Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sebastian Faulks offers his diagnosis for contemporary British culture.

I was delighted to see that Sebastian Faulks had a new novel out, and I have read it with pleasure. It is a deep and entertaining analysis of a culture in a malaise.

A Week in December

Sebastian Faulks new novel, A Week in December (400 pages, Doubleday, $27.95) is a wonderful analysis of twenty-first-century culture in England. By crafting a novel with several different central characters, and by taking us deep into their conscious—and unconscious—thoughts, he offers his own diagnosis of what is wrong in the modern world.

The key to the puzzle of contemporary life, at least as this novel seems to suggest, is the utterly amoral hedge fund manager, a man who is wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, who actually enjoys manipulating international funds so that governments are brought down, pensioners are left high and dry, and entire African countries are rendered bankrupt. It is not so much that this character, John Veals, takes pleasure in these “side-effects” of his monetary manipulation; rather, he cares deeply only about making money, and he has no moral compass to shape his decisions or cause him to hesitate when the effects are particularly devastating. He wants only to succeed. Because success brings him so little pleasure, though, he finds that he has to make larger and more breathtaking moves. The world of hedge funds, and stocks, by implication, are all working on the same set of values, and that begins to explain how the recent depression had such a painful social effect.
At the other end of the social scale, a near-penniless barrister, Gregory Northwood, and a black underground train driver, Jenni Fortune, meet on account of a case that is brought against the underground, and their tentative relationship offers a beacon of hope in this corrupted world.

Gregory is reading the Koran because he wants to understand the Arab perspective. As we watch him react to the sacred book, we also watch the young Hassan, son of a Scottish-Pakistani lime pickle magnate who is set to receive an OBE from the Queen. The award, the Order of the British Empire, is awarded to prominent civilians and military officers as well. Hassan's father is thrilled to be appearing before the Queen, but Hassan is young and directionless, and holds his father's enthusiams in contempt. He is drawn into a terrorist cell, where he is asked to help with the construction of bombs that he and others will detonate in a psychiatric hospital.

Among the female characters, there is Vanessa, who is the wife of John Veals. She spends most of her time in an alcohol-induced calm, but both her daughter, who spends almost every night on sleepovers with friends, and her son, who is pushing himself over the edge with stronger and stronger doses of “skunk,” or high-powered marijuana, are desperate for some parental attention. John Veals barely recognizes that they exist, but Vanessa learns just how much is at risk.

Hassan’s mother is also a wonderful character. The wife of the lime pickle magnate, she recognizes that there is something wrong with her son. As he studies religion more and more exclusively, she tries to explain a more healthy approach to belief. He rejects her utterly, but later, at the moment of truth for the would-be suicide bomber, his mother is one of the women he thinks about.

The other woman who enters his mind is Shalala. She is also an Arab girl, and she is completing a Ph.D. in literary studies. She is in love with Hassan, but she can’t quite figure out what is happening to him. Her willingness to listen is one of the things that saves Hassan at the end.

This is a beautiful analysis of contemporary culture. I hope everyone will read it!

Sebastian Faulks

Available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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