Dazzling in the desert: Dubai skyline. Photo: Getty
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Lost in Dubai: Joseph O’Neill’s Booker Prize-longlisted new novel

Although the book has no plot to speak of, it keeps extending false hope, writes Leo Robson.

The Dog 
Joseph O’Neill
Fourth Estate, 256pp, £16.99

 

Irish writer Joseph O’Neill came out of nowhere six years ago with Netherland, which won him many admirers. A rapturous and crisply written portrait of the New York cricket community in the months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, it marked a tremendous advance on its two predecessors, the underpowered comedies This Is the Life and The Breezes. One might have expected O’Neill’s new novel, The Dog, to reverse his forward leap in reputation – if it hadn’t already earned a spot on the Man Booker longlist.

The narrator, whose apparently embarrassing name we never learn, is a lawyer desperate to leave New York after a break-up. In a stroke of luck, he bumps into a university friend who invites him to work as an adviser to his family’s company, which operates for the most part out of Dubai.

On arriving, the narrator, a passionate spinner of “theories”, discovers “an abracadabrapolis” devoted to consumption and also “a vast booby trap of medieval judicial perils”. His eagle eyes are in a nearly permanent state of popping, though in terms of personal conduct, he takes an attitude of “when in Dubai”. Before long, he is living a life of scuba-diving, sex with prostitutes and pedicures, experiences he evokes using numbered lists and an endless supply of parentheses. (One sentence ends: “))))”.)

If the narrator is trying to have his cake and eat it – with a double side order of whipped cream – it is a habit he shares with the author. The opulence of the narrator’s language is intended as an expression of decadence, while his pedantry is intended to reflect his remoteness, as well as his narrowly legalistic approach to matters of morality. But O’Neill wants us to be ravished all the same by the narrator’s constant riffing. Here he is on acting: “It cannot be forgotten that the phase of public pretending is preceded by an initial private phase of pretence in which the person assumes the part of actor.” On the phrase “on the record”: “This mythic tabula on which our deeds are inscribed and preserved . . . Egocentricity! Superstition! Anthropocentricity!” On the Facebook wall: “. . . which served not the enclosing and defensive function suggested by the noun but the contrary function of disclosure and welcome”.

Seasoned spotters of the unreliable, or unstable, narrator may find themselves deafened by alarm bells. “I don’t think this is paranoia,” we read; “It’s all somewhat foggy at this point”; “I sprang out of bed with a madman’s idea of a breakthrough.” Early in the book the narrator says, “Ar­guably it is a little mad to covertly inhabit a bodiless universe of candour and reception” – a reference to his habit, borrowed from Saul Bellow’s “cracked” intellectual Moses Herzog, of writing irritated memos that he never sends (“mental-mailing”). A reverie in which he imagines driving “into the green deep of the continent, an adventure of gas-station snacks and motel sex and maxed-out credit cards”, is far from the only moment at which he sounds like Humbert Humbert, perhaps the most delusional monologuist in all of literature. However, the numerous hints that the narrator is a fantasist or narcissist are coupled with a refusal to confirm them. If we are supposed to question the character’s testimony, we are given very little guidance as to how.

It is well known that Bellow plus Nab­okov equals Martin Amis – and The Dog is heaving with Amisisms. Foreign words. Quoted etymologies. Paired adjectives: “a dull and unseeing eye”, “inappropriate and frivolous demands on my time”, “important and fashionable pedicures”. The words “Brobdingnagian” and “threshold”. Catalogues of synonyms: “Adults are natural policers, prosecutors, fact-finders, judgers”, and so on. Catalogues of options: “Asian babes, Milfs, BBWs, celebrities, extremists . . .” Knowing pomposity: “It is a joy merely to motor on this wonderfully engineered road.” Jokey racism: “the live-in Filipina nanny (Winda? Wanda? Wilda?)”. Collo­quialism-meets-repurposed-technical-term-meets-poeticism: “The moon gave the slip to a constabulary of moon-brightened clouds.” Imagined types: “We all know of those gallant volunteers who rush towards a burning train wreck only to suffer lifelong trauma.” The pursuit of the mot juste is never-ending and often successful but the phenomena described are rarely complex enough to justify the effort.

Although the book has no plot to speak of, it keeps extending false hope. The disappearance of a man named Ted Wilson is mentioned repeatedly and Mrs Wilson arrives from the United States with the notion, denied by the narrator, that he and Ted were diving partners. Was the narrator somehow involved? And what about the references to a floundering property scheme called the Astrominium – perhaps this is a cautionary tale about pride and hubris, debt and leverage? Such questions prove to be rhetorical, wishful.

O’Neill is an incorrigible borrower in his own right – as well as Amis, Nabokov and Bellow, there’s plenty here that can be traced to Joseph Heller, Bret Easton Ellis and especially John Updike. O’Neill has learned plenty from Updike – particularly the first-person novels – about evocation and tonal shift but he has also picked up the unfortunate habit of putting dazzle before craft. The reliance on verbal/mental drift is indicated early on when a new section begins, “Speaking of which”, before setting off down another winding road.

Another section lulls you into a false sense of chronology – “What happened next . . .” – before turning around – “. . . is inexplicably preceded, in my mind, by what happened one evening years ago.” That “inexplicably” is especially unendearing. We don’t know why we’re reading what we’re reading and nor does the narrator.

When writers such as Amis or Updike depend entirely on voice, at least it is (mostly) their own voice. And O’Neill is not only using their tools – he is applying them to the same task. Dubai represents to the book’s nameless narrator almost exactly what America represented to Humbert Humbert and Augie March in the 1950s and Rabbit Angstrom in the 1970s and John Self in the 1980s – a land equally in thrall to God and to Mammon, where rules seem made to be exaltedly broken. The result is a novel with zero equity in its own prose style and no way of repaying its debts. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.