Engleby – Sebastian Faulks

1 March 2008
Three chapters in…
…and there isn’t a single thing in it that I believe. We’ve had some uninteresting stuff about his time at Cambridge, written in a bland first-person narrative. We know the music he likes (unexceptional: fairly ordinary pop and the sort of classical stuff a bright boy would go for) and why he likes it. We know he keeps himself to himself: all well and good – he even explains in the long flashback of Chapter 3 why he learnt not only to look after No 1 but to make No 1 the be-all and end-all of existence – but it doesn’t do much for the drama of the book so far. Err…. We know he likes a girl, and that she is indifferent to him. We know he’s from a working class background, but not a word of that particular back story rings any more true than anything else so far. We know he’s indifferent to any notions of moral propriety: he was a bully at school, routinely deals drugs when he can, steams open a letter written by the girl he fancies, can’t get through the day without drugs, fags and alcohol. (Ok, so drink and drugs don’t make you a villain – but they don’t make you very attractive either.)

What is there to like? The long flashback to his schooldays rings even less true than the invented institutional nonsense in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s a cliché that boys are cruel, of course – but you’d have to work a lot harder than Faulks does to make us believe the almost psychotic mania of the bullying he suffers, and the total lack of fellow-feeling even from non-participants. At one point I thought it was a crap parody of Saville’s experiences in Storey’s novel, but Mike’s talent on the rugby field buys him no credibility. What bollocks. And his talent for stealing shedloads of fags and alcohol (almost literally) is also bollocks. He shows no compunction – are we supposed to believe he’s had it bullied out of him? – so when, at the very end of the chapter, he becomes the bully himself I suppose we are expected to nod sagely and lament the way that abuse breeds abuse. I found myself murmuring – what else? – Bollocks.

2 March
Beginning of Chapter 4…
…and I can’t believe it. Along comes a crap McGuffin: the girl he fancies has disappeared. Ooh, a mystery: is it a) a coincidence? b) Mike being an unreliable narrator, not telling us about the kidnapping he’s just perpetrated? c) Mike not even knowing he’s done it in his drugged up/psychotic/psychopathic state? Etc. Etc. I’m not really that bothered, just annoyed at the crassness of it. (Of course, it might be superb – but I’m so pissed off with Faulks that I’m assuming it won’t be.)

3 March
Chapters 4 and 5
At least Engleby’s having to engage with people occasionally now, like the cops who question him and then search his room. Interaction, no less. Otherwise he’s on his own, doing highly suspicious things like reading bits of the missing girl’s diary he accidentally nicked or driving to the town where she was brought up so he can do a bit of virtual stalking. Is there a kind of innocence, a simplicity about the crush he appears to have? As when, after time has passed, the ‘Missing’ posters are taken down and, well, he misses them…. Or does it suggest he’s obsessive enough to have done something unspeakable? In one of those ‘blanks’ he mentions he has occasionally, for instance.

Meanwhile, we are supposed to believe that he has a university career, and a real career about to fall into his lap at the Foreign Office. Yeh, sure. He seems to have a University Challenge-style knowledge of just about every aspect of culture, mentioning in passing the Nash architecture of the FO room where he’s interviewed or commentating suavely on different kinds of music and poetry. When is he supposed to have acquired all this stuff, with his industrial-strength doses of drugs and evenings spent not studying? In fact he never once mentions studying, but assumes a First is going to drop into his lap as easily as the FO job. Of course, he could be as unreliable about this as he probably is about the woman he’s fixated on: maybe he’s going to fail, and just thinks he’s got the culture sorted. But he’s pulled the wool over the cops’ eyes: they’ve missed his dope stash and the diary in their search – so maybe he’s got the culture beaten too.

And another thing. The disappearance and probable death of the girl have given him the opportunity to wax philosophical and use words like immanence when describing moods. I wish he’d shut up: it sounds too much like the middle-aged Faulks putting his own deep thoughts into Engleby’s mouth. Believability rating – for this and the book as a whole so far – about 2 out of 10.

6 March
Chapters 6-9
With a bit over a quarter of the book left to go, suddenly it’s become superb. Only joking. It’s carried on as before, except Faulks has galloped us through 12 years and Engleby’s successful move to London. Just like his university success it all happens accidentally. For some years he still has no friends…. And then he does. He has no job…. And then he does. He has no girlfriend…. And then he does.

