A novel by Roger Smith, which has gathered praise, disappoints with its misogyny and many failures of both politics and craft
Roger Smith, Tycoonery: A Novel (Verso 2012), 234pp.
Roger Smith is well known as a scriptwriter and this is his first novel. It has been highly praised by a number of celebrated people such as Ken Loach and Hanif Kureshi, but it appears to have a number of faults which lead to it being unbelievable – not in the way that a fantasy or science fiction novel might be, but as a realistic novel which lacks the background to give it credibility.
The skills of writing a script and writing a novel differ. A film script does not require description of places – those will be supplied by the location manager. The costume and set designers will provide the right look for the period. The mood can be created by the camerawork, editing and music. If the characters have vague motivation or their backgrounds are poorly sketched, the actors’ imaginations will create a more fully realised personality. Discrepancies can be picked up by continuity, the film editor, the director, the producer, and so on. Finally, the story in a film is necessarily much slighter than in a novel, and a good film can start life as no more than a short story.
In a novel, the author bears the responsibility for all these things: the consistency and richness of the plot, the communication of characterisation, the setting and the mood. The whole novel suffers if the story of a novel is weak, contradictory or incredible. In addition, in both a novel and a film, the story should make a point. We should learn something about the world we are living in, whether we agree with the viewpoint or not. Tycoonery fails to provide a good plot, frequently fails to provide a sense of character, time or place, is inconsistent, and tells us nothing in the end.
The story is about a property developer, David, who has an affair with a woman, Maureen, whose husband, Ted, suffers the loss of his supermarket when David’s company builds a new shopping mall in a small town in Kent. The narrator, George, is a long-standing friend of David. It is supposedly set in 1971-72, but George’s year lacks the postal strike, the continuation of war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia, the struggle against apartheid, Bloody Sunday, and the independence of Bangladesh, to name just a few events which those who lived through it as adults were unable to ignore.
George lives in Paddington and has done since 1966, yet there is no mention of local cafes, pubs and streets, the Notting Hill Carnival or even Paddington Station. He has been unemployed all the time he has lived there, and yet he has a self-contained ‘small, partly furnished’ flat (p.131). We know that the flat is self-contained because the narrator explains several times, in detail, how he gets to the phone while he is having a shit (pp.3, 4, 5, 9, 10). On the basis of personal experience, we can say that in 1971 most single people in the area, who could not obtain a council flat, lived in a dingy bed-sitter with a gas ring and shared bathroom facilities. There is no explanation of how George can afford to rent his flat while on supplementary benefit. We are told that he had had a job teaching English at Oxford University, but this is unbelievable when he habitually writes in this pompous style:
‘I have no desire to participate in the degrading activities that pass as gainful employment in this our society’ (p.2).
To write like this occasionally might be a joke, but George keeps it up throughout the novel! George claims that he left Oxford because he disliked the ‘enclosed and vicious pretentiousness’ of ‘academia’ (p.45). Many people find that academic life is not for them, and at first George had regarded it as ‘enchanting if intimidating’ (p.21), but he remained there for twelve years, as undergraduate, PhD student and lecturer, before he realised that he didn't like it.
At the same time as he leaves his job, he also leaves his wife, which seems to indicate that he had some mental breakdown, but this is not made clear. He does refer to paying for ‘a somewhat abbreviated form of psychoanalysis’ (p.43) involving some 300 sessions in two years (!), but there is no explanation of when this was, and he could only have afforded it prior to becoming unemployed.
George is extremely misogynistic. He says:
‘In their [women’s] minds my sole raison d’etre, so to speak, was to answer their every whim and uncertainty […] Put me in a room full of women and, to be sure, drawn by some magnetic process in the ether, madam would seek me out, the kind who wanted Jesus Christ and Mephistopheles rolled into one, who wanted the world’s knowledge placed at her disposal in one palatable ball that could be assimilated without effort or curiosity, who wanted advice and insight into what was to be her eventual role in life, and who saw every independent action on my part as a threat to her own security.
From this I can deduce that all women are exactly same, or behave in exactly the same way with me. Or else [… ] I colluded with that particular archetype’ (p. 44).
George cannot bear to see posters on the tube of women in swimsuits as they are too arousing (p.13). He also hates middle-aged or elderly women (p.23). He has dedicated himself to ‘celibacy’ (i.e. masturbation) since he left his wife. However, women are not archetypes any more than men are, and so George’s perspective offers us no useful insights. Indeed the uselessness of his perspective is summed up by the point that when he walked out, his wife began to earn her own living by editing a literary journal while George deliberately went on the dole.
Smith is seriously inconsistent as an author. For example, George says of David’s phone call that ‘I anticipated the request. In eleven years it had come some five times before’ (p.7). A mere two pages later the six calls have become ‘five summonses in fifteen years’ (p. 9). Similarly, in 1971 Maureen is thirty (p.58), but ‘When she was born […] war had just broken out’ (p.59). Again, George does not explain why he and David became friends at the ages of five and four. ‘That one year seemed to make an enormous difference to us. It separated us at school…’ (pp. 15-16), but what drove them together is never made clear, especially as: ‘We began our relationship […] confronting each other in check shirts and grey flannel knickers: he dug his grubby nails into my face and drew blood’ (pp. 8-9).
A particularly serious inconsistency occurs after George, as narrator, points out that, ‘I do not know the inner psychological motives, the inner feelings of my characters. I know only what they reveal outwardly’ (p.138). Four pages later he says how ‘Ted’s militancy only hid a deep anxiety’, and how, ‘He began to suffer from feelings of his own isolation’ (p.142). George then goes on to recount (until p.148) a meeting between Ted and David complete with their inner thoughts and emotional responses, about which he could not possibly have any knowledge.
When readers cannot trust the narrator, they cannot trust the story. It may be that the author wants us to distrust his narrator, but there are no clear indications of this, nor any point to it. Instead, the indications are that the author lacks experience as a novelist, and neither his friends nor his editor have helped him to correct his mistakes. The connection of a property dealer with bribery, corruption and ruthlessness is a cliché and any novel based on this subject has strong competition. The characterisation of the narrator, George, is so weak that he is barely a caricature, and his misogyny and insistence on living on the dole are insulting, particularly at the present time when, unlike the early 70s, many workers are forced to be unemployed. In the end, as a novel (let alone as a political novel) Tycoonery does not make the grade.