on 27 August 2001
I will no doubt be taken in like this again, but right now I am swearing that this is the last time I believe a cover quote. The gap between what the comment by Jonathan Coe says about this book and the reality of it is so vast that I can't help suspecting either that Coe owed Nicholas Royle a favour or that this is actually not the Jonathan Coe who wrote 'What A Carve Up!' that is being quoted.
For quite other than being a 'blindingly ingenious thriller', this struck me more as being tiresome, baggily-written, and devoid of genuinely original thought despite its pretensions to being a highbrow literary work.
The first problem for the reader is that it is lacking in authentic emotion. The characters never come to life, the dialogue is pancake flat, and there is little evidence here that Royle has any insight into human nature whatsoever to offer. The men all seem remarkably similar and unlikeable, and the women barely exist beyond eyes and haircuts. Indeed, Royle is very big on eyes and haircuts. On one page alone he describes Richard ('wavy, dark brown hair' and 'intense eyes'), Sarah ('long, shining auburn hair' and 'hazel eyes'), Frank ('bright blue eyes, unruly, thick, dark wavy hair') and Harry ('long, straight, fair hair'). Harry's eyes were not described, however, so he remained something of a mystery for me.
As for the world in which these clones (of Royle?, one wonders) move, their author is equally reliant on surface detail. He uses factual reference like a crutch throughout, almost every page stuffed with street names and itineraries to the extent whereby you just know the London A-Z was a constant feature on his desk as he wrote it. But he cannot get under the surface of anything, and becomes irritatingly glib or clichéd when he tries. At times, it's like reading a London guidebook, full of obtuse little judgements. His big thing here is that he has noticed (and seems to think he may be the first to do so) that derelict spaces such as darkened cinemas and old industrial sites have a certain melancholy beauty. He is, however, quite incapable of evoking that beauty himself, falling back on an almost comical cataloguing of all the abandoned London cinemas, even giving the dates when they closed, as if by sheer mass of factual reference he is going to succeed in writing a modern Moby Dick.
Actually, the reader does become rather like Ahab, fighting on against towering waves of pointless fact and storms of bad dialogue. Not being driven to self-destruction like him, however, I gave up after one hundred pages had convinced me it wasn't going to get any better (in particular after the crucial suicide-episode on which the plot is based turned out to be so unconvincingly-handled that I actually fell asleep in the middle of it), and jumped ahead to get my white whale, a twist that struck me as highly derivative.
In one fabulously awful bit of dialogue, a man dying of syphilis describes his situation as 'My library book's due back and I can't borrow any more'. What can one say? Wow.
I do wish my copy HAD come from a library, though.
on 23 October 2001
This is definitely a book where the synopsis on the back, goes a long way in getting it from the book-sellers shelf to your bedside table. However, Jonathan Coe's front cover promise of "A blindingly ingenious thriller", raises the expectations, a little too far. As the author himself, only seems to have decided the genre halfway through.
The novel is built around four central characters, all aspiring young film directors. It follows various fragments of their lives, from the conception of their jointly directed snuff film "Auteur", in the early eighties, to present day. When the body from their snuff film is discovered over a decade later, it provides the catalyst for the later paranoia that both the characters and the reader find themselves emerged in.
However, that's as about exciting as the book gets. It's structured in short sections and chapters, which flip back and forth over twenty three years. Paying poor homage, by attempting a literary structural equivalent to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Unlike it's celluloid contemporary there is little characterisation. Each section serves mainly to reveal plot alone, which more often than not, seems so trivial that little or any is remembered, when the final third of the book attempts to assemble motive and reasoning.
The characters are similar in age and profession, and with the constant flux between characters and date, in the first hundred pages, and the introduction of some inconsequential side characters, they were difficult to distinguish. I felt like an overworked police constable, having to write down each characters name profession and any brief detail that was relayed.
The sub-plot surrounding renegade film director Fraser Munro, film projectionist Iain Burns and photographer Andrew Kerner were the only things that made this book seem like a thriller, as only their strange histories were revealed. Invoking the question "Where do they all fit in?" The answer being that two of them didn't. Again, female characters who were briefly mentioned are reintroduced, making you flip back to re-read their initial introduction.
Whilst I appreciate with any whodunit, character history details can be hard to write without revealing the protagonist. However, without a certain amount of disclosure, the reader loses interest. How are THEY ever going to guess whodunit? This can also have a profound effect on the lack of action and pace within a book. By the time the answers began to slowly unveil themselves, it became obvious that a made-for-TV-movie, rare- psychological-disorder, was going to be involved here. With a Scooby-do meets Seven Modus Operandi.
If like me the majority of your reading is done in the morning and evening tube commute, beware - this book is best read in one sitting as details and time frames are easily forgotten.
on 14 December 2000
Best novel this year. And I'm glad I read it because it reassures me that people can still write plot-based thrillers that that plumb the depths of the psyche, whilst creating such a convincing contemporary reality.
Director's Cut is set in London, in the world of Independant cinema. Royle obviously knows his stuff in these two areas. Despite the compulsion to keep reading page after page, sometimes I could almost believe I was reading cinema journalism. It feels that real. I now know a lot more about art films than I ever thought I would.
The story is laden with doom from a few pages in. I couldn't tell quite what was going to happen, save for the obvious (as you'll see), but I knew that the circle of friends at the heart of the novel were destined for some nasties. Royle builds the tension superbly.
Trust me, find this and read it. I used to like Iain Banks a few years back but, without resorting to gore, Director's Cut blows Complicity off the stage for darkness and tension.
And I must say Fraser Munro is one of the most distinctive characters I have read about. I don't know why, because he's anything *but* distinct (you'll have to read it to find out how), but for some reason I was convinced of his reality.