IN 1996 REBEL INC published Children Of Albion Rovers, six tales of “underdogs, losers and psycho-active users” by Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Laura Hird, Gordon Legge, Paul Reekie and one James Meek. It became a cult classic, required reading for student and schemie alike: the sort of book that defines the moment, rejecting alternative takes on the world as moribund and reactionary. Few would have guessed that, in less than a decade, one of the gang would be raking in the royalties with an historical fiction written in the style of a nineteenth-century Russian novel.
But then, from his first short story collection, Last Orders (1992) onwards, James Meek showed an unusual talent for literary mimicry. In an interview included in the paperback edition of The People’s Act of Love (2005), he listed his early models as Brecht, Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco, Hamsun, Bukowski, Carver and Kelman. It showed. Last Orders featured domestic violence, homelessness, disability and mental illness, in between fables about feudalism and labour relations and satires on business fat cats and militaristic toys. The surprise was that such stony soil should yield so much pleasurable prose: a good idea, an arresting image, a pitch-perfect line of dialogue or a laugh on every page. The comic grotesques and bizarre-but-logical twists of plot read like out-takes from The League of Gentlemen or Little Britain, though predating both by some years. Most of the stories were narrative fragments beginning and ending at more or less arbitrary points, but one stood out as more traditionally-realised: the Kafkaesque ‘Recruitment In Troubled Times’, in which a government personnel officer goes to interview a prospective torturer and discovers that he is lined-up for his interviewee’s first job. Its compelling, noirish setting and symbiosis of character and idea offered an early glimpse of the ambition and control that were to distinguish The People’s Act of Love.
But first, Meek had a detour to take. Drive-time (1995) was a navel-gazing road novel: a journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow, via Eng-land, Europe and the Caucasus. Alan Allen is a failed student, an aimless, ambivalent type. En route to a party he is importuned by a woman who mistakes him for a local politician, Councillor Ferguson. As he tries to get away, she loses her balance and ends up on the pavement. At the party he meets a psychiatric nurse, Dierdre. A man offers him £100 to collect an antique egg painted like the moon. Dierdre comes too. Along the way they pick up her violent boyfriend Mike and Sim, a gay man suffering from an unidentified fatal disease (possibly mortality). The incident with the woman who fell on the pavement follows them across Europe: every stop they make, it’s reported in the local paper, and each time the details are more serious.
A young man seeking a direction in life, girl trouble, masculine friendship, run-ins with the law, pages of beautifully-written travelogue which do little to advance the action…. Drivetime has the self-indulgent feel of a first novel though it was in fact Meek’s second. (His first, McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989), written, according to its author, under the twin influences of Kelman and Proust, is now unobtainable.) Towards the end, the happy-go-lucky surrealism takes a darker turn. Alan arrives in war-torn Chechnya, where Councillor Ferguson is a militia leader dispensing summary justice from the back of a lorry. Suddenly Alan’s tendency to go with the flow assumes a new, sinister significance. The narrative hovers on the brink of becoming a political parable about the potential for murderous anarchy just below the surface of everyday life, then veers away from this reading to tease us with the possibility that Alan is suffering from a multiple personality disorder, and the whole trip has taken place inside his head.
Something extraordinary happened to Meek’s writing in the interval between Drivetime and The Museum Of Doubt (2000). His stylistic repertoire developed an American brio; he acquired the technique, and the will, to turn good ideas into fully-explored fictional worlds. The devil turns up in the Highlands as a fast-talking door-to-door salesman. A man married to the last speaker of a dying Celtic language is threatened when she talks to their unborn child in the tongue he refuses to learn. A Wall Street lawyer is hired by the Gods to bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of the dead. The collection ends with a novella, ‘The Club Of Men’, which moves frictionlessly from Ayckbourn-esque suburban comedy, through a poignant depiction of early-stage Alzheimer’s, to pitch-black farce in a burning nightclub. The writing shows the influence of more expansive literary models Dostoyevsky, Bellow, Pynchon, Nabokov and others but that can’t fully explain the exponential leap in his craft. Meek works as a newspaper reporter and lived in Russia and Ukraine for most of the 1990s, since when he has filed from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. His day job must take some of the credit for opening up not just his horizons, but his fictional concerns.
The People’s Act Of Love was his first completely realist book though what need of surrealism when history supplies a Siberia populated by Bolsheviks, shamen, cannibals, religious castrates, and a rump of the Austro-Hungarian imperial army? Written with Meek’s uncanny ear for Russian idiom, this epic, inventive, suspenseful novel boasted an extensive cast of unforgettable characters. Is Samarin the victim he claims to be: imprisoned in a prototypical gulag, included in an escape organised by the psychopathic “Mohican” only to learn that he has been brought along as emergency rations? Or is Samarin himself the Mohican, the visionary revolutionary who foresees and will perhaps have a hand in creating Stalin’s camps? Is the unconventional Anna really a widow? Who was Balashov before he became a milk-and-water saint? The intricate plot pits the ruthless loves of the political and religious fanatic against their antithesis, romantic passion. The book’s one flaw is a by-product of its ambition: a striving for the Big Idea which occasionally becomes over-abstruse, clotting the pleasurable flow of the narrative. In the interview appended to the paperback, Meek made it clear that, notwithstanding the 1920s setting, he regards the work as a contemporary novel, “relevant to what has become a three-way conflict between Islamic fundamentalists, Christian-Jewish fundamentalists and secularised Liberals”.
