The House of Journalists by Tim Finch: Exiles on Grub Street

The political satire in this debut novel is deft enough but it is its darker material that lingers in the imagination.

The House of Journalists
Tim Finch
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £16.99

If you want to create an atmosphere of paranoia, there’s nothing like using a firstperson- plural narrator, a mysterious “we” whose identity is never quite revealed. Haruki Murakami does this in After Dark with a conjoined chorus of narrators who seem to be surveillance cameras. The technique is also used in Joshua Ferris’s magnificent Then We Came to the End, in which the uncertainty of who exactly is speaking contributes to a febrile mood of fear and speculation in the story of an advertising agency struggling to survive a recession.

 In his ambitious debut novel, a black-hued satire about asylum-seekers, Tim Finch goes a step further. Not only is his narrator an unidentified “we”; the subject of their address is “you”. Though it quickly becomes clear whom this “you” refers to, the interrogative tone heightens the reader’s sense of suspicion and mistrust.

The House of Journalists is a refuge for persecuted writers established in a venerable old building in London. Its inhabitants are a shifting cast of exceptional asylum-seekers whose writing has brought them up against a variety of oppressive regimes.

Take Mr Stan, a newspaper editor from an island that was formerly under colonial rule. Mr Stan was an outspoken voice in favour of independence, but when he criticised the dictatorship that followed on the heels of British government he was arrested and subjected to a baroquely horrible punishment. His hands, the only perfect part of his disabled body, were smashed with hammers, leaving him with “repellent flesh clubs, studded with half-fossilised fingers and thumbs, nails and knuckles”.

Mr Stan is the longest-serving fellow of the House of Journalists and a rare permanent inhabitant. Most of its guests are passing through, finding their feet before moving on to a life of more or less successful exile. But is the House as benevolent as it seems? And who is the mysterious AA, the new fellow, whom the narrators keep addressing with that threatening, accusing “you”?

Both questions hinge on the House’s founder, Julian Snowman. Finch has fun with Snowman, a marvel of pomposity and paranoia who runs the refuge with absolute rigidity, despite his superficial charm. His main imperative is to safeguard the House’s long-term future by convincing benefactors and politicians of its importance. If this requires coercing vulnerable residents into spilling stories of torture and trauma, so be it.

A particular thorn in Snowman’s side is the Nobel Prizewinner Ted Crumb, modelled affectionately on Harold Pinter. Crumb made his reputation by way of plays composed of elegant silences. Since the Iraq war, he has suddenly become garrulous and foulmouthed, engorged with fury at his nation’s hypocrisy and violence.

Hypocrisy and violence are also Finch’s targets. He describes acutely the kinds of characters drawn to the House: the wellmeaning, the patronising and the actively exploitative, among whom Vanessa Boothby is a particularly repellent example.

Boothby is a writing mentor attempting to sell a radio play based on the experiences of her charge. “True,” she thinks to herself, “it is Edson’s story, pretty much in every detail, and using a lot of his words and turns of phrase, but it is a mistake, a profound mistake, to underestimate the skill it takes to fashion this raw material, to give it some shape and bend it into a narrative arc.”

This concern with stories and how they are shaped underpins Finch’s more playful forays. All of the refugees are under pressure to create a coherent narrative of suffering. They have been stripped of passports and even names, so a good story is their most valuable possession. (The brief section in which an immigration tribunal pleasantly explains its decision-making process is particularly sinister.) Yet stories can be tweaked and pruned and those capable of carrying out this work are by no means always innocent.

Adom is a case in point. A former headmaster, his account of a massacre at his school doesn’t quite conceal his culpability. On the other hand, the gentle Mustapha seems incapable of concocting the kind of narrative the tribunal needs, though he has been broken by his time in prison, waiting for torture that was agonisingly and perpetually delayed.

The political satire is deft enough but it is this darker material that lingers in the imagination. Finch’s greatest achievement has to do with scale. During one testimony, a poet called Sonny describes her painful, dangerous journey to Gibraltar, where she confronted the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Each had been subjected to oppression; each was in possession of a heartbreaking story. You might feel compassion for one refugee – but what’s to be done with so many, “an unmoving mass, waiting in line for a miracle that would never happen”?

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink” (Canongate, £20)

A journalist at work. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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