Human Traces (Vintage International)

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Identity Crisis: William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms


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.

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