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I've yet to come across a Sebastian Faulks book I haven't enjoyed. His well-written, often complex, usually entertaining novels provide an intriguing and thought-provoking look at human nature. He is also an author who can turn his hand to a range of different styles. From the historically-based Birdsong to the exploration of the human psyche in Human Traces and Engleby, I've read and enjoyed them all. I guess that winning streak had to end sometime.
And, sure enough, it comes crashing to a halt with A Week in December. This is a multi-stranded book which follows the lives of half a dozen or so different characters, from the money grabbing financial speculator through to a rich junkie teenager; a down on his luck barrister to a would be martyr willing to die for his faith. As with all Faulks' characters, they are all multi-layered and complex. In the case of A Week in December, they are all broken characters, missing some crucial element that makes us "human". Each is plowing their own path through life, oblivious (in most cases) to the existence of others until one fateful week in December brings them all together.
In previous books, Faulks has proved himself to be the master of the mundane, making the uninteresting unmissable. He has a knack for taking absurd little details or behaviour and placing it under the microscope so that they become fascinating in their absurdity. He deconstructs his characters, showing the reader what makes them tick and thus holding up a mirror so that they can reflect on their own ideas and prejudices. In other words, Faulks is an author who has the power to make you think, but the ability to entertain you whilst doing so.
A Week in December lacks that usual spark. The mundane remains mundane and whilst there are certainly moments of interest, they are too few and far between. This feels like a short story dragged out to novel length. Faulks' books are always slow-paced - it's something you expect and enjoy because whilst he takes his time to get anywhere, he provides a running commentary on life and human behaviour that keeps you interested.
That was not the case with A Week in December. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen... And waiting... And waiting. Sadly, by the time I reached the last page, I was still waiting. I have never read so much text where it has taken so long for so little to happen.
It's the characters which are perhaps the most disappointing aspect. After all, with so many varied characters to work with, surely Faulks can offer a range of insights into human nature? Unfortunately not. Here, his normally sure touch lets him down. The characters are sadly clichéd by his own standards: the Muslim youth from a privileged background who becomes radicalized; the grasping banker who cares for nothing but money; the Pakistani manufacturer of Indian food, the posh "lady who lunches". They are unimaginative and stereotypical.
None of these characters held any fascination for me. Initially, I wondered whether this was because they were so inherently self-centered and dislikable Yet, I've read lots of books where the main characters have been selfish, vain or violent and enjoyed them. These characters fail to engage because they are mostly boring. Trapped in their own sad little ruts, they trudge along. You could argue that this is real life for many of us; but one of the reasons I read books to escape from real life, not be constantly reminded about how futile and depressing it can be.
Perhaps I'm missing something. Maybe Faulks is deliberately using these "stereotypes" to show how our perceptions are often based on physical perceptions or deeply buried natural prejudices, rather than reality. Perhaps this is a powerful insight into human nature and I'm just too stupid to understand it.
The phrase which springs most readily to mind for A Week in December is "self-indulgent". All too often, the characters seem to be there for one reason only: to allow Faulks to express his own exasperation with modern life. Whether poking jibes at the inanity of modern TV (particularly reality TV), the pompous nature of professional book critics or annoyance at the endless greed of bankers and the toothless regulators who supposedly police them, this book tells us more about Faulks' world view than anything else. At times it feels like an endless diatribe about all that is wrong with modern society. And whilst there are many points with which I agree whole heartedly, the constant ranting does not make for an entertaining read.
Available is paperback or on Kindle for around £5, this is the one Faulks title I wouldn't particularly recommend; certainly not if you haven't read one of his books before. I guess every author is allowed one bad book. Let's hope that Faulks has now got it out of his system and will return to form with his next effort.
A Week in December
© Copyright SWSt 2013
Publishing House: Vintage Books
Year of publication: 2010
© Sebastian Faulks 2009
Duration: 392 pages
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'Seven days, seven chapters and seven characters'
Jean-Francoise Lyotard suggested that the 'postmodern condition,' was a silence calamity in waiting. A claim which is egged on by modern age economists who number crunch for the developed world's benefit only to be ignored because it doesn't compute politically - the result was the banking crisis, a near collapse of a banking system - there were winners and losers, capitalism made sure of it. 'A Week in December' brings it to the fore - an eclectic snapshot of seven lives in London.
