Throughout his career, William Boyd has evaded classification. What kind of novelist is he? What kind of books does he write? The themes in his works are various, and as a result stubbornly refuse to be filed under any handy group heading. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was farcical fun. 2002’s Any Human Heart was a magnificent fictional autobiography, and recent offering, Restless, was an evocative Second World War spy novel which shone a fresh light on the genre, chiefly in its treatment of identity. So what about the identity of the author? Who could he sit comfortably alongside? For if we can’t categorise his oeuvre then we may have more luck categorizing him – such is this British insistence on shacking British writers up with likeminded literary bedfellows.
Many critics think he has been robbed and should always have been the fourth wheel of the McEwan-Amis-Rushdie triumvirate (or sneaky fifth column if you accept the inclusion of Julian Barnes). Others feel he has a claim to inclusion only because of generation, not artistic merit. Boyd could be the outsider, ploughing his own furrow and glad of it. He has the dark naturalism of McEwan but eschews the verbal dynamism of Amis and magical realism of Rushdie. For my money his closest teammate is Sebastian Faulks. We might still be waiting for Boyd to produce something as durable as Birdsong but both write competent, confident fiction and are equally adept at relighting the past as they are at providing rich insight into the present. Any Human Heart has the same broad strokes and masterful period detail as Human Traces, and with its backdrop of war and desperation, Charlotte Gray is an antecedent for Restless.
Now, in his new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd returns to the red thread that ran through its predecessor and spools it round a new reel. If Restless was about the search for identity then Ordinary Thunderstorms, is about the need to conceal it. Ordinary Thunderstorms begins with familiar territory. During a trip to London for a job interview, Adam Kindred gets into conversation with an immunologist in a restaurant. When Adam visits the man’s apartment later to return the folder he left behind he finds him dying, with a knife stuck in his side. The man dies on him in mid-sentence and Adam flees from the scene of the crime with the folder. The novel deals with Adam trying to evade capture by the police for a crime he didn’t commit, and a nut-job contract killer eager to get his hands on the folder for his paymasters.
Armadillo (1998) starts in a similar fashion, with the protagonist walking in on a hanged man. But Boyd has made no bones about this opener being an updated Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a pity its beginning couldn’t have been as plausible. Adam’s fellow diner asks him the time and then “they inevitably began to talk.” This is a cheap conceit to join dots and unite characters. Also “inevitably” is too presumptuous, unless Boyd himself is one of those garrulous, gregarious sorts who like nothing better than to acquaint themselves with taxi drivers, check-out assistants and the person sitting next to them in the aisle seat. We make a sharp slide from presumptuous to preposterous. Following the dying man’s orders Adam pulls out the knife – yes, that was pulls out the knife – and then finds himself faced with a double quandary: his fingerprints are on the knife, but, now more pressing, he has heard movement on the balcony outside. Clearly the scientist’s attacker hasn’t yet exited the building. Managing to escape in one piece, Adam then acts even more recklessly by opting to head for a Pimlico pub where, temporarily shored up, he can recover from his shock by downing several whiskies and devouring bags of peanuts. The problem an author faces when presenting such characters is that one man’s reckless is another man’s idiotic; foolhardy is not a large jump to foolish. We lurch onwards and are forced to suspend our disbelief some more when Adam abstains from dialling 999 and protesting his innocence and instead settles down to a life lived rough on a patch of waste ground in Chelsea until things blow over.
The thriller that Boyd set out to write has by turns gripped us then cheated us, and we’re only at the end of chapter one. Luckily, chapter two heralds a new character, Rita Nashe, a policewoman, and chapter three introduces us to Ingram Fryzer, head of the pharmaceutical multinational for which our corpse once worked. Extra characters are needed to offset dopey Adam, and it is a relief to know he is not to carry the whole of the novel on his shoulders. Boyd brings Adam back in chapter four and in doing so takes two steps back from the one step forward he’s made by giving us the hope of a wider perspective seen through the eyes of Rita and Fryzer. Adam decides to stay off the grid and go underground. From now on he’ll shun phones, internet and cash machines and become an “urban ghost”, one of the 600 people who go missing in Britain every week. It isn’t long before he is erecting a make-shift tent, bathing in the Thames and eating seagulls.
