There’s one problem with book reviewing these days. No, it’s nothing to do with an industry that’s cosier than Joseph Fritzl’s cellar or columns that are dropping inches faster than Vanessa Feltz’s waist (post gastric band).
It’s the books themselves.
Novels that have the potential to be hugely irritating usually come equipped with two safety guards that make them impervious to attack. Debuts are particularly good examples. Any young modern novelist worth his salt sprinkles his work with a good pinch of irony. And then whacks on a glossy layer of self-reflexivity. These techniques ensure that one’s too busy thinking about the production of the text (by the narrator, author, editor and reader) to pay any attention to the text itself. And even if you did manage to think about what the text meant, you wouldn’t be sure whether it was ironic.
Leo Benedictus’s The Afterparty should be a triumphant example of these literary feints. It’s a debut which features a novelist as the protagonist, a literary agent tweaking with his text, different typefaces, emails interspersed throughout
the text and a cameo by the author himself. Successive chapters of a novel (meant to read like a British version of the West Coast’s go-to nihilist) detailing the scandal-ridden party of a famous actor are emailed from a mysterious first time author to a rapacious literary agent. But as his manuscript increasingly resembles a real life scandal and the unknown author’s demands become ever dodgier, it’s hard not to guess what happens after the party.
It’s all so self-reflexive, the novel bends over to look up its own arse. Guess what, the joke backfires.
The Afterparty’s focus on the process of writing a novel means that you can’t help but realise that the novel itself is about as missable as the third round of The X Factor. It’s meant as a witty send-up of the perils of fame. Neither biting satire nor gripping character study, it simply ends up as the equivalent of staring at the Daily Mail website (which at least has the bonus of photos). And both leave you with the nasty hangover that follows a celebrity gossip binge. Parody seems pointless in a publishing world obsessed with celebrity where a murder suspect’s memoirs is
the latest sensation, where Chris Huhne’s ex-wife’s tell-all is a good idea and where the release of Abu Hamza: Confessions of Serial Terrorist is imminent*.
Compared with takes from Bret Easton Ellis and Jennifer Egan on celebrity and the modern age, Benedictus’s postmodern gloss is dated and distracting rather than what it’s aching to be: a clever illustration of how newspaper stories and celebrity tales are as fictitious a construct as the novel itself.
But inserting lines of dialogue from the Sopranos (see above), namedropping celebrities (see above) or trying to capture the cultural zeitgeist at every opportunity (see above) isn’t audacious or hip. It’s an approximation of what’s audacious and hip by a journalist approaching middle-age who spends too much time on Twitter. Or is he just being ironic?
The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus is
available in paperback.
Fleur Macdonald is editor of the Omnivore