Skip to main content

Keeping Mum by The Dark Angels Collective


I preferred the alternative title
As I Died Lying...
Those of you who might justifiably lay claim to knowing me quite well should be able to corroborate my claim that any book that leads off with a 'Who's Who' cast of characters is likely to get my back right up, the reason being that if any book is so unwieldy and poorly realised that you need constant reminding of which character is speaking or how they fit into the narrative at any given moment, then it surely needed more editing before publishing, or re-writing before editing, and so on. For me, a character needs to pop from the page, be embedded in the mind straight away, pulling you in, perhaps pushing you away, but always memorably. Admittedly, with so many contributors (the same amount, coincidentally, as the number of voices in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying from which the Dark Angels Collective drew inspiration) I guess it's equally likely that not to acknowledge each and their input to this MPOV novel from the get-go would put their backs up too, so I'll accept this as mitigation. 

For now.

Indeed, a novel with Multiple Points Of View is exactly what this collaborative effort delivers, each character written by a separate writing entity, drawn from the unusual yet creditable writing courses (creative writing but in a business context) of the Dark Angels team**. We have what one might deem the main character, who's dead - a challenge for any writer that - her estranged husband, her three children and one daughter-in-law; a parochial Scottish copper, a glorified B&B manager, a morgue assistant with a flower fetish, a rather random Indian restaurateur, and some others that I have forgotten. Each is written by a different person, thus eliminating the need for one writer to develop different voices, but creating the need for a strong hand on the tiller. The plot revolves around the steady disintegration of the tissue of lies that the dead character wove in life and the impact this has on those in the family and beyond with an interest in her affairs*, and I consider the central conceit to be how many lies are told in life for a myriad of reasons, how the perception one might hold of someone can be subverted, and how the machinations set in place in life have to be dismantled on death, leaving lacunae and space for that which is not familiar. I love that sort of thing. Plus, it evolves into a bit of a road-novel, a bit like that Gram Parsons film where they drive around with his corpse in the back of the truck.

Whereas Faulkner claimed he never changed a word of his novel***, having written it in six weeks after finishing work each day, I suspect this novel has been the subject of some heavy revision. I say suspect but in fact I mean I know - the authors' page on the Unbound website goes into a bit of detail on the process and it sounds like there was a lot of mind-mapping, plot-hashing and character-, er, hmm, sorry, struggling for a suitable gerund. I don't know if this is the best way to work when there are fifteen people contributing to a single goal, but for the most part it worked. There are some characters that are weaker than others (I've just remembered one of them - a facile plot device of a character who is a child-guest at the Scottish B&B who causes the dead person's phone to go missing temporarily) and some feel  tacked-on, almost like they had to be there otherwise one of the writers would feel left out and sad (I won't name names this time, but I think you'll see who they are), but overall, the parts fit together, the story progresses from one passage to the next, and whilst it's a tad predictable, it's still greatly enjoyable. It's too late to get your name in the back as a supporter, but it's never too late to buy a copy and enjoy a very interesting book.

*Whoops! Cheeky plot spoiler there! Sorry, couldn't help it.
**They're also on Twitter so they are.
***He made this claim in the introduction to Sanctuary, (Modern Library ed. 1932): cited A. Nicholas Fargnoli, Robert W. Hamblin, Michael Golay, William Faulkner; A Critical Companion Infobase 2008, pp.43–56 p.44

Comments

How's about that then?

The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek

It’s a wonder that Sławomir Mrożek lived to be 83. Maybe the post-Stalin regimes of Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev were less likely to pitch a critical satirist into an unmarked grave or have him dragged off to winter in Siberia than was Uncle Joe. Maybe he just wasn’t widely read and therefore not deemed a threat. Or perhaps his support of the Stalinist persecution of religious leaders in Poland and his membership of the Polish United Workers’ Party (until he defected) stood him in historical stead good enough so that he didn’t find himself on the sharp end of a radioactive umbrella. Because frankly, having read The Elephant, published in 1957 but not banned until 1968, it’s hard to see anyone in the Soviet bureaucracy letting this level of criticism go unpunished.
Take the titular story, The Elephant, one of 42 similarly absurd political satires in this slim volume. A provincial zoo, lacking “all the important animals” is awarded an elephant by the Party, muc…

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Hi, how’ve you been? I’ve been busy myself, thanks for asking. In fact, I was so busy I began contemplating a terminal hiatus from this, ostensibly purposeless endeavour. However, for reasons, I chose not to take it. So on with the show and back to Helen DeWitt.
If there’s one thing about this dense, frankly mind-bogglingly erudite book to love/find empathy with (apart from my own Canadian edition’s deckle-edged hardbackedness – deckle edges; good or bad? Discuss!), it would have to be the passages narrated by Sibylla, mother to genius progeny Ludo. As a parent to one post-toddler and one pre-toddler, as well as occasional taker-up-of-space in the lives of three other young human beings, there are so very few occasions where a simple conversation can be carried out to its logical terminus without interruption and digression; conversations start, stop, return to the beginning, are interrupted once more, are delayed and postponed, and cycle back again until it’s time to give up, get off …

The Last Werewolf Trilogy by Glen Duncan

A trilogy of werewolf novels, the remaining three books of Duncan’s published oeuvre left for me to read, and I’ve gone and devoured them all in one go. I’ve made similar mistakes before; reading every single book I could find by one author as soon as they’re found. It usually ends up in a colossal mess of plot lines, meaning and symbolism in the gray matter, and an inability to unravel one from the other and explain, convincingly, to anyone why they should be read – especially challenging when one’s former job was to sell books to people on the strength of personal recommendations. Nonetheless, I decided that to read these three contiguously made sense, in so far as I have a strong distaste at being left hanging on for the next instalment, be it television series’, serialised print articles or trilogies. And, *COP OUT KLAXON* to review them in one Mega Review Article was the way forward too. So, here’s the quick and habitual disclaimer / plea for clemency. This way, you’ll have to de…

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…