The late twentieth century manifested an insurmountable tide against authority and its ideological system (s) due to extensive corruptive patterns that have shaped our modern world and lifestyles. Individuality is far less common today than over twenty years ago, regardless of profession, gender, and race / faith doctrine. Faulks book: 'A Week in December' based on a week starting on chapter one - '16th December 2007' embraces the post-modern era in London by exacting a week in the modern era as the week which was significant period; when the US sub-prime fraud hit UK shores, when the bankers' greed came home to roost and when the realization that capitalism has a tectonic fault line the size of the 'Pacific's Ring of Fire.' It takes a courageous author to identify when that time was, when insignificance elapsed to significance. Nearing six years on and the developed world still appears to be in denial. Worming through, unsure what lies beyond the abyss of fiscal and social ruin. 'A week is a long time in politics,' but it is an eternity on the shop floor where markets differentiate between success and failure, win or lose - sink or swim - much of it is on a whim, a hunch, whether you take midweek lunch. What postmodernism has dealt us in the developed world is a conundrum not one of those nine letter ones you get on 'Countdown' but an intrinsic unfathomable one - 'A Week in December' admirably explores the facets of our modern lifestyle - I hasten to add, a plea for sanity, which warrants an award- cue 'Sunday Times Best seller Award.' It is worth noting they're handed to novels which are unusually structured, along with a lemon twist of irony and has a modicum shot of cultural intellect - rich nutrients for Faulk's readership to appreciate.
Initially, the book's structure is laid-out as if a stage performance of a 'who-dun-it' was getting ready for a grand opening, whereby characters joust into position relaying their qualities, irks, and habits - To top it off; the Toppings table planner was a political playing field who was to be either side to Len Foxley's halitosis, an entity of its own -decisions, decisions? The bullet-points were set-up practically on the starter's gun; being the newly elected MP Topping's table plan, ready for the end of the week. Faulks tends to introduce the seven characters in a formal theatrical manner - "John Veals Hedge-Fund Manager - he has four flat screen monitors banked over his desk," and not forgetting "Vanessa his long suffering wife." For readers who don't have a long retention span, Faulks has served a gem, whereby the integral lives of the seven main characters flick in and out of focus as their seven day analogy unfolds, linking up perfectly with a satisfying mechanical ease - the novel's plotline machinations slot together without unexplained forks. Jenni Fortune is fatigued with seeing the reflection of her-self in the windscreen after a long Tube train shift; Hassan al-Rashid would bob his head, so the reflection of his eye-sockets resemble panda eyes - elongated as if he'd walked into a room full of mirrors at a fairground. Faulks engineers clever shifts with environment and personnel who're simulating activities; which reminded me of a Christopher Nolan film montage. Whereby you can envisage the close-up expressions and details of what the day unfolds for the characters. This form of detailing can be misconstrued to the reader as something of significance to the plotlines when really the author's intention is to stimulate a reality, a focus point to that particular moment of the day - a realism which all of us do, although, it takes a sublime author to identify it, write it and make it believable. Faulks is that type of author.
Inevitably, the sign of the time employed a fiscal approach and so if a protagonist was to emerge amongst the seven character portrayals, a Hedge Fund Manager indeed suited the bill and cause. John Veals, unveiled by default. Veals epitomizes the usual virtual unethical transactions which go on unnoticed, the so long it works, nothing else matters approach to making money - OPMs (Other People's Money) the vastness of the profit-margins via OPM's creates an animal that works in a different paradox of other people's ethics - OPE's "I didn't make up the rules" Veals states as he maneuvers within fiscal jurisdictions, side-steps regulations as if he was Lionel Messi goal-bound. Like all highly successful financiers Veals he incessantly reads the rule-book, seeks paths to further his riches - he has done it for twenty seven years, therefore it's a formality. 'Fortune favours the brave,' and for Veals his intuition served him well when it came to US sub-prime markets - where money-lenders gave money to anything that moved, a mortgage, unsecured loans without the archaic guarantor signatures - A masterstroke from Faulks who met such an animal who foresaw the collapse of the sub-prime market and left that side of the portfolio in 2006. I applauded the witticism of Faulks for naming Stephen Godley, John's colleague - all his godliness unvealed. 'God certainly does move in mysterious ways.' A mysterious animal is not what Media men like Trantor can be accused of, who sniffs out negative journalism, portraying an on duty detection dog - knowing greater sensationalism means greater profit-margins. Veals is tuned into the likes of Trantor; being similar animals and all. Media feeds the markets and the Hedge Fund Managers take the cream off the top; a legal money food-chain. Once it enters the Hedge Fund food-chain it is abbreviated, and in turn money morphs into pseudonymous terms. Humanity itself has fallen to the same fate as British nationals' faith ideologies. Due to the establishment's relentless political persuasion of ridding / toning down British traditions the identity of faith has dissolved -making young British males vulnerable to corrupt doctrines.
Faulks 'wannabe' suicide bomber Hassan al-Rashid forks off to different regions of London to purchase large quantities of soda drinks, now syringes is a military affair - so he fakes abdominal pains to get omitted to hospital for observation to locate and get syringes for his homemade bomb - he does so with clinical ease. The buzz from the successful mission, installs a frightening belief he is doing this for his forefathers, his real birth-land. Paranoia is much his enemy than Scotland Yard. He was once a normal Scottish lad, softly mannered and articulate. But now he ponders why Christians view Cathedrals as monuments or works of art to be admired, these magnificent buildings are architecturally designated for worshipping, yet the Christians are too incline to be overtly blasphemous, get intoxicated and fornicate. For a young man who once seeked to belong in an alien culture which is far removed from his forefathers, this is easy picking for Islam extremists who incite hatred. Faulk does the unmentionable; he portrays a sympathetic tone to a 'wannabe' suicide bomber. Hassan's peers exclude him, engaging in London based youthful ventures - the free world, their oyster. Before long their heads will be full of the world of dividends, derivatives and short-selling. Knowing the art of it segregates small-timers with the big timers. Notably 'A Week in December' concentrates on Veals's one-dimensional ploy in avoiding tax via going offshore, making your wife a CEO of a American company laid dormant on an lazy island that sounds like "Hey- man." Funding is electronically mailed back and forth to deceive any: 'tax man, hey man, or lay man.' Without question the book is the most convincing piece of modern day Dickensian literature written to date. Faulks basically, hand-cuffs and hands over the rogues to the public and resoundingly states: "Want evidence that the public has been conned? Well here it is - look no further." But true to form the ethical and truthful are the ones to pay. Whether it is by being a victim or friend or family member of 7/7 - whether you've defaulted on your mortgage, and your house is about to be repossessed by creditors - whether you've not had a pay rise for five years and finding it tougher to ride the waves of debt and price hikes. The John Veals of this world are untouched; they took the pin out of the grenade and watched the devastation unfold from a parapet, screwing their eyes up at the headlines, closing in on another trade killing. Vanessa, John's wife knows the gestured signs, knows how close he is in closing in on another killing, via the thickness of his stubble on his chin. Faulks delved into the mindset of financiers by making whimsical cricket terms to communicate the game these financiers play: "Time to declare?" - "Just dispatched a full-toss."
Amongst the planning of collapsing banks and self=righteousness of parliamentarians, and the 'wannabe' suicide bomber, there was unquestionably a timeframe for events to occur - seven days. Relationships don't change too much in that duration - but in the world of capitalism it feels like infinity. Faulks throws in some raconteur subject discourse such as Facebook's equivalent social media site; 'Your Place;' and 'Second Life.' Popular culture sensation 'Girls From Behind,' tickled me; these gravy trains had a monetary source of their own - Evidence of social detachment, aided by technological online phenomena's; where online 'hits' and 'likes' supersedes high street sales. Most importantly 'A Week in December' was more than a fictional book; it grasps a deeper worrying signal that we've yet to grapple with what we've become, morally and ethically delusional. 'The week before Christmas of 2007' Faulks boldly chose that period on the premise that there was hope still. On day seven - In this fictional book there's a chance to redeem their characters over a Sophie Topping dinner party. To top it off, it was more than I bargained for.
Faulks made references to real events and characters while writing this piece of fiction, to fulfill a modern Dickensian brief. Any events which mimic 'A Week in December,' is coincidental. Worthy of the accolade of: THE NUMBER ONE BEST SELLER.
The eclectic mix of characters in Faulks' portmanteau novel sounded interesting and the furore over some innocuous comments he made prior to its publication got tongues wagging so I was quite looking forward to reading this and although it often moved at a brisk pace it unfortunately also frequently got bogged down in exposition and didn't always ring true.
Some characters, such as a failed novelist turned acerbic critic and a philistine food magnate embarrassed by what he perceives to be his inability to appreciate high culture were an absolute delight to read but others, such as a Polish footballer never really came to life. The satire about phenomena such as social networking and reality television also suffered from being sketchy and just a little bit gauche. It is not surprising that Faulks finds fault with them but one wonders how familiar he actually is with them.
A character such as John Veals could have been a good central character in his own novel but one longed to see him tested to greater limits - perhaps put through the ringer like Sherman McCoy in "Bonfire of the Vanities" but his story was too often slowed down by dense exposition about the machinations of hedge funds and commodity trading.
Perhaps Faulks is unfortunate that the novel is perceived to be a state of the nation work that ought to be his legacy but it simply isn't quite that good. An often interesting and often engaging read but probably not the best introduction to this fine author.
Apart from his recent appearance as the reincarnation of Ian Fleming, I devour the novels of Sebastian Faulks with relish, and saved the reading of his most recent to appear in paperback, "A Week in December", to coincide with a trip to the capital. It's a rather ambitious project with an extensive cast of largely unlikeable and unsympathetic characters; the story follows them over a week and gradually the connections between them become stronger. Place and time are paramount to the story; this is clearly a comment on modern society, with an emphasis on the financial sector, at which Faulks directs particular vitriol.
This cast of too many is introduced by means of a bullet pointed list of invitees to a dinner party; only a handful played much of a part in the next four hundred pages. Sadly, for me, the ones who most interested me featured the least and the words that could have been used to include them were instead wasted on page after page of tedious information on the terrible world of hedge funds and the like. It's rather symptomatic of the failings of the novel that in spite of the lengthy explanations of exactly how our bankers have screwed us over, I still don't really understand it. I am sure Faulks sweated over the research but it's all in vain because when presented at such length it makes for poor fiction.
The odious John Veals is the books central character, if only in terms of how many pages he fills with his money making obsession. He has no interests in life outside of making more money and he doesn't care what damage he does in the process. He's oblivious to the fact that his wife eats almost nothing but drinks like a fish and has no inkling that his sixteen year old son stays up into the early hours smoking weed and watching mentally ill people competing to be the last one standing in a television studio bungalow. Veals doesn't read; doesn't watch television; doesn't go to the theatre; rarely goes on holiday. All of this information is irrelevant really; we understand pretty quickly exactly what kind of man Veals is, but Faulks labours the point.
Another irritation is the cringe-worthy way Faulks has created fictional versions of features of contemporary life such as his take on the virtual reality game "Second Life". This and a rather thinly veiled take on Facebook - rather unoriginally named "Your Place" - are just a little too late to be really punchy and relevant. Similarly a rather crass parody of reality television smacks of the author trying a little too hard. Book reviewing sites (a touch sensitive in these parts), fantasy football leagues, financial chat forums: there's no aspect of the world wide web that isn't described ad nauseam. The pinnacle of this silliness is the fictional girl band "Girls From Behind" which might have raised a smile had it appeared in the pages of a Ben Elton novel but was plain embarrassing here.
On the other hand I loved the literary critic R Tranter, perhaps the only character to bring some comedic relief to the proceedings. The supercilious Tranter is no doubt Faulks dig at one of several real reviewers but reminded me a little of Will Self. His ongoing battles with a new kid on the block culminating in Alexander Sedley's presence on a panel judging a prize that Tranter is up for are the highlight of the novel. Ironically Tranter would certainly sharpen his pencil to write some poisonous words about "A Week in December". Another interesting but irrelevant character was Spike, a Polish footballers, newly signed to one of the capital's top football clubs.
Where the book falls down is the concentration on character studies to the detriment of the plot which appears promising at times but fizzles out all too often. For too long the story goes nowhere but splutters into life in a nearly satisfying way towards the end. Unfortunately this may be too late for many readers who, bored rigid by the many pages of financial drivel will have flung the book to one side.
Occasionally there are flashes of Faulks unquestionable skill but fans of his earlier works such as "Birdsong" may well be disappointed. "A Week in December"? More like three months watching paint dry.
For those who know Sebastian Faulks best for his historical war novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, A Week in December comes as something as a shock. Set in London during the week before Christmas in the very recent past, this book is both a satire and a serious comment on modern society.
The novel concerns an ensemble of characters from many different backgrounds, all of whom have one thing in common - their lack of touch with reality. Faulks seems to be suggesting that modern life itself is largely responsible for this detachment. A Tube driver whiles away her time on an online game bearing a suspicious resemblance to Second Life; a teenage boy with an addiction to genetically-modified marijuana watches a reality TV show called It's Madness!; and an impoverished lawyer finds it hard to let go of the memories of his married lover.
Drawing together such a number of characters is no mean feat, and Faulks usually manages to weave their relationships together in a convincing and interesting way. Sometimes, though, it is hard to keep track of all the characters and to know which ones will turn out to be the key players - in one chapter we see a disillusioned schoolteacher's point of view, only never to hear from him again except on the sidelines.
The controversial portrayal of a would-be Islamic terrorist is sympathetic and believable. Faulks manages to make us understand how he got into this situation without condoning his beliefs. The true villain of the book is perhaps John Veals, the hedge fund manager who symbolises the failings of the financial industry.
At times it feels like Faulks is trying too hard to reference every modern phenomenon there is, from terrorism to the Internet to the banking crisis. His use of made-up names for famous companies, groups or people (the 'famous girl group' is called Girls From Behind, the online game is named Parallax) tends to grate, but probably reflects the novel's satirical style, which is reminiscent of Dickens.
The novel ends with a climactic dinner party, bringing together many of the characters, most of whom have come to some sort of awareness over the course of the book. A Week in December is a worthwhile read that provides food for thought as well as being, in places, very funny.