgomery Pew becomes so enchanted with Africans that he allows a dance company to move into his apartment, squeezing him out. Jonny becomes so entangled with white women with criminal connections that he nearly goes to prison. Montgomery comes to understand and love Africans more with each chapter, whereas Jonny comes to be disillusioned and disappointed with white London culture until he returns to Nigeria in defeat. In contrast to City of Spades, Absolute Beginners, has a narrator who is a wise-guy and thus does not discovery wonders around him or change internally. He remains slightly preachy and moralistic while making a living as a pornography photographer.
In City of Spades, we are gradually pulled into the London underground of criminals and fringe characters. In Absolute Beginners we get a taste of this world but we also get a taste of the world of White Suprematists among the working class.
In one way the two novels are complimentary in that in City of Spades the characters reveal racial relationships through personal entanglements whereas in Absolute Beginners we see societal clashes.
The most amazing observation to me was that City of Spades was written in 1957 and Absolute Beginners in 1959 and yet the feel of gay and lesbian characters, criminals, ethnic types, and street youth all seem totally contemporary even 50 years later. This is a reminder to me that maybe the social structure of the underground remains similar, generation after generation.
If I had to give the two books a numerical score, I would give CIty of Spades a 98 out of 100, whereas Absolute Beginners would get an 85.