Left of the Bang
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £14.99
The blurb on the debut novel by the young critic and editor Claire Lowdon promises “a Vanity Fair for our times”, capturing “the foibles, hopes and difficulties that characterise a strata of young Londoners today”. If you’d like to know which “strata” we are dealing with, let me paint a picture. They have names like Tamsin, Serena, Bertrand and Ludo. They eat “supper” in gastropubs in Holland Park or Herne Hill. Sometimes they go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Among their set, the following can kick off a steamy first date:
Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.
An ideal target for satire. But as the caricatures continued to mount – one character plays “the incredibly rare oboe d’amore” while another wears “brown deck shoes, and Aertex polo shirts in navy blue and racing green” – I became less convinced that the necessary skewering would come.
Take the arrival of “Big Mac” Ollie Macfarlane at “an old south London pub that had recently been subjected to a trendy makeover”. “Big Mac was a consultant at Deloitte,” the narrator explains. “He had a fine bass voice; at Cambridge, he had been a King’s Scholar. His intention had been to work at Deloitte for a few years to build up his savings, then make a go of it as a singer – a plan he talked about with decreasing conviction as each year went by.”
This is pretty much all we learn about Big Mac. He is nothing more than a type. Left of the Bang (a military term for “the build-up to an explosion”) is saturated with these kinds of detail. It is not a revelation of souls but of CVs.
Much of this gossipy material is excavated from the snobby, bitter mind of Tamsin Jarvis, a floundering 26-year-old pianist who has refused to speak to her well-known conductor father, Bertrand, after discovering that he was having an affair when she was 12 years old (her comeuppance at the end of the novel, after perpetrating a betrayal of her own, is that Daddy buys her a flat).
Tamsin is in love with Callum, an arriviste – he is, spit, from Glasgow. She fancies Callum because, as we all know, princesses like a bit of rough. That is, unless the rough isn’t actually as rough as expected (Callum teaches classics at a private school and loves it). He represents a “vague yet unequivocally positive concept” that Tamsin calls “the Real World”. He chides her slummy affectations – socialism, Stravinsky, cigarettes – while she resents him for his regional accent, a “social advantage” that “won him un-worked-for respect”.
Complicating things further is the Rugby boy (bursary, you know) Chris, who shows up one evening at a fancy-dress party and is now a second lieutenant in the army, preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. (What is it with posh people and fancy dress?) There’s a lot of sex. Actually, there’s a lot of agonising about sexual stuff. Instead of the crescendo to infidelity that the reader expects – the bang? – what follows is a 300-page discussion of two couples’ sexual problems: those of Tamsin and Callum (the usual guy thing) and of Chris and Callum’s flatmate, Leah (the usual girl thing).
One further problem is the way the narrator insists on doing the reading for us. For instance, when Callum delivers a stilted line – “It’s good to have you around,” he tells Chris; “You’re a great guy” – the narrator informs us that this is a stilted line. When a squaddie makes a joke about a test tube and a female lab technician, the “banality of his humour” is noted. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to like or loathe these people – which is fair enough but presumably we should find them interesting. Just because a poor joke has been signalled, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It makes the reader less likely to identify the subtler writing in the book, as when, the day after Chris’s return, Tamsin watches Callum “running a hand over his khaki-coloured hair, which immediately sprang back to attention” – a line that would be ruined were it followed by: “Tamsin had a bad habit of making occupational metaphors to remind the reader who it was she really fancied.”
Lowdon makes the most of Afghanistan, using that military catastrophe to contrive romance and excitement in an era defined by millennial apathy and fatigue. Left of the Bang is a competent stab at the contemporary social novel, marred by a cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores.