“It is very early in the morning, perhaps.”
I don’t know very much about Toby Litt. I know he is English, went to Oxford and now teaches at Birkbeck, University of London. I know that he titles his novels in alphabetical order, currently up to K. I know that, excluding his most recent novel, all of his other books appear to be out of print. I know that no one seems to have an explanation as to why. As such, however, I am left to trawling second hand shops for his books as finding them in Waterstone’s and the like has become something of a challenge. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy.
So, Beatniks is about a group of young adults in the nineties who have decided to embrace the 60s and live the beat lifestyle. The ringleader, Jack (possibly not his real name), has decided that nothing was any good after Bob Dylan died in 1966 so in his mind, it’s still 29th July 1966 and time hasn’t moved on since then. Experts will notice that Bob Dylan is actually still alive and well, but it was on this date that he has a motorbike accident and was never the same. To Jack, this amounts to the same thing as dying, so he and his friends Neal and Maggie carry on their lives in this weird twisted universe in their heads.
Our narrator, however, is Mary, a fairly ordinary girl seeking some purpose in life who stumbles upon the trio at a party and immediately falls for Jack and wants to be part of their little gang. She changes her style, redecorates her room and listens to all the hip music that they claim is acceptable. She even ends up dating Neal, lying to him about who she is really interested in. The three original beatniks soon discover that Mary has a car and asks if she can take them to Brighton. She agrees, and things begin to change as secrets are revealed and the truth comes out about everyone.
The book is divided into three parts – Bedford, Brighton and their big American coast-to-coast road trip. Well, four if you include the prologue that details Bob Dylan’s “death”. I find it difficult to say which part I found the most enjoyable because they all have certain details. Bedford has Mary fitting in and finding some sort of purpose, and trying to stalk Jack. Brighton has some very graphic sex scenes and some painful, heart-wrenching moments with Neal. America has some comedy, but didn’t have the same power or hold my interest quite so well as the previous two parts.
The characters are all nasty and mean-spirited, with the exception of Neal who is too nice to be like that, and therefore are very interesting, even if not particularly likeable. Mary undergoes what appears to be a big personality change, although since we see very little of her before her beatnik lifestyle, it’s hard to say exactly. She goes through a Grease-esque change to be like the guy she loves so that he pays attention to her, even over his current girlfriend. In fact, the most consisently excellent character is actually Neal’s very intelligent black cat, Koko.
There are some very interesting parts here, too, in particular the notion of yabyum, which is supposedly something to do with the sharing of mind and body but actually manifests itself, repeatedly, as “threesome”. I’m not a prudish person by any particular stretch of the imagination, but my inner prude did raise its head when this first came into the narrative but I couldn’t really tell you why. It does go into the (slightly comical) politics of a threesome – how to make sure everyone is getting an even spread of attention, trying not to cut anyone out, etc.
I’ve only read two of Litt’s books – this one and Finding Myself. That one seemed that I would’ve got more from it had I read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, but since ploughing through Mrs Dalloway, Woolf and I have made a deal that we won’t have anything to do with each other again. This book, then, also seems that there is more to get from it have you read another book, in this case Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which is a particular favourite of Jack and Neal, and one of the reasons the story heads out across America towards the end.
An interesting novel, but too English to be that rock and roll. The beat scene was American, and always will be. To paraphrase Neal, you can’t do the great cross country road trip in England – you reach the shore too soon. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t imagine it’s any substitute for the real beat scene.