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31 October 2013

Bridget Jones has more vitality in one cuticle than James Bond does in his whole body

Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy versus William Boyd's Solo.

By Leo Robson

William Boyd
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £18.99

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy
Helen Fielding
Jonathan Cape, 400pp, £18.99

When, in a new foreword to her novel The Chronicles of Narmo, reissued this month, Caitlin Moran writes, “Once you’ve read a lot of books, you begin to think it might be time to just . . . write one of your own,” she is repeating a sentiment expressed in more self-consciously grown-up terms by Ralph Waldo Emerson (“First we read, then we write”), Saul Bellow (“A writer is a reader moved to emulation”) and philosophers going back at least a couple of millennia.

“Mimesis” was the term that the Greeks used to mean imitation of nature but its Roman equivalent, “imitation”, encompassed not only what writers took from life but what they took from other writers. If these days we make a firmer distinction, as enshrined in terms such as “roman-à-clef” on the one hand and “pastiche” on the other, we nevertheless acknowledge the legitimacy of both approaches, T S Eliot having ended that aberrant century and a bit in which a Romantic conception of originality predominated, first with the essays he collected in The Sacred Wood and then with his boisterously plagiaristic poem The Waste Land.

The long-standing taxidermish or ventriloqual practice whereby literary estates sanction sequels or spin-offs, represents the commodification of the Moran-Emerson-Eliot process. It is beholden to a post-Romantic phenomenon, copyright law, and it grants a role usually played by creative impulse to the profit motive. It is about publishing, not literature; franchising, not influence. It points up the difference between wanting to write like Ian Fleming, to emulate his suavity or crispness, and writing a book destined to contain the line “© Ian Fleming Publications Limited”.

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William Boyd, no stranger to creative imitation, having written, in Any Human Heart, a virtual cover version of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, is the latest writer to sell his style for the right-sized cheque. That he hasn’t quite kept up his half of the bargain is to his credit but not, alas, to the book’s advantage. Devil May Care was credited to “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming”, as his forthcoming Jeeves adventure is described as “a homage to P G Wodehouse”. The jacket copy for Solo makes no mention of Fleming (unless you count “”, at the bottom of the front flap), instead identifying the book as “a James Bond novel” and thereby preventing its author from submitting a plea of diminished responsibility. It was his ink, from his pen.

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Well, mostly. Boyd takes his epigraph from Wordsworth and his opening chapter title from Yeats (“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”), raising expectations of a Romantic Bond figure, even a Romantic Bond novel, but things soon take a turn for the mundane, in chapter titles either boringly faithful to genre (“Element of Risk”) or surreally deviant from it (“Homework”, “Sunday”) and a prose style that would struggle to be any more earth-bound, less a pale imitation of Fleming than a keen imitation of le Carré’s pallor.

Yet there are weaknesses on display here that cannot be traced to, or blamed on, Boyd’s candlelit communions with Smiley. Dashes continue to cause him trouble – he sprays them all over the page, refusing to face the fact that if you use more than one of them in a single sentence, the reader is cued to spot a parenthesis. He also struggles to find the cadence to suit his needs, so that one chapter ending goes: “The ants’ nest would be in swarming disarray” – a line so devoid of emphasis, so matter-of-fact in rhythm, as to kill all sense of drama.

If Boyd wants the book to be exciting, it’s an ambition dashed by his obsession with getting Bond fed. He opens chapters with things of this sort, 50 pages from the end: “Bond asked at the Fairview’s reception where the best steak restaurant in Washington was to be found, and was told that the Grill on H Street was the place to go. So Bond took a taxi there and asked for a table for one.” On the whole, eating and drinking takes the role of combat and strategy (though the word “thinking” is used incessantly). The opening scene, a would-be equivalent to the films’ pre-credit set pieces, finds Bond ordering breakfast at the Savoy.

A genre exercise should serve as a liberator but Boyd allows the reader’s familiarity with the territory to go unexploited, with the result that much of the book is taken up describing visual clichés. Bond gets kidnapped: “He found himself in a windowless cement cell with a neon tube in the ceiling casting an unkind glaring light.” Bond goes to a port: “[He] wandered along its empty quays and wharves, its giant rusty cranes and derricks standing sentinel over empty tracts of water, listening to the far-booming surf beyond the harbour.” By the end, Boyd has clearly lost interest (cranes listening to surf?) but he proves incapable of taming even short sentences by, say, keeping a literal description at a safe distance from a figurative one: “Bond turned the ice cubes in his whisky with a finger, enjoying the sensation of being in Blessing’s capable hands.”

