Debutant novels and great expectations
John Self on debut novels that provide an insight into publishing in Britain
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Pull up your chaise longue for a tale of two debut novels which gives an insight into publishing in Britain. Debuts are fragile but commonplace things: like dandelion spores, they are sent out in their thousands in the knowledge that most will fall on stony ground or, er, be eaten by a bird. [Needs work — Ed.] The literary world conspires in the artificial expectation for a first novel to be a substantial literary achievement: we get features on the best debuts of the year, numerous awards for debut novels (but only one for second novels, where the work really begins), and even in last year’s Booker Prize first novels made up two-thirds of the shortlist.
A debut, or rather a debut author, offers a clean slate, unencumbered by previous middling sales, and promises — to adopt John Peel’s rationale for swimming through floods of cassettes by unsigned bands — something we’ve never heard before. When Jo Baker in 2013 published her fifth novel Longbourn, a riff on Pride and Prejudice, the publisher made no mention of her previous books and it was reviewed as a sensational debut (and, bingo, became a bestseller).
James Clammer, like Baker, is not strictly a debutant — he has written a children’s book — but Insignificance is his debut for adults. It’s published by Galley Beggar Press, a husband-and-wife team whose greatest successes have come from novels unwisely rejected by bigger, more conservative publishers: Eimear McBride’s debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013) and Lucy Ellmann’s thousand-page epic Ducks, Newburyport (2019). Their sparse output — two or three books a year — and ability to follow their tastes rather than the money means everything they publish is interesting.
Insignificance is an example of what John Updike called giving “the mundane its beautiful due”, a book about a man “to whom things simply happened”. The second quote, raised by one of the characters in Insignificance, is from Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, perhaps the least-loved of his best novels, and an exacting comparison for any writer to invoke. But Clammer has his own story to tell: that of Joseph Forbes, a plumber on his first job back after a period of illness.
It’s a tale tightly told, clinging close to Joseph’s consciousness in an inevitably Joycean-Woolfian way as he observes and reflects on everything during a morning spent trying to replace a hot water tank. So we get technicalities (on siphoning water, say) as well as meta-reflections on the nature of the work: “such is the life of a labouring man, day after day his adversary is a thing, an inanimate object with its own peculiarities, then it’s another, then it’s another…”
This monotone is a shroud for the easy secret that there are no boring lives, and as Joseph’s history and present circumstances crowd into his thoughts, we learn about his “nervous breakdown”, spurred by his son Edward’s mental illness (Capgras syndrome: look it up) and what Edward did to his mother. When Edward turns up, released from prison, to confront Joseph, it doesn’t seem like such an everyday tale after all.
There’s a lot going on in this short book, and a satisfying sort of old-fashioned Englishness
There’s a lot going on in this short book, and a satisfying sort of old-fashioned Englishness that includes not just hot water tanks but also pubs, travel agents and top-shelf magazines (do they still exist?). The intensity of the close narrative voice, with its circlings and riffs, means it sinks deep into the reader’s consciousness, even when Clammer jolts us out of the story by adopting an omniscient voice (“Something’s been overlooked, we realise. The woman Alison Forbes around whom our narrative hinges has yet to be described”).
The threat from Edward keeps the narrative nice and tense, so I’m unsure whether the sudden developments in Joseph’s behaviour toward the end are needed, when the contents of his plumber’s bag contain items symbolically relevant to sex, violence and alcohol: triangulation points for a certain portrayal of masculinity. At first the ending seemed too stoked with drama, but if you take the view that the end of a story is its point, then that, after all, is where the book really starts from.
A very different journey to publication comes from Rahul Raina’s debut How to Kidnap the Rich. Published by one of the Big Five publishing conglomerates, the press release trills with how successful it’s already been before it’s even released: the book was the subject of a “fierce auction” among publishers, Raina’s agent “fought off” seven other agents to represent him (I hope this involved actual fisticuffs), and the book has been optioned by HBO and Riz Ahmed.
