“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

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“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis (1954)

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lucky jim“‘They made a silly mistake, though,’ the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.”

Siiiigh. If I will keep insisting on reading the “classics”, I’m sure I will keep disappointing myself. It’s also a stark reminder of how difficult it is to find books that are genuinely funny, as those that claim loudly that they are, invariably are not. Lucky Jim, for example, is always billed as one of the funniest books – if not the funniest book – of the last century, so with a hopeful expression, I burrowed in and once again, as with The Metamorphosis, found myself at the mercy of a friend with more knowledge, in this case Iryce, a lecturer in literature at the University of Illinois.

So this is the story of Jim Dixon, a history lecturer at an unimpressive university somewhere in the Midlands. He has come from a lower-class background and is now struggling to keep up with the upper classes who dominate this place. He is irritated by everyone, from Professor Welch, the man he has to impress to keep his job to Welch’s artist son Bertram, and the men he shares his digs with. He also has to deal with a sexless relationship with Margaret, his girlfriend who doesn’t let him sleep with her, but he stays with anyway because he feels guilty about leaving her as she is recovering from a failed suicide attempt.

Now burdened with the task of writing a lecture on Merrie England by Welch, a topic he has little interest in, Dixon feels worse than ever, and these feelings are compounded further by a disastrous party at the Welches house in which he sneaks off to the pub to get drunk, then somehow burns holes in the bedsheets that night, and he also meets Bertram’s beautiful girlfriend Christine, a girl that Dixon knows is far out of his league. Struggling to keep his composure, Dixon must keep his nose clean, get his lecture finished, and make sure that he can keep his job.

Iryce, however, informs me that this is a story about the class war, and she should know as she’s taught the book a lot. She said, “He’s oppressed by the burgeoning bourgeois upper middle class trying to mirror the heydey of the pre-War Tories [who] are not going to give him any autonomy if they don’t have to.” True, parts of this are displayed obviously, such as the fact that the bedroom Dixon is given at Professor Welch’s house is only accessible through a bathroom. He’s almost viewed as no better than a servant.

Generally I found Dixon rather a pathetic protagonist, somewhat like the hero of a bad sitcom from the 60s or 70s, for whom nothing ever goes right. When that happens to Basil Fawlty, I laugh, but here, I couldn’t bring myself to care enough. Dixon doesn’t deserve the things that happen to him, not really, but he allows himself to be a doormat. It’s refreshing when he does later start to challenge everybody and starts standing up for himself, eventually doing battle with Bertram for the sake of Christine, discovering the truth about Margaret from an ex-partner of hers, and dismissing the Welch family themselves, who he finds ridiculous. I expected it to have a tragic ending, with Dixon no closer to happiness than he was at the start, but it was pleasing to find that the “lucky” of the title rings true, at least. This is a story where the geek gets the girl.

Dixon’s rally against the upper classes wins through, and some of their pomp is punctured by this silly northern man who has tired of playing their games. Whether it will stick or not, we don’t know, but it takes so long for him to finally fight back that I’d lost a lot of interest.

My biggest issue though remains that it somehow isn’t funny. I can see where it should be funny, and Amis has a great way with words, but at no point did I laugh to any real degree. It’s outdated, I think, and while the class war rages on still, it’s been done so much better in other mediums; see Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and Keeping Up Appearances for perhaps the three ultimate tales of class battles.

So, well done Jim, you got the happy ending, but I was fundamentally underwhelmed by your story. Shame, really.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt (1992)

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The-Secret-History1“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

I bought The Secret History on the recommendation of a very literary friend of mine last year, although was, as usual, daunted by the size. However, this week it felt right. I was going away and needed something substantial to distract me on the plane, and I’d grown increasingly aware of the jet black spine that kept looking down at me.

The book opens with the knowledge that one of the characters, Bunny, is going to die. Not just die, but he will be murdered by his friends, who include our narrator, Richard Papen. The story the jumps back an undisclosed amount of time and we meet Richard properly. He is a middle class teenager from California who enjoys reading and studying Greek. His parents have no education and don’t understand this desire of his. He starts at one university, studying medicine, then Greek and English, but soon realises he needs to leave his parents orbit and so applies to Hampden College in Vermont, where his life will change forever.

He attempts to get onto the Greek course, but the reclusive professor, Julian Morrow, is hugely selective about his students and only has five people on his course, claiming that it is full. Richard begins to obsess over these five, and after a few curious meetings, is invited to join the Greek course and get to know them properly.

They are: Henry, deeply studious and serious, always wears suits and carries an umbrella; Francis, red-headed hypochondriac who is a bit more fun than Henry; the twins, Charles and Camilla, practically identical in every way, slightly Aryan, airy and the kindest of the group; and of course Bunny, the joker of the pack who has been almost shunned by his family and struggles most with money issues. They are all wealthy, intelligent, eccentric and definitely misfits. Richard worships them and is in awe that they’ve let him in.

But Richard soon realises that he is not privy to all of their secrets, and they regularly meet without him. One day it all spills out, the terrible secret that they’ve been keeping. Bunny has found out about it too, and he’s now blackmailing his friends, ensuring that they spend every last cent they’ve got on him. Henry begins to fear that Bunny will announce their secret to the world and comes to a rather startling conclusion: Bunny has to die.

