What are we to make of a novel that describes itself as ‘old-fashioned’? Not ‘timeless’ or even ‘traditional’, but ‘old-fashioned’? It’s a curious adjective; some might think it pejorative in certain cases. It is particularly strange when we see the term applied to The Heart Broke In by James Meek, a writer who has until now given the impression he was interested in writing that is edgy, uncomfortable. On the back of the book, we find it blurbed as ‘an old-fashioned story of modern times’, which it is. Does Meek’s fifth novel signal he has reached a new maturity? Or a new conservatism?
The Heart Broke In consciously, perhaps self-consciously, strives to elucidate the anxieties and appetites of early twenty-first century Britain. At the novel’s core are two scientists, Bec and Alex. Her work on parasites has taken her close to discovering a malaria inoculation. Alex is further away from finding a cure for cancer, but he has had promising results which also suggest there may be a way to extend not only life but youth. As these two leaders in their field move slowly towards a relationship with each other, a constellation of characters shifts around them, most of whom, whether they are aware of it or not, are engaged in a quest for immortality – a form of it.
Alex’s uncle and mentor, Harry, is dying from cancer. He has a ‘desire to be literally immortal’, and hectors his nephew into trying out an untested – and futile, anyway – treatment on him, which has consequences for Alex’s career down the line. Harry is deluding himself as to the efficacy of the treatment, his hopes based more on faith than fact. The leeway he allows himself as a scientist he does not show to bearers of other beliefs, specifically his son Matthew, a committed Christian. Harry and Matthew have the sort of helpfully symbolic relationship that allows authors with a point to make to dramatize their argument. Matthew won’t let his children see their grandfather because of his evangelical atheism. Harry’s inflexibility poisons his relationship with ‘the alternative immortalities he might have claimed’ through son and grandchildren. Meek lets that line go there, but generally is more questioning of what immortality might practically consist of. Is it a survival of genes or of values? If you believe it comes simply through offspring, then Harry and Matthew’s non-relationship stands as a counter-argument.
Meek must be congratulated for finding a way to write about faith today that isn’t merely another spoof of believers. The Heart Broke In is a religious novel, albeit one that reads as if written by an atheist. There is a note of anxiety that sounds at moments through the novel: what if the believers are right? Typically, Meek isn’t so much interested in theology, whether God exists; he’s more concerned with whether they have an evolutionary advantage. Meek doesn’t bring it up, but one recalls the survival rates of Orthodox Jews imprisoned in the concentration camps of WW2 were higher than those of secular Jews. Unlike the bed-hopping, angst-ridden childless metro-politans featured in this surprisingly broody novel, the religious get on with having kids and passing on their values. And it isn’t as if religious impulses don’t still find a way to express themselves, even in Harry, a militant Dawkinist.
Meek explores other ways of projecting ourselves into a future we won’t be around to witness. Perhaps we should invest our hopes in continuity, in the promotion of moral standards we consider eternal, as suited for tomorrow as yesterday. Bec is briefly engaged to Val, a Paul Dacre-ish newspaper editor much given to prattling on about ‘ordinary, decent, hard-working people’ while enjoying a ludicrously privileged existence, his talk of ‘tradition, common law and the ten commandments’ somewhat undermined by his sleeping with Bec before marriage. Rejected by Bec, he loses it, resigning his post to set up the shadowy Moral Foundation, a sort of celebrity secret police that uses McCar-thy-esque tactics, encouraging targets to inform on other C-listers’ foibles or else face exposure on Val’s website, a turn of events somewhat more convincing post-Levenson.
Bec’s brother Ritchie is blackmailed by Val. Ritchie is the epitome of (sorry to phrase it this way) the meeja wanker. He is the producer of a popular reality TV programme, Teen Makeover, a cynical take on The X Factor geared for adolescents. Fat and in his forties, but also wealthy and powerful within his industry, Ritchie at the time of the novel’s opening is sleeping with an underage girl he met through his show. Many men sleep with teenagers to recapture their youth; in Ritchie’s case, he is trying to recapture his wife’s youth. Before she retired to an afterlife as a yummy mummy, her personality was summed up in another rhyme: wild child. Ritchie and Karin, the wife, were in a passingly popular Britpop band, the Lazygods, sharing bills with Bowie and Bono. In his own way, Ritchie is staking his immortality on art or at least fame. Desperate to break out of his ‘lack of talent show’, he wants to make a documentary about the man who killed his and Bec’s soldier father, an IRA interrogator who tortured him to death for not revealing an informer’s identity. The murderer, having served his time in prison, has found a measure of redemption as a modestly successful poet. Ritchie deploys the language of reality shows to persuade his sister to sign off on his documentary (the subject of it won’t agree to filming unless Bec forgives him). Ritchie claims it’ll bring her ‘closure’. ‘That’s not atonement,’ Bec replies. ‘It’s entertainment.’