He – or perhaps the reader – is bailed out as Boyd feeds us more characters from all walks of London life. He expands on the Fryzer strand by introducing Ivo, his brother-in-law and a louche Lord of the Realm; Mhouse, a prostitute, who laces her son’s cornflakes with rum and crushed Diazepam, and whose life on a Rotherhithe sink estate is unflinchingly portrayed as a daily fight for survival; and our two villains, Alfredo Rilke, the shady owner of Rilke Pharmaceutical, whose “controlling interest” extends to people as well as companies, and Jonjo our hitman-for-hire who injects not only violence but menace.
The novel works best when Boyd rouses Adam from his self-pitying funk and gets him away from his wasteland and interacting with the rest of the cast and London itself. We are gripped when it seems that Jonjo is closing in on him; there is a tenderness in the scenes where he teaches Mhouse’s son Ly-on to read; and the satiric scenes in the Church of John Christ – complete with charlatan preacher and a congregation made up of illegal immigrants, scamsters and paedophiles – are blackly comical. When he ventures out, London becomes alive, Adam becomes alive and the novel takes shape. With the city, Boyd is particularly interested in the river. The Thames opens and ends the book and permeates key chapters, providing settings for the vagrant Adam, a backdrop for Rita’s new career in the Marine Support Unit and her domestic life on her father’s houseboat, and a dumping ground for two bodies. With each tidal ebb the river shifts in character, sometimes sinister, sometimes with the same colours as a Fauvist painting – indeed, “at low tide everything changed”, and for the worse: “Correspondingly, the city suffered aesthetically.”
Thus the river has the power to transform the city, regenerating it and wrecking it, and in a similar way Adam’s changes bring colour to what would otherwise be a humdrum thriller. He goes from Adam Kindred, climatologist, to an identity-less nobody on the embankment, to John 1603, and lastly re-enters society as Primo Belem. In his essay”‘On Personal Identity” William Hazlitt states that for all the admiration and envy we feel for others, “no one ever wishes to be another, instead of himself.” However, necessity prevails here: Adam has to slough off one identity and assume another. It is when he does so that Boyd increases the momentum, as if remembering he has set out to write a thriller. And if the last section of the book has Adam running around the city a little too much like Jason Bourne, it is still immensely preferable to him sitting still in Crusoe-like solitude at the beginning. We might scorn them but the two main rules of the thriller are incontestable: excitement is the drama of movement rather than stasis; and you can strain the reader’s credulity but don’t try our patience.
The book isn’t as thrilling as a thriller should be, and it is almost as if Boyd got bored halfway through of the genre he had shackled himself to and was far more interested in fleshing out his characters. The scenes in The Shaft, Mhouse’s estate, are extremely effective, and Boyd is able to add colour and the requisite grittiness to the gangs, pimps and pushers, not to mention the poor victims caught in the crossfire, while remaining unpatronizing. Mr Quality, Mhouse’s landlord, is lightly sketched but we get enough strokes to learn it’s not only exorbitant rent he commands from her. Boyd even invents a Clockwork Orange-esque vernacular for The Shaft’s cheap hustlers: good things are flat, ordinary people are mims; “You scatter my head,” Mhouse tells Adam. A thriller writer is allowed to slow the pace and insert postmodern pyrotechnics but there had better be a good reason to do so. Boyd gets mixed results. True, the momentum is drastically impeded, but the characters are so good and their street-talk so vibrant that the reader is prepared to make allowances. Boyd is of course less successful when the bit-parters don’t light up the page. Fryzer’s family are stock caricatures, right down to his spoiled-brat kids and long suffering wife; and his doctor, a benign old Scot, is a chronically bad pick-and-mix stereotype who enjoys a dram of whisky during surgery hours and even says “You’ll have had your tea.” All that is missing is the kilt and shortbread. Finally, there is the nagging suspicion that Boyd is also keen to expand on this theme of identity, or better still, being identity-less in the twenty-first century. This would have been an intriguing topic to explore, particularly in a country which has a huge overreliance on CCTV and yet has reversed its decision to introduce mandatory identity cards. In fiction, we are fascinated by characters with concealed identities – from the amnesiac walking-wounded or Victorian dispossessed in search of an identity, to the spies or confidence tricksters with too many identities, multiple passports and aliases. Sadly the idea is only touched upon here, with more screen time being dedicated to the almost hackneyed thriller staples of innocent men on the run, maniacal rent-a-killers and the collateral damage caused by the corporate greed of bad Big Pharma.
