Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Week in December

A Week in December is a novel by British writer Sebastian Faulks, published in 2009. The story is set in London, England over a week in December 2007.

The book begins with the elaborate seating plan of a dinner party. It ends once that dinner party has taken place. Sophie, the wife of a newly elected Member of Parliament, must decide whom to place where. Several of the protagonists are present at the dinner, and the storylines are, to a large extent, tied up as a result of what occurs there. In the course of the book the reader is introduced to John Veals, a hedge fund trader who is arguably the most important character. He is a ruthless businessman, whose immense fortune seems to have become meaningless. He is more interested in the chase, the challenge of acquiring more and more capital. As he embarks on one of the riskiest deals of his life, his family is about to be torn apart. But does he even care?

An unsuccessful barrister is assigned to represent a young female tube driver; a Scottish Muslim is drawn into a radical group, while a postgraduate literature student looks on; a Polish footballer tries hard to adapt to life in a Premier League team, while his Russian model girlfriend adjusts to life in London. A pickle millionaire enlists the help of R. Tranter, novelist and critic, to prepare for his meeting with the Queen when he receives his OBE.

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Sebastian Faulks's new novel, set in one week in December 2007, is very ambitious. It aspires to be a state-of-the-nation book, a satirical comedy of metropolitan literary life, a sweeping, Dickensian look at contemporary London, a serious examination of Islam and the reasons for radicalism among young Muslims, a thriller, a satire on the Notting Hill Cameroonians and a detailed look at the sharp financial practices that led to the collapse. There's London football, reality TV, cyber porn, a love story or two. As if all that weren't enough, it is a roman a clef, which has already provided fun for metropolitan journalists as they speculate about the identity of the various characters.

The scene is set with the wife of a Tory MP organising a dinner party for the benefit of her husband's career in somewhere evoking Notting Hill. Every guest is chosen to suggest that the MP is a Renaissance man. We are reminded of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, as though all wealthy Tories inevitably have grand gatherings with deep undercurrents of class, ambition and financial chicanery. As she goes through the guest list, we immediately know that they are all going to be linked in some way. The guests are mostly wealthy men and their wives, owners of hedge funds and banks and so on.

There is also a manufacturer who has been invited to lend multicultural credibility. Farooq al-Rashid has made his money in pickles; he is a substantial contributor to the party and he has a son – the alarm bells ring stridently at this point – called Hassan who, in his parents' opinion, is rather too interested in the true message of Islam. While they simply want to enjoy the benefits of wealth and acceptance, he is planning to blow the Kafir world to pieces.

John Veals is a hedge fund owner who has made hundreds of millions by barely legal activity and he sees an opportunity to make much, much more by causing a big bank to collapse. Faulks has clearly done extensive research, sometimes not wholly digested by the plot, but admirably authentic. The real problem with Veals, though, is that he never lifts off the page. This is partly because the book is so crowded that Faulks doesn't have the space to produce a rounded character. Any novel that tries to take the temperature of the nation needs a fully human central character to pull the big themes together. Dickens's Merdle and Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy are horribly believable.

Anyway, besides the toffs, there are two less plutocratic guests invited to the dinner party, one an unsuccessful and bookish young barrister, Gabriel Northwood, the other a jobbing literary journalist, R Tranter. Tranter is all too clearly based on journalist DJ Taylor. Tranter admires Thackeray and writes for a satirical magazine, the Toad; Taylor has written a biography of Thackeray and writes a literary column for Private Eye. Tranter uses the Toad to work out his disdain for, and envy of, more successful writers. He also has a habit in his reviews of sadly concluding that most successful authors are ultimately deploying a few cheap tricks and are con artists, even if they are good. His reaction when he reads a novel by a rival critic – "It was worse, far worse, than he had dared to hope" – is spot on. There is a brilliant literary prize scene which was painfully familiar to me. Faulks knows the book world and satirises it with brio, but he can give up any hope of winning the Costa Prize after this.

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