Lynne Perednia, June 18, 2010 (view all comments by Lynne Perednia)
Seven days, seven characters, seven lives that nearly intersect but don't quite -- this is the way Sebastian Faulks tells his latest story. The main focus is on a cold character who manages a hedge fund, one of those shadowy capitalists who live only to make money. As with many characters of this ilk, he has a wonderful family that he neglects and no clue about what has real value in his life.
John Veals already has more money than he and 20 clones could spend, but amassing more fortune isn't what drives him. It's beating the system. And since he's been so good at it, the stakes keep getting higher. He gets more sanguine about what his amoral plotting may do to innocent people and the world economy (his deputy feels the same way). Meantime, his teenage son displays his heritage only by becoming more jaded about how much pot he smokes and how much time he spends watching a reality show featuring genuinely mentally ill people. The boy's only other pastime is spent in on online world.
This same online world is fascinating to an Underground train driver. Jenni appears to enjoy her job where it is calm and quiet and she's in control, much as she is in control of her online persona. Not even a sponging brother or a jumper phase her. One of her passengers is a young Muslim man who gradually becomes more disenchanted with the West, even as his father gets ready to be presented to the queen after being named on the latest Honours List. To prepare, he hires a tutor to educate him about literature. He finds the drippiest old toad of a reviewer who clings to the farthest edge of the British literary world.
And so on.
Unlike, say a Kate Atkinson novel where the various storylines connect, these characters barely bump up against each other. Their storylines doesn't intersect the way it initially appears they might. And the focus soon turns to whether Veals will be able to pull off his latest scheme to play fast and loose with the world's financial markets.
Although each character's story has a resolution, Faulks is more interested in reporting, in creating a story of "it is what it is". And in a real world where the actual Dow Jones plunged 1,000 points in May because a Citi trader hit "b" for billion instead of "m" for million, it's easy to see how a schemer such as Veals is tempted daily to take the money and run. His tracks are practically covered for him in this era of shadow markets, derivatives and deregulation.
While this writing strategy lends itself to inferring commentary, it also weakens that commentary and so does not add up to much. Faulks deals with some important issues on both global and familial scales. And he creates intriguing characters, from the sniveling book critic (who reminds me of that odious the Rev. Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice) to an earnest young lawyer reading the Koran in a freezing bedsit. But as crucial as characters are, and as worthwhile as certain issues and themes are to explore, they do require a plot worthy of their potential. This is where A Week in December falls flat. It's not a complete failure, but it isn't a great book. And it could have been.
I have a particular fascination with books that move among multiple points of view, interweaving the characters' mini-plots into one well-crafted whole. Overall, Sebastian Faulks's latest novel, A Week in December, successfully does just that. With tongue firmly in cheek, but also with a good amount of affection for all of his characters, Faulks gives us a well-rounded but satirical view of contemporary London society: the good, the bad, the ugly, the charming, and the misguided.
As others have mentioned, two potentially disaster-creating characters--hedge fund owner John Veals and would-be terrorist Hassan al-Rashid--take center stage, and while their stories are indeed fascinating, they push the others' (some of which I found much more interesting) into the background. If the novel has one fault, it may be that there are a few too many threads in the plot, and, as a result, some characters get shorted. I wanted to know more about Jenni Fortune, the book-loving tube conductor who is addicted to an online role-playing game, and her blooming romance with barrister Gabriel Northwood; I wanted to learn more about Gabriel's schizophrenic brother Adam; about the senior al-Rashids; about Spike, the Polish soccer player, and his girlfriend, Olya, who poses for online porn.
The novel also runs the reader through the full emotional gamut. Perhaps the most satisfying moments for me were those that reflect on books, reading, academia, and the world of competitive literary prizes. Faulks is at his satirical best here. As an educator, I was particularly amused by a small incident, the book reviewer R. Tantor being hired (undercover, of course) by a school to write comments on students' papers, a way of appeasing the parents who complained that the teachers themselves couldn't even spell. And I was highly amused by Trantor's observation that technology has managed to make ignorance not only acceptable but an asset. He's a cranky old bird who gets his comeuppance in the end, but his perceptions are often right on target.
A Week in December is sharp, entertaining, and complex. It's one of those rare books that I will likely read again one day because I have the feeling that I might have missed something.
Powerful contemporary novel set in London from a master of literary fiction
Structured like a thriller, A Week in December takes place over the course of a single week at the end of 2008. Set in London, it brings together an intriguing cast of characters whose lives apparently run on parallel lines but — as it gradually becomes clear — are intricately related. The central anti-hero, John Veals, is a shadily successful and boundlessly ambitious Dickensian character who is trading billions. The tentacles of Veals' influence encompass newspaper columnists, MPs, businessmen, footballers, a female tube driver, a Scottish convert to Islam, a disaffected teenager, and a care worker, whose different perspectives build up a tale of love, family and money as the story builds to its powerful climax.
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