‘Somehow money had become the only thing that mattered. When had this happened? When had educated people stopped looking down on money and its acquisition? When had the civilised man stopped viewing money as a means to various enjoyable ends and started to view it as the end itself? When had respectable people given themselves over full-time to counting zeroes? And, when this defining moment came, why had nobody bloody well told him?’
So muses Gabriel Northwood at a dinner party near the end of "A Week in December', the latest novel from Sebastian Faulkes. Some reviewers criticise it for its preachiness. I don’t. It’s in the morality novel tradition, Dickens springs to mind but also Tom Wolfe. Satire, comedy, pathos, sentimentality, all wrapped up with good prose in a compelling narrative. How will it end? Will the girl get the bloke? Who is the prowler? Will the son be saved? Will it end in tragedy? Real life enlarged and therefore better as well as more painful.
In one week in December 2007 the novel explores modern, multicultural London. It covers a lot of ground. It looks at Islam and the reasons and rationale for the radicalism of some of the young faithful. Football uses imported players and coaches and is played on stadiums named after overseas airlines. The tube operates under the theatres and dining rooms of the rich and would-be rich. There is the back-biting world of the literati, including a magnificently funny prize-giving function sponsored by a pizza chain.
Reality TV, broadband, cyber porn and drugs form part of the scene. There’s a whack at education. ‘I was lucky enough to be educated at a time when teachers still thought children could handle knowledge.’ There is an investiture at Buckingham Palace where the Pakistani lime-pickle merchant from Glasgow receives his ‘gong’. His son has delayed the planned bombing to attend the ceremony. And believe it or not - there usually is, Hollywood may be reading - a glamorous model also struts the scene; though this isn’t the ‘swinging London of the 60s’.
Above all it is a scathing indictment of the financial practices that led to the recent collapse and still flourish. A few blogs ago I wrote about the cornering of the cocoa trade. This is pre-figured in the novel. Indeed the heresy crossed my mind that it could even have given the idea to those who successfully engineered the coup. What is frightening is the amorality of those involved – no sense of guilt, of sin, or of concern about the impact of their illegal and unethical practices. John Veals the hedge fund operator who engineers a financial killing is a villain of Dickensian stature.
Vanessa, John’s wife has her own musings. “Bankers had detached their activities from the real world. Instead of being a service industry – helping companies who had a function in the life of their society – banking became a closed system. Profit was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining and in this semi-virtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became detached from normal logic. …Cause and effect could be uncoupled. To her, this social change, the result of decades of assault on the long-accepted norms, was far more interesting than the quasi-autistic intellects of people, like John, who worked in the new finance.' An 'anticipatory' rebel in the ranks.
Northwood, the diffident barrister, very well-read and one of the more likeable characters is another Dickensian character. But contemporary! He wonders about the love of his life – a married woman. ‘This desperate passion … was it such an enviable way to live, always at the edge of panic, desperate for a cellphone beep, all your judgements skewed.’ He has a disarming gentleness that made him stand out for this reader. In a crazy world he represented sanity.
I will not spoil it for the reader with any more account. Faulkes kept wrong-footing me so it would be unfair to give away too much of his skilfully-woven plot. All I can say is he presents a picture not only of alienation and atomisation but also of the human spirit. There are life-changing experiences as the week goes on. One of the least likeable characters suddenly and unexpectedly becomes noble. A rotter receives an undeserved break. A mother realises her neglect. A father ignores his. The love affairs are sweet. And honest. The dinner party is as usual shrill and shallow. But on the whole it’s not a nice world these characters inhabit – ignorance triumphs over knowledge, sensation is used as sedation, cynicism is rampant. But it is our world. And I’ll give you one clue. Faulkes knows that Hope exists at the bottom of Pandora’ box.