If it fared less well than it deserved with Booker and Saltire judges perhaps because it could not quite escape the suspicion of pastiche it collected a couple of prizes and a blizzard of ecstatic reviews, was translated into 20 languages, and bore all the hallmarks of a lifetime’s achievement novel: that spectre at the feast of every subsequent book a writer publishes. Which brings us to We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. At first glance it seems a backwards step: a novel about the personal and professional troubles of a Scottish war correspondent. After the imaginative daring of The People’s Act Of Love, has Meek retreated into the comfort zone of autobiographical fiction? And if so, has he abandoned the virtuoso ventriloquism to establish his own unique voice?
Well, yes and no. The escalating series of disasters befalling the dislikeable protagonist, the rival writers and the satiric portrayal of London media types call to mind Martin Amis’s Money and The Information. At the same time it’s a love story, something Amis has never managed to pull off, and another road novel, moving from Afghanistan to Lon-don to America, where there’s a po-mo sage straight out of Don DeLillo. Arguably its closest literary relation is not a novel at all, but the left-lacerating polemic published by apostate liberals since 9/11: books like Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? and Andrew Anthony’s The Fall-Out. We Are Now Beginning Our Descent echoes their disgust, if not all their conclusions.
Like Drivetime’s Alan Allen, Adam Kellas lacks a crucial inner compass, borrowing others’ opinions as the basis of life-changing decisions. He’s the sort of foreign correspondent who flits from posting to posting and from woman to woman convinced the action is always somewhere else. His latest ex, a memorably vile right-wing columnist, describes him as a “chippy, sanctimonious, bourgeois compy boy”. If Kellas is an autobiographical cipher, no one could accuse Meek of special pleading.
Sent to Afghanistan in 2001, he discovers that the Afghans make him feel less real than they are. Until he meets Astrid, a pistol-packing American reporter with a head full of covetable certainties. Pretending to be married, they spend the night in a watchtower on the Alliance front line, courtesy of a company of Mujahedin. The sex is good, the morning after catastrophic. Kellas inadvertently humiliates the Mujahedin commander by asking why he doesn’t attack the enemy?
Astrid flirts with a soldier who wants to impress her by firing a tank missile. Kellas disapproves but obtains the commander’s permission. A truck ferrying supplies to the Taliban is blown up. Kellas, binoculars in one hand, satellite phone in the other, chats with his mother in suburban Scotland (“How’s the garden?”) while watching the truck’s driver and passenger burn to death.
The incident is recalled in flashback as Kellas makes his way to America the following year, fleeing another event full of blood and shame: a dinner party at the Camden home of Cunnery, a lefty magazine editor, attended by Kellas; his columnist ex; M’Guigan, his friend and fellow-writer; M’Guigan’s wife; Lucy, a comely financial analyst; and a fashion photographer. By the end of this spell-bindingly awful evening, Kellas has swapped taunts with his ex, made unwanted advances to Lucy, accused the snapper of fascism, reduced his host’s young daughter to tears, shopped M’Guigan’s inter-prandial shag with Lucy to M’Guigan’s wife, smashed up Cunnery’s kitchen to demonstrate what war is like, and lobbed a bust of Lenin through the front window. Following this orgy of self-sabotage he checks his email to discover that Astrid urgently wants to see him. On the promise of a big advance for his pulp thriller (an “act of deliberate misimagining” about a war between America and Europe), he buys a first class ticket to the US. Which is where his troubles really begin.
Meek has yet to write an unenjoyable book. His prose is never less than vivid (Cunnery’s face is likened to the mask of Greek comedy: “the pallor and the demonic smile and, inside the mask, the glint of real eyes”), the story holds several unexpected turns, and there are some tremendous set-piece scenes. If he remains a stylistic magpie, ultimately a writer’s voice is more than a matter of style. Meek’s is distinguished by humour, high seriousness, heterogeneity and the ability to get inside his characters while holding them at arm’s length. The scene in which Kellas is reconciled with the M’Guigans is written with a truthfulness and humanity that redeem him without letting him off the hook. Not knowing the author, I can’t say whether Adam Kellas is a thinly-disguised James Meek, but Kellas’s sense of having lost his footing on the moral high ground while continuing to sit in judgment on others will be uncomfortably familiar to many readers struggling to get to grips with the post-Iraq world. In We Are Now Beginning Our Descent Meek has used his preternaturally acute ear to tune in to the static of our times. The book paints a smaller canvas than its predecessor, but there’s nothing small about its concerns. Behind the question of whether Kellas will achieve a meaningful relationship with Astrid, or indeed with himself, lies the larger question of how any of us can live with ourselves as citizens of a warring nation who will never have to justify what is being done in our names to those who live out the consequences. The ambiguous final page leaving Kellas and Astrid crossing an Iraqi free-fire zone in 2003 offers the reader the choice of a happy ending, but only a fool would take it.
WE ARE NOW BEGINNING OUR DESCENT
pp302, ISBN 184195988X