Coming in at four hundred pages, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a lengthy thriller. The pace meanders like the river at its heart and only towards the end is there a current-like narrative pull. Miraculously Adam doesn’t die from drinking from the Thames (“brownish water with some sediment but the taste was acceptable”) but thanks to the strong omniscient voice the reader is kept guessing until the end as to whether Adam will elude Jonjo in their cat-and-mouse game. Weighing the strengths of Ordinary Thunderstorms we can declare it could be weightier, that it is full of untapped ambition and potential, with snapped-off strands which could have led off in more interesting directions but instead are left dangling. Boyd is not Buchan but nor does he try to be. Unlike many of his Scottish contemporaries he is also no purveyor of tartan noir. Which brings us back all the more tenaciously to our original problem: how to categorise him? How to categorize the novel? Does it even matter? It is clear the book suffers from the same identity crisis shared by its protagonist. Only Boyd will know if he has accomplished what he set out to achieve. Whatever, he deserves respect for attempting to do something new with London, and for creating a panoply of characters, low life and high society, all of whom in the main ring true enough to belong there.
Logan Mountstuart. Born 27 Feb. 1906. Montevideo, Uruguay. Father: British. Mother: Uruguayan. 1914, Mountstuart family returns to Britain. Schooling: Abbeyhurst, then Oxford. Logan moves to London. Marries. Pursues a career in letters, where he becomes a minor writer of the first half of the twentieth century. Supplements his income with proceeds from reportage from Spain during the Civil War. Is recruited as a spy by MI5 during the Second World War.
Those are the broad strokes of the rising arc that is Logan Mountstuart’s early life. That, and the fact that he’s fictional. Born of the fertile mind of master storyteller William Boyd.
Any Human Heart is structured as a series of journals which Logan keeps throughout his life. At school, then at Oxford, then in London, then during the war, and on through the years. Never revised, Logan’s musings are presented as written, often with footnotes added by an older and wiser Logan to clarify comments that his younger self had made. But never to deny his earlier misjudgments, or his cocky foolishness. It is the document of a human, his life laid bare.
If the first act of Logan’s life fills the reader with youthful promise, the second act reminds us that rising arcs don’t rise forever. After the war, life for Logan, as for countless others, changes so drastically that you – the reader – quickly recalibrate your expectations for him. Okay – this is where his life is leading him now. These are his new hopes. This is what he’s left behind, this is what he’s accepted, and this is what matters to him now. You know all that stuff when he was young and aspiring? Forget it. He’s a changed man. He’s been damaged. And this is where his heart is leading him now.
It’s frustrating to abandon youthful hopes, and you hang onto them long after Logan himself has abandoned them. But you’re no fair-weather friend so you cling to his journals because you hope he finds contentment. And you shift your expectations to match his because this is his show and you can either adapt or leave. And Logan’s journals are too damn interesting to abandon.
After all, as a minor published author and scholar, Logan meets Hemingway (whose early work Logan appreciated) in Paris and later in Spain, and he golfs with the abdicated King Edward and Mrs. Simpson. After the war, working in a New York art gallery, he meets Jackson Pollack (who Logan dismisses), and still later, much later, he has a bizarre but ultimately plausible dalliance with the English cell of the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Far from being a Gumpian set of coincidences, Logan’s life follows its own internal logic. Reading it, it all makes sense. There’s nothing that isn’t true to Logan’s behavior as we know it. And while the historical figures add a spark to Logan’s tale, there’s no getting away from the longing and the heartbreak at Logan’s exposed core.
One of the great pleasures of the Millions over the years has been exposure to authors I didn’t previously know. Emre Peker, a fellow-contributor back in the early days of the Millions, wrote eloquently and often about William Boyd. The first Boyd novel I read was Armadillo, which inspired this early Millions essay. Since then, I’ve read half-a-dozen of Boyd’s novels – each introducing me to a fascinating and flawed human, and drawing me into his ruptured world. Any Human Heart is the most epic in scope, but it’s intimate to the core. A wild, wandering story brought into focus and pushed forward by its pulsing heart.