And to be honest, you can see why. How to Kidnap the Rich is lots of fun and likely to be a hit. It’s a story of, as the blurb has it, “kidnap. Double-kidnap. Reverse-kidnap”, told in the perky voice of Ramesh, a smart young man from Delhi who takes exams for the children of rich parents.
Except that one day he takes an exam for lazy teenager Rudi and spurs a media feeding frenzy when he accidentally bags him the highest score in the country. “Well, not top. Actually second. But the first place was Iqbal somebody, and he sure as shit didn’t count. No cameras for the Muslim.”
That’s a fair representation of what you get: a cheerfully disrespectful attitude to everything, from population change (“In 2005, the Americans would have been sitting in their Floridian subprime housing masturbating to Jessica Alba, not realising the future was going to be black and brown and yellow”) to local stereotyping (“We Indians are the horniest people on the internet, as any comment section on any video will tell you”).
This is a book of breadth rather than depth, that doesn’t wring its hands, that says it’s OK to joke about serious stuff
The story follows Ramesh and Rudi’s success, as they establish a routine on TV game show Beat the Brain where children challenge Rudi on general knowledge and Ramesh feeds him answers (“take that, Slumdog Millionaire”) — until they scam the wrong kid. And that’s where the multiple kidnaps come in.
If you have a smart, sassy narrative voice, you can get away with a lot, but you have to manage it carefully to prevent it becoming a barrier to other things. There’s plenty of emotional wealth in Ramesh’s past — mother died in childbirth, father beat him — and his motivation for taking exams for money is to pay for an operation for Claire, a nun who helped raise him. These elements — like his love for a young woman named Priya, the background rumble of financial inequality, and male dominance in Indian society — never feel as enthusiastically probed as the romp and roll of the fun stuff.
But then this is a book of breadth rather than depth, that doesn’t wring its hands, that says it’s OK to joke about serious stuff; and that alone makes it worth celebrating.
Emilio Fraia’s Sevastopol isn’t a debut but it is his first book to be translated into English (by Zoë Perry). It’s a string of three stories that … well, the lack of direct connection between them makes me reluctant to invoke the word triptych, but there is a pattern at work. The book was inspired by Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, and each story is titled after his (“December”, “May”, “August”); and sets up a pair of characters in opposition, destined for disappointment.
In the first and best story, a woman sets out to scale the “Seven Summits”, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. (I’m sure there were only five when I was at school.) At the same time she has to cope with the legacy of her lover Gino, the sort of filmmaker who makes “a series of commercials for a car brand — commercials in which cars never appear”.
It’s a smart, knotty story, much fuller and more complex than its length should permit, with plenty of space for the reader to think but also some authorial sleight of hand to keep you curious. By comparison the second story, “May”, seemed to me underweight, despite its otherwise satisfying ambiguities in the narrative viewpoint and its account of the two sides of hospitality.
Fraia is interested not in the reality of things but its representation. That, after all, is what writing is about
The final story, “August”, was published in the New Yorker (as “Sevastopol”), though this is not a traditional New Yorkery story, just as the collection itself evokes less a South American literary sensibility than a spare, elusive mitteleuropean one. This placelessness is apt enough for a story which is — finally — actually about the debatable land of Sevastopol, the largest city in the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
It’s narrated by a woman, Nadia, involved in a play about the siege of Sevastopol. Her narrative is peppered with concise pen portraits (“he sports a showy, swashbuckling moustache”) but really the message is all about art, from Nadia’s advice to the playwright (research is like a cherry in a cocktail, she tells him: “only there so that it can be removed”) to the subject of the play: a war artist who never witnessed the battles he depicted.
Fraia is interested not in the reality of things but its representation. That, after all, is what writing is about. “The chief thing,” we’re told via a soldier in the Crimean war, “is not to think. If you don’t think, it’s nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking.” I’ll drink — or think — to that.
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