Practically all of the characters – and it is a substantial cast – are searching for a way to extend youth and life, be it through sex, children, religion, medicine, art, building monumental towers, making money, or, in Alex’s case, through being the scientist who discovers a cure for cancer. Characters multiply like the single-cell organisms Bec examines through her microscope. The cover of The Heart Broke In is an illustration of such mono-cellular spheres, although initially to my untrained eye, they resembled soap bubbles; and there is something soap opera-ish to Meek’s manoeuvrings of his characters. As a historical novelist turning his attention to the present, he has had to surrender many of the tools that fiction set in the past can employ to generate emotion, irony, danger, and tragedy. Indebted to Tolstoy (notice Ritchie’s wife’s name?), Meek tries his best to find a way to create drama in a world where adultery doesn’t end in suicide but a marriage counsellor’s office. Along the way we have to endure some lengthy and slightly ponderous conversations where the characters lay out the consequences of the sexual revolution.
It’s quite a contrast with how Meek began his career as a writer. Then he was interested in complicating traditional narratives, not developing them. Take Drivetime, his second novel, which is structured around an increasingly surreal road trip that progresses deeper into a conflict-wracked Europe. With a hero called Alan Allen who is mistaken for someone named Gregor, you could see Meek’s influences were drawn from the satirical, low-lit, high-end of twentieth century Eastern European literature – Kafka, Nabokov, Bulgakov – as well as honouring the experimental strain of modern Scottish writing, Gray and Kelman in particular.
Propitiously, Meek’s writing career began to take off at the same time as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting focussed media and reader attention on edgy new Scottish fiction, and Meek found himself bracketed with the likes of Welsh, Alan Warner, and Laura Hird, going so far as to contribute a story to the Children of Albion Rovers anthology that acted as a class portrait for that generation of Scottish novelists. Meek was in fact a foreign correspondent largely based in the Ukraine and Russia during this period, his geographical isolation underlining his thematic apartness. While his first novel, McFarlane Boils the Sea, has scenes set in a nightclub (which was to become de rigueur through the first half of the 1990s but was less so in 1989 when his debut was published), its protagonist is trying to leave that world behind. Interesting then to consider that Welsh and Warner also both have novels out this year, Skagheads and The Deadman’s Pedal, which revisit, respectively, Leith and ‘the Port’, their old fictional stomping grounds. The Heart Broke In has Scottish characters and settings too, but they’re low in the mix.
Meek confirmed and transcended his influences with his 2005 novel, The People’s Act of Love, which remains his best work. Historical fiction can be backwards-looking in form and values as well as in setting. Meek looked beyond Tudor England and the Western Front, finding in post-revolution Siberia a time and a place perfectly suited to the spirit of his writing. It had cannibals, castration cults, and a powerfully attractive villain, a diabolical provocateur that was a relation of both Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin and Hogg’s Gil-Martin.
Given the success of The People’s Act of Love, one would not have been surprised if he returned to the historical novel for its follow-up. Meek was attracted instead to a contemporary setting for We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, a post-9/11 romance that contrasted scenes of war-bashed Afghanistan with dinner parties in north London, the hypocrisy of an age funnelled through its journalist hero’s disastrous passion for a fellow reporter.
It is curious that Meek’s fiction is more radical when set a century ago than when based in the present. A latter-day setting blunts his imagination’s radical sympathies. The journalist in him appears, and feels compelled to make points, establish patterns, milk situations for significance. And The Heart Broke In is a journalist’s novel. There is a procession of weighty contemporaneous themes (third world poverty, celebrity, the role of religion), emblematic characters, and scrupulous research, especially evident in the lab-bound scenes (‘the basolateral domain of the hepatocyte plasma membrane’ and so on).
While several forms of faith and morality are challenged in the book, there is one shibboleth that goes unexamined, and that is whether the novel, or at least the classic realist text, is up to the task Meek sets it. Rather than preparing readers to endure life, might not novels, ‘old-fashioned’ ones, mislead? Traditional narratives are essentially comfort blankets, reducing our chaotic world to an understandable size, where character is consistent and comprehensible, and events have a beginning, middle, and an end which even if they’re not clear to the characters, are apparent to us. This is the faith at the heart of the novel which needs questioning; not whether religion still has something to offer or science is as prone to faith-based leaps into the dark as the belief systems it claims to trump, but whether the world is still comprehensible in the way ‘old-fashioned’ novels portray it. The James Meek of Drivetime would, I wager, have said no.
THE HEART BROKE IN
CANONGATE, PP551, £17.99. ISBN: 9780857862907.