In this new collection of short stories, William Boyd writes with the leisurely confidence of an author who has earned the right to take his foot off the gas. With a score of novels under his belt and a clutch of awards, Boyd is the kind of established name who gets big, commercial commissions; he wrote a James Bond novel in 2013, and one of the stories here, “The Vanishing Game: an Adventure…” was originally written for Land Rover. The book focuses largely on a wealthy set of west Londoners – art dealers and artists, film directors and actors – and although Boyd teases a little at their creative pretensions, he stops short of skewering them.
Even characters who are manifestly sleazy cheats are let gently off the hook. In “The Man Who Liked Kissing Women”, an art dealer called Ludo Abernathy has gallantly given up having affairs, as his wife is pregnant with twins. He does, however, allow himself regular passionate kisses with his extramarital objects of desire. When a mysterious, attractive American woman asks him to sell a portrait by Lucian Freud, he doesn’t hesitate to defraud her to the tune of £1m. She turns down his request for a kiss (“a kiss is never enough”), so he immediately dumps his resolution and hops into bed with her. Although Abernathy does suffer something of a comeuppance, it’s not one that seems to matter much to him; as the story finishes, he is very much the same man he was at the beginning.
Similarly, in “The Diarists” and “Unsent Letters” a range of waspish, petty individuals unleash their resentments on one another, for the general entertainment of the reader. In “The Things I Stole”, the narrator recounts his life as a series of stolen objects, from a friend’s lapel badge he pilfered as a boy up to large-scale financial fraud in collusion with his second wife, but even when justice catches up with him we are invited to find it nothing more than lightly amusing. These stories are all perfectly well formed, but they have little purpose or substance.
The exception is “Camp K 101”, which is set in Africa, and hints at Boyd’s wider and deeper interests. It seems out of place here; although most of the other stories link together, we never meet any of its characters again.
In the novella, “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth”, which occupies the collection’s central section, Boyd harnesses the general sense of aimlessness to better effect. Bethany is a young woman trying to find her way in life, having dropped out of college and failed to get into drama school. Jobs, boyfriends and ambitions arise, glow with possibility, and then fade. Bethany thinks she might set up a sushi bar, write a novel, become an actress; she takes up with a minicab entrepreneur and a manic-depressive stand-up comic, only to end up moving back in with her ex, who has decided that he is gay. Her parents only add to the general ennui, consumed as they are by their own messy and directionless lives.
We warm to Bethany, who remains chipper in the face of her realisation that “Things go wrong”. I also warmed to Boyd; it is not often that a 65-year-old male writer takes the time to imagine with quite some sensitivity what it might be like to be a young woman. (Boyd also works as a screenwriter, and clearly knows enough about Hollywood to include an encounter between Bethany and a sexually needy director.) The story successfully evokes that radically uncertain stage of young adulthood in which there are big choices to be made and very little self-knowledge to go on. It is easy to forget, once life has settled down, how it might well have worked out differently.
The final story, “The Vanishing Game…” is a rugged tale of adventure, executed with Boyd’s characteristic swagger. Alex Dunbar, a down-on-his luck actor, is recruited by the mysterious Stella Dever-eaux to transport a flask of “holy water” up to a church in Scotland. She even – surprise, surprise – provides him with a Land Rover! On the way, he realises he is being followed by a mysterious woman in white, and starts to suspect that there might be something more valuable than water in the flask. Fortunately, the chase gives him a great opportunity to showcase the Land Rover’s overland capabilities. To be fair to Boyd, the product placement isn’t actually that intrusive, and the story is good fun – the same could be said of the whole collection.
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth
Viking, 256pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special