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The story of a hapless dreamer
on 2 April 2015
Few novelist range as widely as Jim Crace, b. 1946, from Christ's 40-day period in the wilderness [‘Quarantine’, 1997], through 16th-century England [‘Harvest’, 2013] to post-Apocalyptic America [‘The Pesthouse’, 2007]. Here the action takes place mainly in mid-2020s England with backstories taking from early in the millennium.
The third person narrator is Leonard ‘Less’ Lessing, nearly 50and a reasonably-famous jazz saxophonist suffering from a frozen shoulder which serves as a metaphor for his chronic inability to take any committed stand. Leonard is married to Francine, a teacher whom he met at a gig, but their relationship is under great strain due to his vacillating character [when they first met she called him ‘valiant’ now it is ‘dormouse’, ‘tortoise’ and ‘sofa socialist’] and the disappearance of her daughter, Celandine, following a violent argument with her mother.
In 2006, Leonard met a Russo-Canadian revolutionary, Maxim Lermontov aka Maxie Lemon [not exactly ‘A Hero of Our Time’], and his wife, Nadia, ‘who wrote her dissertation on Mondavi’s resistance handbook “Infiltration and Identity”’, and stayed with them in Texas where the three [‘Snipers Without Bullets’] plan an anti-Bush protest [AmBush]. Now both re-enter his life, in which the nearest he now comes to political action is fantasising about fighting Fascists in the Spanish Civil War where his boyhood hero, Mr Perkiss, lost an arm. Into this violent mix also comes 17-year old Lucie, daughter of the now-separated Nadia and Maxie who is involved with a violent faction called ‘Final Warning’.
There are some very good episodes in this book, Leonard’s remembering the live radio gig where he met Francine when, due to a blizzard that stranded his fellow players, he had to play a solo session. Even for someone knowing little about this music, it was riveting, switching from his planning the music, starting with Three Blind Mice [‘until Leonard’s tenor deprives the singers of their tune and embarks on eight measures of bare, but oddly poignant bleats, loosely pitched at first, then joyously unruly.’], his thoughts about the audience, his band and the fear/elation of playing solo.
A difficulty with setting the book in the future lies in having to describe its transportation, policing and communication technologies. Smarthouses and panel screens are mentioned but personal computers seem not to advanced much; however, cigarette packets bear labels suggesting that moderate smoking might prevent dementia. The storyline partly describes a meeting of international leaders gathering to for a Reconstruction Summit and this, and the planned protest [Take Up the Kerb], seems more like the 1990s.
The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace with much of the action taking place in Leonard’s imagination and memory. The police and security forces of the future appear to be inefficient in the extreme allowing Leonard to wander around a crime scene that is ringed with armed officers. Would they not use drones rather than helicopters to monitor a hostage site? The news reporters of the future, too, seem to wander away from big stories before they are fully resolved.
It is hard to know where to place this novel – it is not dystopia, a thriller, a socio-political analysis or a fable….. Crace peppers his story with quips and humour – Lenny Less playing more or less, whilst to take his mind off Nadia’s intimate presence Leonard reads the contents of her moisturiser.
The characters are drawn with various degrees of success – Leonard is, by turns, frustrating, bumbling and sympathetic, Francine’s loss of her daughter is emotionally charged whilst Lucy thinks and speaks with reckless teenage courage as she hatches and carries out her own plan. However, Maxie is rather cartoonish and the description of the attempt to interrupt a speech by Laura Bush is strangely flat [although Leonard’s internal reflections whilst waiting for her to arrive are funny] whilst Nadia is insubstantial, largely a focus for Leonard’s innocent imagination.
Other characters and locations are sketched in, allowing the author to poke [legitimate] fun at Texas patriots and their food and presenting Leonard as the typical naive Englishman. In Texas he thinks asking Nadia’s advice American novels since authors like ‘Gutkind, Salinas, Obama, Minutaglio, Hinojosa-Smith are unfamiliar’.
Not up to Crace’s usual high standard but worth reading, 7/10.