Sunday, 23 February 2014
On James Buchan
There was a time, long ago, when I didn’t know that my cousins were adopted, and then there was a time when I did know. I’m pretty sure that no one told me; we didn’t talk, much. I think this is how knowledge often arrives: seepage. For many, this used to be the way even the most basic knowledge of sex was acquired. It’s a process, not a simple transfer of information; it may be how we learn language.
Something of the kind happens in one of the linked stories in James Buchan’s Slide, to both the reader and the narrator. ‘I don’t know what happened that night at the Hinkleys, except what everyone else knows’: a man is found dead on the morning after a party in Kuwait; the first autopsy concludes alcohol poisoning; later autopsies find bruises ‘congruent with’ a blow or a fall; there are accusations of a cover-up; the couple holding the party, after being found guilty of of ‘possessing alcohol and staging a gathering at which the sexes danced promiscuously together’, are expelled from Kuwait. There’s a casual paragraph in which ‘I didn’t know what I was waiting up for, until I saw Bill’s head teeter to one side, mouth open, his left arm dangle, his cigarette fizz on the wet concrete. Caroline’s chair squeaked, then I knew.’ Then: ‘I know something else, but it happened much later, and I’m not sure it amounts to anything.’ Eight years on, the narrator meets the couple at Cheltenham Races; drinks with them, goes on to a party, dances drunkenly with the woman and falls: ‘I hit the chess table, and felt it sway and teeter over. The bronze horse danced. Picture lights. Mouths gape. Blue stripes. A burst of sparks. Black shoes. Kurt Axel.’
After Slide, which is the book I’ve most enjoyed this year, I’ve been on a James Buchan ride. A very simple example of seepage in Buchan’s first novel, A Parish of Rich Women: a drunk character leaves a party on a motorbike to go to a heroin dealer; at some stage during the three following pages of comings-and-goings and off-cuts of strained dialogue, I realise that the character is dead. A Parish of Rich Women juxtaposes English high-life partying with the Lebanese civil war (up to, I think, the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982). These are worlds Buchan knows about: Eton, Oxford – where he read Arabic and Persian – then reporting from the Middle East. He also knows about money: his non-fiction includes a book on Adam Smith and Frozen Desire: A Inquiry into the Meaning of Money, which I raided when I wrote my own tiny Recessional in 2009. The financial knowledge pervades High Latitudes, which is set at the time of the stock market crash of 1987 and Lloyds teetering, that word again, and has passages that play with relish with the language of leveraged buy-outs, derivatives, laid-off insurance risks. Also in the mix: class and drugs, a hard-left union man, the 18th century, the Jockey Club, Margaret Thatcher, an oil spill off Alaska, the Antarctic, all in back-and-forth episodes spun around a self-made businesswoman (‘You’ll only feel worse afterwards,’ she warns the men who want to share her body as well as her business) by a remote narrator (‘I don’t know what happened next, because I can’t be everywhere’) who may or may not be the author and who claims to have written the whole thing in three weeks and I more than believe him, I’d follow him anywhere.
Buchan also knows first-hand about Iran, setting of his novel A Good Place to Die and subject of (his most recent book) the non-fiction Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences. So much knowledge. It isn’t ‘research’; this has been his life. In the fiction – though in High Latitudes there are explicatory, spelling-out passages: as if for the fun of it, this too I can do – it’s mostly just there in the background, as context, filtering through in asides, little jolts in the narrative momentum, brief scene-setting descriptions. He doesn't write 'literary fiction'; he takes, usually, an off-the-peg form – High Latitudes is subtitled ‘a romance’; or thriller, or ghost story – and jumps in, vastly over-qualified for the job in hand. He has nothing to lose but some reader expectations. Slide distils a vast range of experience into a series of self-contained stories (set in Oxford/London, Iran, Kuwait, Warsaw, Kiev, New York, New Mexico, Barbados, rural England) that deliver elliptically and in the end round up to something complete, a novel maybe, though that’s hardly the point. The point is in the writing. (Slide is out of print, of course. From AbeBooks, 60p + postage.)
Next up, Heart’s Journey in Winter: Germany 1983, East-West politics, deceit, blackmail, betrayal, so territory galore for slow-seepage story-telling, for bafflement and a suspicion of knowledge, too late. I first read Heart’s Journey soon after it came out and was underwhelmed; I now believe that was entirely my own failing, and that Michael Hofmann’s declarative opening sentence in his review of that novel – ‘I don’t believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan’ – may be very close to the mark.
PS: a week later, Sunday evening, 2 March: nearing the end of Heart's Journey. Hofmann is right.