This was the year I played catch-up. My failing as a reader has always been my near-total ignorance of contemporary authors (say, those that emerged in my own lifetime). That all changed this year thanks to some wonderful recommendations from my Millions cohorts. In no time at all I was transfixed by Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll) and captivated by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). I delved further into Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium), feasted on a trio of novels from the wonderful William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, Blue Afternoon, Armadillo), and finally read Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Edward P. Jones (The Known World), and T.C. Boyle (The Tortilla Curtain). Most if not all of these have been written about by either Max or Emre so I’ll just echo them and say READ THESE.To this list I’d like to add one of my own. I was blown away, earlier this year, by the young Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and his short story collection Sightseeing. Set in Thailand, the seven stories present a vivid and engaging depiction of families and friends and day-to-day life. The locale is exotic, the sounds and smells permeate the pages, but the relationships are familiar, universal. It was a treat to read. [See also: Andrew’s review of Sightseeing]
I suppose it’s what you do with luck that ultimately determines whether it was good or bad. The luck itself is kind of ephemeral, landing in your lap, ready to be spun and twisted into something more substantial. Ready to be given a direction.I was on an airplane recently – destination Norway via Frankfurt. I’d settled into my window seat, two books at the ready, pillow just so, contacts off, glasses on, and with less than five minutes before take-off there was no one, absolutely no one, sitting beside me. I couldn’t believe my luck. And then…And then, with sitcom timing, a harried and rather shell-shocked individual traveling back to the EU silently slumped into the empty seat, looked up, stared at me, and then opened a magazine. In due course our flight attendant, distinguished in a David Niven mustache, began the food service. And so it was with bemusement that I watched my seat-mate take uncertain steps to lower his dinner tray – a process he began by banging the seat in front of him with jarring forward jolts. I came to the rescue.I guess this primed me for the farce that followed. I was not entirely surprised when I saw my hapless friend struggling with his seat belt, completely mystified as to how to dislodge himself from this alien contraption. I happily walked him through the rocket science required to unclasp and separate the two parts. So it was a bit odd, then, when less than an hour later my companion tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to, well, to his seat belt area. He’d apparently neglected to take notes the first time and had once again become trapped.All of which might have bounced off me except that every twenty minutes or so I noticed his peering head swivel towards my window and then extend, ostrich-like, in front of me, past my nose and right to the window pane without a single word or acknowledgement of my presence. And when he returned to his magazine he would invariably extend his elbows left and right, jabbing me sharply in the ribs each time. Now I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I do occupy a certain amount of space. I have mass. I don’t defy the principles of science. Were one to encounter me on a dark path, one wouldn’t simply pass through me. There would be a discernible thud.I left the plane bemoaning my fortune, but also contemplating how this fellow handles life in the real world, how he responds, and how much control he has over life’s little day-to-day torments. What if he were Norman Bray?Trevor Cole’s wonderful novel Norman Bray In The Performance Of His Life just happened to be one of the two books I brought with me to Europe, and was the one I was reading as I was being poked and prodded by my oblivious airplane friend. Norman is a middle-aged stage actor in Toronto, years past his prime and relegated to the occasional voice-over gig. On the surface he seems pompous and childlike, walking through life in a pleasantly deluded state – a kindred spirit to Ignatius J. Reilly. And while this novel doesn’t quite scale the same dizzying heights as A Confederacy Of Dunces, I found myself responding to the characters in a similar way – wanting to reach through the pages of the book and smack some sense into these guys, if only so they can begin to cope with their lot in life instead of just assuming with incomprehensible certainty that things would work out in the end. Of course then we wouldn’t have these two gloriously funny novels.Norman Bray’s problems, which he attributes to bad luck, are largely of his own doing, and the glimmer of hope at the end, which he would probably credit to his own tenacity, is in fact more a conflux of circumstances which, for once, he doesn’t sabotage. Sheer luck (which he would normally have obliviously squandered) is allowed to develop into good fortune.My airplane friend would at least have stood a fighting chance as Norman Bray, since Norman relies on circumstance to extricate him from the chaotic mess of his own creation. He’d have a harder time as Lorimer Black, the hero of Armadillo the second book that I brought with me, and my first foray into the extraordinary world of William Boyd. Thanks to my fellow writer Emre, I now have a new author to obsess over and to devour everything from.Like Norman Bray, Lorimer Black is bedevilled by circumstance, but in this case, through little fault of his own. Rather than being oblivious, Lorimer is remarkably self-aware. All the more troubling, then, to find him swept up by circumstance, his London routine twisted and tossed, and then thrown into a downward Kafka-esque spiral.But at least Lorimer – an insurance-adjuster with a mysterious past, juggling work, women and family – is aware, conscious of his juggling act, conscious of his identity, and conscious of the luck that eventually comes his way. He’s better suited to the task of accepting circumstance and turning it to his advantage.I didn’t see my airplane friend actually leave the plane. With any luck he managed it without incident. I can only hope that fortune shines on this guy and the people he’ll inevitably be around as he goes through life. They’ll all need it.