The Testing of Luther Albright by Mackenzie Bezos
The Smiling Affair by Jeremy Sheldon
Laughing As They Chased Us by Sarah Jackman
No Fireworks by Rodge Glass
01/08/05, The Daily Telegraph
Towards the end of The Testing of Luther Albright, as its eponymous protagonist discloses more and more of his almost imperceptibly damaging past, his mother says, ‘Some people need to see your love more than you need to see theirs.’ Who would have thought that this piece of selfless wisdom, turned inside out on itself, would lodge in her son’s heart and come back to haunt him later in his life? Luther Albright is incapable of showing anything: his life is a chinkless armour constructed out of evasion, repression, avoidance of anything that will scratch even the surface of his painstakingly embalmed emotions. A minor earthquake in Sacramento becomes the metaphorical launchpad for a series of seemingly innocuous events that exposes the faultlines of his impeccable family life and the brittleness of his own inner world. Is his adolescent son, Elliot, really testing him, waiting and watching his every single move? Is his loving wife, Liz, letting her disappointment with their life together show at last? Will he buckle under this or emerge as from a baptism of fire? What is the price he will pay to do the right thing by everyone?
MacKenzie Bezos scales the treacherous, frightful cliffs of fall of the human heart with a wisdom, ease and empathetic understanding that most writers struggle to attain in a lifetime. Her slow-ticking explosive of a book is about the ambushing power of ordinariness and the infinitely nuanced micropolitics of everyday family life. There are no dramatic events here, no culminating clash of cymbals, only a subtle calibration of all that remains unspoken in the bonds between father and son, husband and wife. Perhaps this unspokenness itself is what unravels relationships. It is so tautly done, in prose that brings to mind a coiled spring, that the book acquires a crackle of electricity around it. It is also a terrifying piece of work, slowly deliquescing into the air a tense anxiety that the reader can almost inhale. A dark, faceted gem.
In The Smiling Affair, Jeremy Sheldon betrays an unappetising thraldom to wealth and material riches that is light years away from, say, Scott Fitzgerald’s or Hollinghurst’s engagements with luxury. Sheldon’s is more a label-slavery: every car has its model name lovingly invoked – Silentium, Kodiak, Firefly, Mamba, Apache – and hardly any page goes by where half a dozen of these names are not thrown in.
His ghostbuster hero, Jay Richards, twenty-nine, living in San Francisco and sporting a joint as a permanent appendage, arrives in North Carolina to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Helena Smiling, and the alleged haunting of her family manor on the request of her sister, Zelda. Sheldon tries so hard to be achingly trendy he appears not to be aware of the first rule of coolness: you cannot strive for it. The book strains groaningly to tick all the hip boxes – youth, recreational drugs, cars, Googled knowledge, DJs, pop music, money, sex, beauty – and achieves nothing but an intense, callow superficiality.
The prose is an incongruous combination of wannabe sassy and embarrassing purple ooze, the dialogue improbable to the point of having the word ‘exposition’ written in flashing neon over it, and the whole book infected by the thick proliferation of proper nouns in an effort to buy authenticity but which is nothing more than a variation on product placement, a fixation on objects and gadgets. What does it say about a book when the face of Paris Hilton is insistently conjured up at any mention of its absent heroine?
Sarah Jackman is engaged in a less tricksy venture in her Laughing As They Chased Us – straightforward romantic fiction. There’s not very much new that can be done with three couples in a sun-drenched city in the south of France and, like the seaside donkey, this exhausted theme now badly needs a rest. Luc and Cecillie, young, thin, gorgeous and gloriously tanned, are desperately in love. The disturbed and older Frédérique, an artists’ agent, discovers a new rush in her life when she comes across Luc’s paintings. Jacques loves Frédérique, but she is not so sure. Meanwhile, the young English guy, Blythe, who works as barman in Jacques’s popular bar, is in love with Bryony, the English au pair, but their lives are pulling in different directions. What are the chances that their lives are going to collide, relationships are going to fracture, tears are going to be shed, and reconciliations are going to be doled out in the end? This is utterly predictable fiction and the pile-up of accompanying clichés is as distressing as the real thing on a motorway. Yet, her prose is clean and uncluttered, and she knows how to keep the reader moving down the narrative path, although it’s not much of a path to be traversing anyway.
I don’t know what it says about Britain that novels with Jewishness at their core have never seemed to achieve lift-off in the way they have done in the USA. Think not just of Roth but also of young Turks like Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, to name just two from the younger generation. Rodge Glass has jumped on the ‘Jewish novel’ bandwagon that has been running with such energy and inventiveness across the Atlantic but he doesn’t have a fraction of the talent of those novelists, so his pedestrian No Fireworks limps along, much like its protagonist, Abe Stone. The book begins with the funeral of Abe’s mother, Evelyn. Shortly after this, his daughter-in-law, Arabella, walks out on his son, Nathan, and her stepdaughter, Lucille, all of whom have been living with Abe in Evelyn’s house. Lucille gets expelled from school, Evelyn’s will doesn’t leave a penny for her son and Abe starts receiving letters from his dead mother. Your houseplants will be able to guess the source and motive of the letters while Glass’s indescribably awful prose – clunky, clichéd, bearing no trace of style or readability – makes for a book that is unconvincing and laboured on every level of plot, dialogue, characterisation. No fireworks here, indeed.