By the time he reaches his late 20s he’s never been to a dinner party and happily tells us about the narrow limits of his own experience. He knows nothing about these people, waxes flippant about the slow-motion tennis spectator he becomes as the women to his left and right at dinner engage him in crashingly dull conversation about good schools and unreliable au pairs. (Faulks gives us a flavour of this for a paragraph or two, but when he runs out of ideas he resorts to having Engleby indicate to us how boring they are, using the spectator joke.) I suppose Faulks wants us to read him as a kind of Candide, or Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in Being There. For instance Faulks asks us to believe that Engleby is surprised to find that what people like is his sense of humour: he thinks he’s writing seriously.

It’s satire, stupid. Engleby, without trying, has seen through the pretentiousness, and as easily has got the hang of writing the kind of journalism these people like. He simply slots into the self-congratulatory, self-referential world of Metropolitan cultural movers and shakers and takes it by storm. So if he is Candide, constantly bemused by people’s silliness, he’s a Candide who, without any training or apparent understanding of the genre, can write prizewinning journalism by accident. As I suspected four chapters ago, he’s got the culture beaten. Yeh, sure.

As for all the Missing Girl stuff…. Give me strength. (The problem with audiobooks is you can’t skim ahead, or get the flavour. You have to go through all the misery.) Item: he has memorised every word of the diary he stole, so now he can return it to the girl’s mother. Item: at Cambridge he stole the girl’s bike, for no apparent reason, just as he stole her diary and photocopied one of her private letters. Item: his ears prick up whenever the Yorkshire Ripper is mentioned; he stops on the M4 services which just happen to be near Hungerford; he finds something familiar about a different missing girl, whose remains have just been found in London. Item: when he has to go back to Cambridge he suddenly remembers that he’d given the missing girl a lift on the night she disappeared – although, of course, he can’t remember anything after that. Item: he’s had a blackout – what would be called a ‘fugue’ in Pat Barker’s Regeneration – just after the time when the memory has come back to him. Zzzzzzzz.

Believability rating: still 2/10. Predictability rating: 10/10.

7 March
Chapter 10 to the end
The last three chapters are about Engleby the killer. I wonder why Faulks bothered with all that Metropolitan satire in the middle section of the book. It adds nothing to the main point: that our narrator really did kill the girl, that the memory comes back to him in ever more vivid detail (one trick is the telling of the story of That Night three times – as if that’s supposed to make us believe it’s really being revealed to Engleby just as it’s being revealed to us), and that all his time in London was no more than an interlude between Act 1 and Act 2 of his sorry drama.

Once he realises he’s the murderer he doesn’t try to deny it… and Faulks adds ingredients into wacky Mike’s personality, presumably to make him more interesting. For instance his memory is now photographic and infallible (so why did he need to keep the diary for so long?)…. Actually, I’ve changed my mind: it isn’t to make him more interesting; it’s to enable Faulks to give us one kind of retrospective view. Others come with psychiatric reports, largely based on the journal which, apparently, is what we’ve been reading for about nine chapters; witness statements, particularly from the university acquaintance who’s kept up with him (giving Faulks the chance to have a laugh at the reader’s expense as, for instance, we find out about Engleby’s nerdy appearance complete with thick, old-fashioned glasses); detailed unpacking of the journal in therapy sessions. Weirdly, this part of the novel turns into (sorry) a metafictional game as Faulks reviews aspects of his own novel such as characterisation and style).

There’s police stuff (dull); psychiatric stuff (fairly perfunctory); stuff about life in a secure hospital…. And as Faulks decides to call it a day we witness the disappearance of the narrator into, first, self-indulgent replays of Jen’s diary and second, a rewrite in his imagination – but still in Jen’s voice – of That Night. With, of course, a happy ending: the last word, literally, is love. I rather like this ending. The segue of remembered diary entries – which Engleby has entered as though into a parallel universe, still in existence if we buy all his self-serving talk about what time really is – into the one he invents leaves him in a self-created fantasy. It reminds me of Anthony Perkins at the end of Psycho, allowing the persona of his dead mother to inhabit him… or Jonathan Price in Brazil, soaring away from it all on feathery wings into a world that Engleby would argue is just as real as the ‘real’ one.

But it isn’t enough. As with some other fiction by our top novelists – Amsterdam, Never Let Me Go – I’m irritated to have invested so much in something that turns out not to have been worth the effort.

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