Bunny does indeed die, and the second half of the novel (which drags on a little too much) is dedicated to the aftermath of this event and how it affects the surviving five.

Due to the characters all studying Greek, this indeed does read a little like a Greek tragedy, with emphasis on beauty, death, sacrifice and secrets. Charles and Camilla seem at first to be the characters you’d most want to meet, but by the end I would suggest it was Francis. There’s a good case for Richard, because at least he’s not quite as pretentious as the others, but there’s still something distinctly unpleasant about him. All the students at Hampden are pretentious in some way or other, but the central group are moreso than any. Francis wears accessory pince-nez, for example. They drink only the finest alcohol (and are practically always drunk), but the most ridiculous moment is actually a background character, an art student who is using paintbrushes as chopsticks.

While the world they inhabit seems nice – big houses, endless wealth, great prospects, huge intelligence – it’s unclear if any of them are actually happy. They have all been cast out from regular society, although his is partly Julian’s fault, as he has little contact with the rest of the college faculty and keeps himself and his classes as far apart from them as possible. Especially after the murder, their facade of happiness begins to unravel and they start having to deal with their problems more and more in isolation.

Richard is the blandest character, which is odd given that he’s the one writing the confessional, but that doesn’t mean he’s two-dimensional. There’s a lot to him; it’s just that the other characters are so wonderfully crafted. It’s unclear how much Richard says is the truth and how much is embellished, but that makes it all the more interesting. The book plays with beauty and truth, and how the two are interlocked.

I was wary about the book before I started it, and it really is the very definition of literary fiction, but nonetheless I really enjoyed it. Though dense, large parts of it sail by, and you can’t bring yourself to properly hate any of the characters, not really, because they all seem to possess a sort of charm that makes you forget their foibles, even the really nasty ones, and focus on the fact that they seem decent people. After all, they’re attractive, intelligent and moneyed – doesn’t that make you perfect in society’s eyes?

An excellent novel; very interesting and cleverly constructed, like Euripedes crossed with Bret Easton Ellis.

“The Rules Of Attraction” by Bret Easton Ellis (1987)

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There are no rules...

There are no rules…

“and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that…”

So far this year, I have travelled via book to the Middle East, the sewers of London, dangerous foreign planets and ancient Scandinavia, but is there really any spot as terrifying as an American university in the 1980s? That’s the location for Bret Easton Ellis’s zeitgeist-y novel, The Rules of Attraction. Everyone has vaguely heard of Ellis, if only for American Psycho, and I’d looked at getting one of his books for some time. When my birthday approached I gave a list of books to my friends the teacher and the psychologist; generally those that my mother was unlikely to want to buy me. This one came from the teacher.

Attraction is about, at its core, horrible people doing horrible things to one another, and not much caring about the consequences. However, there’s far more too it than all of that. There are three main characters. Sean is, or at least thinks of himself, as being too cool for anything that’s going on around him, will sleep with anything with a pulse and later falls in love with Lauren when they start dating. Lauren is pining after her boyfriend Victor and dates Sean just to pass the time between waiting for her boyfriend to return and changing her major again and again. Finally, Paul, who is an openly bisexual guy who used to date Lauren and is now sleeping with Sean. Their love triangle is fuelled mostly by cocaine and beer, and their strange/strained relationships get mixed up with everyone else’s.

Many parts of the story are left ambigious for the reader to interpret how they want. For example, Paul’s narration is full of stories of his sexual exploits with Sean, declaring how strongly they seem to feel for one another, but in Sean’s chapters, he never mentions so much as even kissing Paul. Is all of it in Paul’s head, or is Sean just carefully selecting what he wants to tell us? At the same time, Sean seems in love with Lauren and says how much she enjoys their sex, but when it’s Lauren’s turn to talk, she’s far less impressed. And even Lauren and Victor – in his few brief chapters – have entirely different stances on what their relationship actually is.

The novel deals with many huge topics such as suicide, drugs (from weed through to meth), violence, divorce and abortion. The characters are generally unpleasant, almost all of them out to help themselves and make sure that they come out on top of any situation that they end up in. They treat these issues with contempt and, occasionally, humour.

Ellis writes with smart style, each character very much having their own voice so you can immediately tell without looking if it’s Sean, Lauren or Paul speaking. Even the more minor characters who occasionally get their own chapters have an individual voice. The most unique is Bertrand, Sean’s French roommate who has a chapter written entirely in French. Given that I don’t speak French, I had to skip this, although I have since found translations for it online. Apparently a number of the characters appear earlier and later in Ellis’ other novels, and Sean is actually the brother of American Psycho‘s killer Patrick Bateman. Lauren and Victor appear as the main characters in later novel Glamdrama, and minor character Clay is apparently the main figure from his first novel, Less Than Zero.

While the people involved may all be vile to various degrees (Paul is probably the most sympathetic, but that’s not by much), it’s an engaging and quick read as you watch these young men and women, presumably with some intelligence about them, crash and burn. They’re living in a world where money is everything, drugs are abundant and the future looks uncertain, so maybe you can excuse them some of their behaviour. Then again, maybe not. I guess it boils down once again to the fact that we always want what we can’t have, and how much that hurts or annoys us.

The novel begins and ends mid-sentence, implying the endlessness of student futility as people make the same mistakes again and again. Few questions are properly answered, but somehow this is still satisfying, as how much do we really know about everything that goes on around us?