Friday, May 21, 2010

Restless, Altmanesque montage of disconnected lives (Books - A Week in December by Sebastian Faluks)

This is my first encounter with best-selling British writer Sebastian Faulks. So far his latest, A Week in December, reads like a restless montage of contemporary ephemera - a literary equivalent of, say, the film Crash - reflecting the breadth of contemporary London life and its preoccupations - credit default swaps, multiculturalism, gaming with on-line avatars, and terrorism. He quick-cuts between segments (of substantial length) from the lives of a young woman who is a train-driver on the London underground, a hedge-fund manager, a young man in an islamist terrorist cell, a teenager who does nothing but smoke pot, eat pizza, and watch so-called reality television, and a few others, following their lives over a single week as their existences slowly converge in what feels likely to be disaster. This Robert Altmanesque technique does not shortchange the reader on detail within the individual segments. In fact, Faulks has accumulated scads of them which, as I read, I can't help thinking of how mind-numbingly specific to our own time they will become in about five minutes. Yet, the meta-story is told the through the confluence of these stories, which make for their own evocative rhythm that feels as though the segments are being viewed on simultaneous screens - hence the allusion to Crash - and whose appreciation is not particularly harmed by missing any particular detail of an individual segment.

Living post market crash and post the recent Times Square bomb attempt, I feel as though I've paid for a ride on a roller coaster, knowing the tracks will end abruptly and that it will fling me into the abyss, and yet I read on with a strange curiosity for how he will fling me there. The most pervasive theme I'm struck by in these individual narratives is one of the interpersonal distance inherent in our crowded lives, how much substantive human contact has reduced as we claim to be better connected and better informed - watching television that claims to be about "real" lives.

Jenni, the train driver, lives most of her life beneath the streets of London in the driver's cabin of the Circle Line. When released after her shift she is eager to get home to her gaming, where she assumes a false name and meets other substitute identities:
She had not gone far before she encountered a man. He had cargo pants to the knee, bare torso and multiple piercings. His skin was light brown, though most of it was covered in tattoos; he carried a Uranium credit card (the highest rating) and a submachine gun in his right hand.

Jenni sighed. This was not the kind of man she would have chosen, but she had learned that it was pretty much standard dress for men in Parallax. Most of the maquettes were scary and you just had to remind yourself that they might in reality be women or children - you absolutely could not rely in appearances; you had to disbelieve your eyes.
Finn, the teenage TV addict watches a television interview with a schizophrenic:

For the last fifteen years, Alan had been without a permanent home. He said he hadn't liked the hospital, it was loud and dirty, but at least he'd felt safe there.

"So," said Terry O'Malley, "as far as your accommodation's concerned, it seems you're in two minds about it."

The audience laughed. " two minds..." O'Malley underlined his joke for the slower ones.

"That's not what schizophrenia means," said Alan. "That's a misunderstanding. It's nothing to do with a 'split personality' or -"

"Sorry," said Barry Levine. "Which one of you said that?"
The characters in these parallel stories watch television to get the stories of real people, but they don't actually listen to them. They connect to tattooed gangsters and don't really know who they are. This is a world about being disconnected from each other and from our senses - the equipment that we have to collect information about the world and make predictions about behavior given what we can know about what exists outside of us. The only people alert to the details of their surrounds in this novel are those who want to place bombs in public places or who wish to make personal fortunes at the cost of billions in others' pension investments. This is our world, in case you didn't recognize it.

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