Saturday, November 29, 2008

Melissa Benn - One of us

One of Us, by Melissa Benn, was described by Rebecca Adams in a Guardian review as ‘unashamedly a novel about politics, a damning indictment of New Labour and the fatal erosion of moral discernment in political life.’ I’m not sure which parallel universe Rebecca Adams inhabits but to call this a novel about politics, or to ascribe any moral weight to it, is impossibly charitable. This is a shallow little potboiler masquerading as signficicant.

It has been a constant complaint of mine for some time that literature simply cannot contend with the War on Terror and the current global situation. Where, as with the sixties counter-culture, there is a need for writers and artists to rise up and rebel, our current crop take the events of today and use them as backdrops for trivia. Melissa Benn is a staggering example of this.

She invents a fictional world where one of her main characters, Andy Givings, ascends the political ladder to become Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister of Britian during the New Labour years and the Iraq War. She invents another family, whose lives are inextricably linked with that of the Givings. One of that family becomes Givings’ spin doctor/media master. Another sets fire to himself outside Parliament on the day of the start of the Iraq war. Explosive? Certainly? What fantastic material.

And what do we get? A witless parade of womag flummery, affairs and deceit, hackneyed scene after hackneyed scene, cardboard characters with featherweight motivations. Jack, the human torch, begins his slide into oblivion because he is spurned by Lucia? Really? Credibility flies out of the window early in this novel and never returns.

There is a real story here. But it is only ever reported to us second hand. We get:

To everyone’s surprise, Matt [advisor to Andy, the Foreign Secretary] had been uneasy about the strikes in Afghanistan, America and Britain’s response to the Twin Towers disaster, was firmly against the invasion of Iraq; unthinkable, he insisted, without a second United Nations resolution. Increasingly, he was a lone voice among Andy’s circle at the heart of government.

If you are really going to write a novel about politics and a damning indictment of New Labour, wouldn’t it have been useful to have some of those exchanges dramatised? Instead, we get turgid pap like this, from the viewpoint of the main character, Anna, at her father’s deathbed:

What is this thing called life or death? Consciousness, here, now, perhaps total, and then, all dark; the brain such a beautiful, sophisticated instrument, in service for such a short amount of time.

That’s about the level of insight in this novel. It has the emotional resonance of a sixth form essay. Meanwhile, Benn seems to be careering around in search of something profound in which to root her message. We get references to Antigone, so that we understand that it’s a Greek tragedy and Anna is going to be made to pay for going against the family. And, of course, she is, although sadly for us this passive doorstep of a woman isn’t locked up in a cave.

But Benn seems to worry that a bit of Sophocles isn’t enough and so she also tries to thread some WB Yeats in as well, with references to The Second Coming. ‘Things fall apart’: good stuff, a pretty decent peg to hook a story about current morality and the world situation. Alas, we get:

Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold. These words of old return to her as she squats on the cool seat, tearing off pieces of soft toilet paper – a pale bluey-green to match the walls – trying to dab at her eyes, without smudging her mascara.

Honestly! I think it’s the description of the bog-roll's colour that does it. The epitome of bathos. Yeats must be spinning beneath that Sligo soil. After that, even Benn seems to lose heart and the ending, which surely must have cried out for a reprise of the poem, instead limps quietly away.

This is a fairly vituperative review, but I am seriously irritated by this shallow nonsense. Near the end, there is an exchange between Andy, the Foreign Secretary, and Anna. He says to her:

“Anna, the choice we face is simple. Could you live with what happened in New York? Could you forgive yourself if that – a 9/11 scenario – were to happen here? Your family destroyed. By madmen.”

Now seriously, wouldn’t that have made a fantastic novel? Here we have a government trying to use moral and emotional blackmail and the natural fears that are provoked by 9/11 and 7/7 and Mumbai. We have the steady erosion of civil liberties. We have the police arresting a member of the opposition for doing his job. We have lies and deceit and dissembling. All of that is happening in this country today and needs to be examined, challenged. Melissa Benn assembles the cast of characters who could have led that examination but, having done so, she has simply told the wrong story. What a waste.

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