Sebastian Faulks: A Week in December
After reading Human Traces, I felt that I would never want to reads another Faulks novel. However, this one got such good reviews and was hailed as the first British novel of the millennium that dealt effectively with issues unique to this millennium – Muslim terrorism in the UK, high paid foreign footballers, hedge funds, reality TV and the like – that I thought that I had better give Faulks another go. Oh dear. Like Human Traces, Faulks has done his research (there is a fairly long list of acknowledgements) and his plot is not bad but, once again, it is all surface. His characters do generally have one thing in common – they are generally not happy with their lot and quite miserable, though – ta da! – the two that seem, at least for a while, as though they might become happy, are the two that fall in love during the course of the week in which this novel is set (Aaaaah!).
The book, as the title states, concerns a week in December, specifically the last week before Christmas 2007. During this week we follow the lives of a group of people in London, seven main ones and the various people they associate with. Many of them will meet for dinner on the last day at the house of Lance Topping and his wife Sophie. Lance is in the shadow cabinet and tipped for office in a new government. Just so we know where we stand, Sophie conveniently provides both a list and a short introduction to each of the characters. Character number one is John Veals. He is a hedge fund manager of a somewhat shady but technically legal hedge fund. During the course of the week/book, he is setting up a mammoth deal, involving an old established British bank, that has over-extended itself and, if his deal works, it will not only bring down the bank but cause untold damage to the British economy, ruin several major African economies and destroy the savings of thousands of pensioners. He is a very easy target. He has no feelings about anyone or anything. He has no interests but in making money. (Faulks gives us a detailed list of the things that he is not interested in.) He is married, with a son and a daughter, but shows little interest in any of the three of them. (During the week, his son, Character No 2, who spends a lot of money on skunk, has a psychosis attack and ends up in a mental hospital. Veals does not seem too bothered.) Faulks clearly loves the complexity of the deal, which is described in great detail, though there did seem a weak link, as it depends on the market knowing a certain weakness about the British bank, which only Veals knows. This story is the longest of the stories.
Character number 3 is Hassan al-Rashid. His father, an immigrant from Pakistan, has developed a variety of pickles and done very well out of it, so much so that he gets the OBE during the course of the book. However, Hassan has rediscovered his Muslim roots and has joined a group which is plotting a terrorist action. Neither Hassan nor the reader know what this action is till near the end of the book. No 4 is R Tranter (Art Ranter, get it?), a literary critic who seems to be a cross between X Trapnel from Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time and Private Eye‘s Books & Bookmen. He is embittered and vindictive, attacking pretty well every living English writer, with his hate reserved for a specific critic/novelist, called Alexander Sedley. Faulks mocks him to a certain degree, though he is one of the few that does seem to do quite well in this week. No 5 and no 6 are the two lovers, a not very successful barrister and his client, a tube driver, who had someone jump in front of her train at a station. He has very little to do, having no clients, though has had a love affair. She is very much involved in a Second Life type website, called Parallax, and lives with her half-brother, who sponges off her. No 7 is a Polish footballer who has just joined a London football club.
None of the characters is an imaginative creation. Indeed, they are all thoroughly predictable, as are their actions. Faulks loads us down with the cultural references. As well as Parallax/Second life we have YourPlace (i.e. MySpace), reality TV, web pornography, Wikipedia, Tate Modern, cable TV and any number of ways making money legally if unethically. As with YourPlace, the naming is stunningly unimaginative. The US banks are called Lemon Bros (Lehmann), Bare Stern (Bear Sterns), Moreagain (Morgan) and so on. He makes little connections between the characters. For example, Veals looks at soft-core porn to relax, specifically at a model called Olya. Hassan has been told to look at Olya, as there may be a cryptic message for him hidden between her legs (really!). She turns out to be the Polish footballer’s girlfriend. There are other forced and not very convincing connections. Faulks, as a writer of James Bond novels, is far more interested in the complex plot and the researched details than writing a fine work of literature. As with Human Traces, it is not awful, by any means. The plot keeps driving along, even if the ending is really weak, and he does make the rather obvious point that it is only love (not money, skunk, reality TV, interactive websites or football) that brings happiness. The complexities of the financial deal are fascinating. But, sadly, Faulks has become a James Bond, plot- and gadget-driven writer, not an imaginative one.
First published 2009 by Hutchinson