Story of a charmless man

David Mamet's tale of middle-class crisis is self-consciously provocative

<strong>Edmond (18)</st

When David Mamet's one-act play Edmond premiered in 1982, it must have felt short, sharp and shocking, but only the first of these adjectives applies to the film version. This adaptation, scripted by Mamet, is no failure; it bristles with seediness, and feels like the flip side to the sappy American Beauty, another tale of white middle-class crisis. But its self-consciously provocative observations on race and gender belong to an earlier era, lending it the quaintness of a period piece. And quaintness is the last thing you want in a film about a racist, misogynistic murderer.

The charmer in question is Edmond (William H Macy), a white-collar working stiff in a generically noirish city. Mamet is never big on back story, but one look at Macy, with his crumpled saddlebag of a face, tells us everything about Edmond's disappointing life. He plods out of the office one night and into the clutches of a tarot reader, who tells him: "You are not where you belong." This prompts him to leave his wife and embark on a bumbling quest for gratification.

At a bar, he meets a smooth-talking stranger (Joe Mantegna) who pontificates about how African Americans have it easy. Edmond nods along, then accepts the man's advice to visit a nearby gentlemen's establishment, where his woes really begin.

In Mamet's world, which, after thirty-odd years of his writing, feels more cosy than treacherous, there is no division between business and pleasure, as we are reminded by Edmond's comically doomed attempts to get his rocks off. The poor sap visits strip joints and massage parlours expecting to engage in balanced transactions. He tries to pay a prostitute with a credit card, expects a stripper to give him change from a twenty, and expresses shock at being ripped off by shifty card sharps. Eventually, Edmond snaps, lashing out at a would-be mugger and raining racist epithets down on his attacker along with the body blows. This heralds a kind of rebirth, as social etiquette is stripped away and he advances towards his realisation that "every fear hides a wish".

The picture's inappropriate air of warm familiarity may be explained by the fact that it represents a reunion for Mamet's gang. The cast features his loyal collaborators Macy, Mantegna and Rebecca Pidgeon (who is also Mamet's wife). And while Stuart Gordon seems an offbeat choice of director, his finest achievement being the horror gem Re-Animator, he too has a history with Mamet, having directed the 1974 premiere of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Gordon brings his horror background to bear in some gory violence, which gives the film an eerie quality, as do the parable-like story and the picaresque structure.

Despite the rhetorical bombast that gradually overwhelms Edmond and turns it into more of a theorem than a film, at least Gordon does what any director should do with the dialogue: he simply lays off the cutting and lets us listen to it. I like to imagine that the most innocuous conversations in the playwright's household are conducted in finest Mamet-ese, in which the speaker seems constantly to be reformulating his or her thoughts according to some mysterious agenda. I can just see Mamet at the breakfast table: "And I put this proposition to you now. Could you pass the, yes, the butter, the butter there, do you see? Do you - you do see, don't you?" I could listen to those rhythms all day. It's just disappointing that, in Edmond, it's a case of talking loud but saying nothing.

Pick of the week

Zodiac (15)
dir: David Fincher
I saw this again last week: thriller of the year, until further notice.

Flanders (18)
dir: Bruno Dumont
War, sex and brutality in a typically gruelling work from the director of 'Humanité.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (12A)
dir: Sydney Pollack
A revealing documentary about the architect. There's even input from his shrink.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis