Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A week in December

A Week in December
by Sebastian Faulks

Right from the start I want to say I enjoyed this book.  I find I am inevitably curious about what others think of any given book that I am reading or thinking of reading, so I often check out what people have said about a book on amazon or good reads and  in the case of this particular title I find I am in the minority in having really enjoyed Sebastian Faulks ‘state of  the nation’ novel A Week in December. 

Set in a post 7/7bombing, post GFC London, A Week in December sets out to explore the nature of the new world in which we live.  Terrorism, both economic, and of the militant Islamic variety are principal themes of this timely and of its time novel. The book follows the lives of a group of quite disparate characters who are, nevertheless, loosely connected, from politicians and their wives, to bankers with no ethics,  to a professional soccer  player, a train driver, a budding suicide bomber, a spoilt/neglected, drug addled, rich kid, a spiteful book reviewer, and an underemployed lawyer, Faulks has attempted to capture the spirit of the age and it’s not a very pretty picture.  The above mentioned characters and more grace what is a very ambitious piece of writing.  Satire and social comment permeate this novel making it more than a little polemical in tone and really quite darkly humorous.   Faulks has much to say about a society that prefers virtual reality to reality, a society that neglects it’s youth and allows greed ascendancy over ethics.  Some characters are better developed than others, some are little more than  syphons for Faulk’s social critique, regardless it remains a rich compelling  narrative.  

The unscrupulous hedge fund manager John Veals takes the reader on a voyage into the world of obscene wealth and no morality, he is the means by which Faulks explores and  explains the vicious way hedge funds work. While illustrating the factual scaffolding of recent economic tragedies. Veals also shows how seductive and thrilling such  pursuits can be, his activities have all the thrills of an episode of Spooks, he is, nevertheless, a thoroughly  unpleasant character.  He lives a self absorbed existence that  allows him to ignore his essentially compliant, trophy wife and children.  Meanwhile his son Finn sits in his room, smoking skunk, watching reality television or constructing a life in a virtual world online, if anything Finn’s story is more disturbing than that of Hassan, another child of wealthy parents, only Hassan is seeking his realisation not in drugs and escape, but  in the  oblivion of the suicide bomber,all despite a privileged upbringing, and loving parents. 

Faulks also manages to work in something of an unlikely romance between the character of Jenni, the tube driver and Gabriel Northwood a barrister who through circumstance finds it necessary to immerse himself in   Jenni’s world.  Gabriel emerges as one of the novel’s few likable characters and something of a voice for a lost world of humanist values, in a conversation with Jenni the virtues of reading are explored:

‘…I s’pose it’s an escape from the real world.’
‘But surely it’s just the opposite,’ said Gabriel. ‘Books explain the real world.  They bring you close to it in a way you could never manage in the course of the day.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘People never explain to you exactly what they think and feel and how their thoughts and feelings work, do they?  They don’t have time.  Or the right words.  But that’s what books do.  It’s as though your daily life is a film in the cinema.  It can be fun, looking at those pictures.  But if you want to know what lies behind the flat screen you have to read a book.  That explains it all.’
‘Even if the people in the book are invented?’
‘Sure. Because they’re based on what’s real, but with the boring bits stripped out.  In good books anyway.  Of my total understanding of human beings, which is perhaps not very great… I’d say half of it is from guessing that other people must feel much the same as I would in their place.  But of the other half, ninety per cent of it has come from reading books.  Less than ten per cent from reality – from watching and talking and listening – from living.’ (p.197)

Explaining the real world is exactly what Faulks is trying to do with this novel.  Some of his points may be a bit laboured but they are worth reading.  Certainly his portrait of fundamentalist religious belief as fundamentally insane, schizophrenic in nature, may be a little heavy handed.  But it is not just religion that is portrayed as deluded, humanity is shown to be by it's very nature capable of self delusion on a epic scale, hence the prevalent escape into a fantasy virtual reality, or even just the simple refusal to see the world as it really is.  Greed, the internet and reality TV are the bread and circuses that distract us from seeing what we are, and Faulks is trying to make that a little bit plainer. In a sense A Week in December is a sort of Vanity Fair for the twenty first century, and while it may not be a truly great book, it is a good book and well worth the time spent reading it.  I enjoyed this novel greatly.

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