Top positive review
Searingly honest and a damn fine read!
on 22 December 2013
"What a piece of work is a man" as the Bard once put it and, in his latest blackly comic novel this seems to be the theme John Niven has picked up and ran with.
The man in question is one Kennedy Marr, a fabulously successful l'enfant terrible, Booker Prize winning, Irish novelist turned playboy Hollywood screenwriter. Kennedy is also a heavy drinking, drug taking, womanizing hellraiser with little regard for the damage he does to those who care about him. Or even those who don't.
The plot, to briefly summarize, is that due to this extravagant lifestyle, Kennedy owes $1.5m to the US taxman and, even if he clears his overdue backlog of work the best he can do is break even.
At the same time, in England, he becomes the winner of the prestigious F.W. Bingham literature award which will award him £500,000 tax free. The catch being he will have to return to England and work as a lecturer at a University for a term.
Kennedy enjoys, or thinks he enjoys, his carefree life. England holds too many memories and home truths, his ex-wife, his teenage daughter, his hard working brother and, most of all, his dying mother.
Kennedy's initial reluctance is soon quashed by a few brutal financial facts from his accountant and agent and soon he's on a plane to Blighty (naturally managing to get into an in flight punch up with an obnoxious American on the way).
Kennedy is a compelling central character as most readers, mostly the male ones, will quietly enjoy vicariously living such an irresponsible, seemingly glamorous and selfish existence. One of my favourite passages involved him contemplating a relationship counsellor's question of what he wants, "All, Kennedy wanted, -all he ever wanted- was to do exactly as he pleased all the time in an utterly consequence-free environment".
Niven has a lot of fun with this aspect of the book with Kennedy bouncing from one outrage to the next and seemingly incapable of walking down the street without it resulting in some sordid casual sex or a drunken brawl.
This is, I felt the nub of the novel, it's very much a book about being male. Which isn't to say women won't enjoy it too but I think there are extra layers that men will relate too, even if most of us would be loathe to admit it.
Among Niven's great gifts, and something that all great fiction must contain to be truly great, is honesty. Kennedy may be an unrepentant type but he still finds time to reflect upon some of his actions and consider the damage being wrought. It's these moments where Niven's prose really shines through, these small moments of sober or post-orgasm reflection where the shame threatens to gnaw at Kennedy's tarnished soul. Niven takes us deep into the male psyche here, often revealing the sort of heart of darkness that a lot of writers might draw back from. But it all rings true.
A perfect example of this is the opening four way, continent spanning, internet session of "self-pleasuring" involving Kennedy, his iPhone, his iMac, three different women and a tumbler of Whiskey. It doesn't end particularly well but is both tragic and hilariously funny (or disgusting" filth as another reviewer stated). from the brilliantly orchestrated crudeness of the act, Niven then segues into Kennedy's "post-funtime" bleak analysis of his actions and questioning why he does such things when he could have had the true love or several partners over the years. Instead he pleased himself and "broke love".
This "breaking of love" is a recurring theme in the novel, particularly in the latter half when he returns to England and reunites with his ex wife and estranged teenage daughter. For every paragraph of crude, foul mouthed debauchery we get an even balance of tenderness. Some of the latter writing is particularly moving and beautifully observed.
This is primarily why the book works so well. We shouldn't really like Kennedy but we do. He might act monstrously on occasion but he's no monster; he's just been lost in the wilderness of LaLa Land for too long.
There are several other plot strands along the way but you can discover these for yourself.
Is this a novel of redemption? Well, that would be telling. Will the ending please everyone? Almost certainly not, although I liked it. Is it as funny as "Kill Your Friends"? Not really, but you will laugh and it's a slightly more nuanced work than that fierce breakthrough novel.
Personally, I couldn't put it down. it's a rare addictive read and I eagerly await his next novel (his recent venture into thriller territory, "Cold Hands" was excellent too. Some people are just show-offs, eh?).
Funny, crude, eloquent, abrasive, tender and all the other contradictions that make "the piece of work that is a man". It also makes for an excellent novel.