The action offers little, if that, in the way of relief. Boyd’s Bond is humourless and hapless, in desperate need of a personality transfusion, long overdue for a P45. He turns up in Zanzarim, a West African country on the brink of civil war, claiming to be a journalist for Agence Presse Libre (APL) but having omitted to carry out even the most basic research. Asked by Geoffrey Letham, a Daily Mail journalist, if he knows Thierry Duhamel, a senior figure at APL, he says he doesn’t work out of Paris, to which Letham replies: “Thierry’s in Geneva. Head office. Everyone at APL knows Thierry. He’s a bloody legend.” “I’ve only just started,” is Bond’s comeback. When, on an unsanctioned trip to the US (“Uh-oh . . . Don’t tell me – you’ve gone solo”), he is soon tracked down after hiring a car under his own name, he decides: “It was no lapse on his part, just bad luck.”

Luckily, this clumsy figure – James Bond in nothing but name – has been pitted against villains even less effective at covering their tracks. Boyd goes to elaborate lengths to dress up the plot, or rather, to the lengths of using the word “elaborate”, a move that does not reflect a generous estimation of his readers’ intelligence. When someone recognises Bond as he walks, undisguised, through an airport, he reflects that his “elaborate” cover had been blown; talking to his old friend Felix Leiter, he says that an evil African corporation’s scheme had been “very elaborately planned”; a few pages later, Bond drops another reve lation and Leiter nods, “almost as if he had to convince himself of the elaborate nature of the subterfuge”. Given that the plan and the subterfuge – African money laundering with a spot of CIA collusion – would be familiar to even casual airport-thriller readers, never mind an American who has collaborated with James Bond on “many a tough assignment over the years”, this is a clear case of Boyd using Ian Fleming’s characters for nothing more noble, or more likely to consolidate Fleming’s reputation, than protesting too much on his behalf.

When Fleming died almost 50 years ago, he left behind enough Bond stories to keep the producers busy for decades. Fielding is still alive – and, though nearing the age at which Fleming died, in considerably better health –but that hasn’t stopped Working Title from trying to make a Bridget Jones film unconnected to one of her books. What stopped it, or so the story goes, was the integrity of Hugh Grant, whose concerns over Fielding’s script for Bridget Jones’s Baby scuppered the project at the development stage.

Fielding the novelist has now taken temporary repossession of her character, overruling the final words of Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, the almost-15-year-old last instalment – “The End” – and giving us Bridget Jones the widow (“It’s better than being divorced. It’s so romantic and original,” she is told) and the single mother, Mark Darcy having been the victim of a strategic murder-by-author in the tradition of Mrs Haze in Lolita, although at 29, Roxster, the toy boy about whom Bridget is “mad”, would probably have been considered over the hill a couple of books ago.

Fielding’s exercise started out as a piece of imitatio, at once a deft parody of a young single woman’s mode of self-address and an updating of Pride and Prejudice, which established, as in a James Bond novel, two love interests: one good, the other bad (at least in the sense of “bad boy”). Fielding also made an allusion to Flaubert’s Parrot, having Julian Barnes and his “thin-but-attractive lips” appear at the launch of a book called Kafka’s Motorcycle, perhaps to recognise an admirable precedent, a work of fiction posing as autobiography, or at least confessional. Now it is her own books to which she must not only aspire but from which she must try not to deviate. If Boyd is engaged in some twisted version of homage that avoids producing a likeness while simultaneously failing to confer honour on a predecessor, then Fielding is committing what Geoff Dyer calls “selfkaraoke”. This is Helen Fielding “doing” Helen Fielding.

At least Bridget Jones is moving on, confronting middle age with defiance and Twitter with terror (we read about “twunking” – drunk tweeting – and also “kerching”, but not twerking) and providing her creator with a few ways of being silly that didn’t exist in 1995 or when Bridget was childless (and had no need to “de-child” her living room before receiving male company). In an inversion of the true hierarchy, it is Fielding’s character who alludes to For Your Eyes Only, engages in reveries about Daniel Craig and devotes a bit of brainpower left over after all that textmessage redrafting and round-robin emails with local mothers to producing a shrewd reading of Skyfall. Even in this less-than-perfect incarnation, having been resuscitated by her creator against her wishes, @JonesyBJ has more vitality in one “un-manipedicured” cuticle than Boyd’s James Bond does in his whole calorie-heedless, breakfastbesotted body.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer