Sebastian Faulks – A Week In December

Posted on | June 9, 2011 | 4 Comments

A Week In DecemberSet in London, against the backdrop of the subprime crisis and 7/7, Faulks’ A Week In December takes place in the week leading up to Christmas in 2007. It’s my first foray into the literary world created by Faulks, and I come out the other side marginally ambivalent.

The book follows one week in the life of a myriad of characters: a hedge-fund manager and a porn star, a footballer playing in a top-four club and a jihadist, a tube driver and a lawyer, and… well, there are many characters.

The scene is set with Sophie Topping, the wife of a recently elected Tory MP, contemplating the invitation list for a dinner she is hosting in honour of her husband winning a by-election. This contemplation is merely an effective plot device to introduce some of the characters, as the author lists them out in a bullet-form. Their relatives and friends make up the rest of the cast, with two villainous personalities getting the star-billing. And, the book screams London, so much so that it probably is one of the more important characters of the book – it puts everything in perspective, and it brings everyone together.

The question though is, what’s so special about characters that this book attempts to bring together? What makes them click? What sets them apart? And, the resonating answer is – nothing. The characters are flat, bordering on stereotypically boring, and the events range from unbelievable to are you kidding me? For example, an uneducated Asian pickle manufacturer is about to receive an OBE, and feels that he is inadequate to meet the Queen, lest the Queen would want to discuss literature, so, he hires a book reviewer to bring him up to speed on literature. Then, there’s the tube rider, who lives life to the fullest in the alternate reality internet world, Parallax, neglecting reality. And the lonely alcoholic-loving wife of a rich banker, whose teenage son is enjoying skunk while watching a reality TV show called It’s Madness (based on Big Brother?). Oh, and the jihadists communicate with one another using a porn site, by encrypting their messages in one of the images – the model on the image unsurprisingly makes a real appearance in the book.

That said, at times I thought that Faulks really enjoyed writing the book, with present-day pop-culture references being thrown around, subtly. Subtle enough so that it’s not in your face, but once you notice it, you appreciate it. For example, Girls From Behind is a popular girl band, and there’s a reference to Lemon Brothers – an obvious nod to Lehman Brothers. Social networks play a role too, with YourPlace being the chosen website – not sure if that’s meant to be Facebook or MySpace. And then of course, there is Pizza Palace and Orlando (which I believe is a reference to the girly dive-prone footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo). Some of the references do come across as a tad forced, but nonetheless, all things considered, it makes the book feel very 2007.

While the subtlety was appreciated, the narration of the story left much to be desired. A lot of research has gone into the book, and a couple of the story-lines had me quite curious, but the “telling” of the story came across as forced, and the way events transpired left me confused and unsure…

* START SPOILER ALERT *

In the end, the quasi-jihadist who goes through all the trouble to procure the raw materials to make multiple bombs to blow up a hospital in London redeems himself by dropping the bag of detonators in the Thames, whereas the banker, Veales, is shown as the true force of evil. The way he manipulates the markets in his favour, and almost single-handedly causes the collapse of one of the national banks is shocking – and in light of the subprime crisis, that’s probably the reaction Faulks was going for. Wealth and riches are his only interests, while his wife, children, TV, socialising and sports take a back seat.

How much does Faulks hate the bankers? How heartless does he think it is? It almost seemed like he had a personal vendetta that he wanted to settle, and he used this book as the medium. We live in a world of shades of grey, but Faulks managed to create a fairly black and white world, and while I find it hard to sympathise with banks whose greed led to the global economic crisis in the first place, I also feel as though this book is looking at the industry from an extremely myopic point of view. It’s inviting the readers to hate the industry, it’s typecasting bankers into one fairly unforgiving category… whereas… whereas, a person willing to create a pure Islamic world manages to redeem himself with no regrets or repercussions. It’s baffling, really.

The last line of the book further pushes the point: “As he stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out over the sleeping city, over its darkened wheels and spires and domes, Veals laughed.”

Instantly, my thoughts went to The Fountainhead, which starts, “Howard Roark laughed.” Roark is the epitome of all things pure and unadulterated, the un-mercenary, if you like. Yes, this could be purely coincidental, and unrelated, but it was almost like Veals was offsetting the righteous and oh-so-irreproachable Roark.

{the below extract is from the first page of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead}

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.

The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.

[…] He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead.

He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh.

* END SPOILER ALERT *

It wasn’t a comfortable read, by any stretch of the imagination, for there was no middle ground. Everyone and everything was over the top. The characters were dislikable, and even if this was all in the name of satire, one’s got to wonder why the satire makes everything seem so bleak? In the twenty-first century, are we so doomed?

One of the reviews at the back of my copy reads:

The 19th century gave us Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and Trollope’s The Way We Live Now; the 21st century has given us Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December.

If I may be so bold to say that the above statement is overtly generous, I would be understating the reality, and I make that comment despite never reading anything by Trollope. I want to read more by Faulks for I don’t think this was anything close to his best, but I don’t know where to start? Birdsong? Engleby? Human Traces? Or…? What would you recommend?

Comments

4 Responses to “Sebastian Faulks – A Week In December”

  1. Bellezza
    June 11th, 2011 @ 4:30 am

    I’ve not even heard of Faulks so that shows you what I can recommend. This book sounds very bizaare though, and I don’t like novels where the characters are flat or the events seems pointless. I hope there’s something better of his out there which can back up the accolades he received.

  2. Literary Kitty
    June 14th, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    Oh dear, this looked so promising at the start of your review but I think I shall steer clear of it now.

    The only Faulks book I’ve read was Engleby – in fact it was the very first thing I reviewed for my blog!

    It definitely didn’t suffer from two-dimensional characters although I wouldn’t call the protagonist there ‘likeable’ either.

    It was quite a gripping read but not entirely…comfortable…I don’t know. Much as it was a page turner I haven’t felt compelled to read any Faulks since. Perhaps that was wise!

  3. Sarah
    June 19th, 2011 @ 12:04 am

    I was supposed to read Birdsong for book group. Despite the hype, and there has been plenty, I couldn’t raise any enthusiasm, and gave it a miss.

    I’m feeling kind of justified now, thank you!

  4. anothercookiecrumbles
    June 25th, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    @Bellezza : As do I :) If it rings a bell, he wrote one of the James Bond novels? Devil May Care? It might be a while before I try anything else by him, but I do want to give him another shot.

    @Literary Kitty : I know what you mean when you say the read wasn’t comfortable. You’re just left feeling unsure after finishing the book. I might try Engleby or Birdsong next. As long as they don’t have two-dimensional characters….. and your comment addresses that concern!

    @Sarah : Ugh. Sorry to hear that! Always happy to help and spread the solidarity….

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