Alienation in the City – A Week In December

Artwork by Fossfor

First of all, my apologies for the rather late appearance of the post on this weeks novel, A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks. Better late than never eh?

A commendably ambitious novel, A Week In December attempts to capture the whole cornucopia of modern London within seven different characters over seven days in the city. It is often compared unfavourably with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, as an effort to do for London in the first decade of the 21st century what Wolfe did for New York in the 80’s. That is, to capture the essence of London in that moment in time and the state of the nation as a whole. But a great deal has changed in thirty years and they are two very different novels. The 21st century has brought with it a deluge of information, stimuli, materialism and immaterialism. The sheer amount of which the human psyche has never had to contend with before. As a result A Week In December is considerably less focused than Wolfe’s great work but endeavors to be much more all-encompassing. Stereotype and even caricature are perhaps unavoidable consequences of this aim; from the greedy investment banker, and the lonely tube-driver, to the disaffected young British Muslim and embittered literary critic. These characters are convincing to varying degrees but what unifies them and the whole novel is the sense of alienation and disconnect from the real world, the real London around them. The urban space is a common setting for depictions of alienation, with its high density of people leading busy lives it is a paradoxical yet familiar feature of human nature that we can feel at our most alone when surrounded by others. What is remarkable about A Week In December is the sheer number of ways in which it shows us individuals can feel alienated from modern society. Hassan, striving for an adult identity, begins to loathe the ‘kafir‘ world around him that he cannot relate to. Tranter, socially ill at ease, rejects everything modern and admits to having “a particularly sympathetic feeling, even at the age of eighteen, for the Victorians.” Finn, neglected by his parents, escapes to a world of fantasy football, the unreality of reality tv and drug altered states. Jenni, with some allusion to a painful past, escapes in her work, her books and most obviously to a completely virtual world in the online game Parallax every evening. Gabriel, one of the the more astute and reflective characters, observes of Jenni and himself,

And what if she was hiding from something underground? Wasn’t he, really, doing the same with his crossword puzzle and his French novels?”

Peripheral characters also play a role in this theme of alienation. Roger, given the rousing monologue against the modern financial system towards the end of the novel, has long taken to drink as he feels so out of touch and tired with the modern world. Nasim also, reflects touchingly on an age-old sense of alienation from her son,

She felt saddened by her inability to reach the heart of Hassan’s problems and bruised by his coldness […] when once, when he was young, they had had this majestic intimacy.”

John Veals is alienated from the world around him in a starkly different way. With hints of Patrick Bateman about him, he is frighteningly disconnected from his wife, son, and the real world around him, exhibiting a chilling amorality in bringing about the suffering of thousands, maybe even millions, for his own personal gain. Veal’s world is the absurd, abstract and inequitable world of modern finance which he observes almost proudly:

was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining; and in this semi-virtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became unhitched from normal logic.”

Karl Marx posited alienation was a systemic consequence of capitalism, and the city, particularly London, is always the epitomised vanguard of capitalism. A Week in December arguably suggests the same, centred so inescapably around money and materialism as it is. Sophie Topping, towards the end of the novel, reflects on the unreal level of accumulated wealth of her dinner guests which highlights the contradiction and irony between this obsession with the material in a vacuously immaterial world:

It was a funny thing, Sophie thought, how everyone you met these days seemed not just to be wealthy but insanely, ineffably, immeasurably rich. Hundreds of millions of useless pounds slopping out of their accounts and into hedge funds and private-equity companies who could no longer find anything worth buying with it. […] But apart from Farooq al-Rashid, who’d shifted tons of limes from the groves of Mexico and Iran via the steaming vats of Renfrew down the gullets of the masses and thence into the sewers underground, none of them had engaged with anything that actually existed.”

Faulks portrays a modern London profoundly disconnected from the real world in innumerable ways, and much of the novel is a darkly satirical indictment of the state of the nation. But there is the hint of salvation for several characters. Finn’s mother is roused from her stupor of midday snoozes and societal lunches by his slip in to psychosis. Hassan’s brush with death (real or imagined) at the hands of an unseen cyclist is the only human contact he unwittingly achieves on the bridge, which awakens him to the absurdity of his actions, and directs him to the one person he trusts enough to reveal his true self to. And Gabriel and Jenni’s burgeoning relationship offers a human connection both of them so clearly yearn for.

Finally, Gabriel, in reflecting on a past love, perhaps most eloquently sums up this feeling of disconnect with London and wider society that persists throughout the novel:

“In any event, he thought, perhaps his problem was not so much the loss of Catalina as a failure of engagement – or rather an incongruity. Here was this world –London, the park and trees and the people in his chambers and the precedents he studied, the case law, paperwork; there was the culture it threw at him in cinemas, in galleries, and in the self-devouring press and television with all its horrifying ‘reality’ programmes; and then the weather, chance of travel, other people, going out. That was what was on offer, out there. And then on the other hand there was him – the sum of random mutations among his ancestors, one outlying bud of an unstable species. Why would you expect b to like or enjoy a? What, really, were the chances of an overlap, a rough fit, let alone a congruence? The odd thing wasn’t that his spirit – if that was what it was, the flickering of electrical charge and spill of chemicals through a synapse – failed to lift to meet this world; the more remarkable thing was how many people did seem to like it, slotted into it and felt right at home there. Lucky them.”

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4 Responses to Alienation in the City – A Week In December

  1. amaranthye says:

    I love how you bring up Marx and his ideas on capitalism. It certainly is demonstrated and demonized to full effect in the character of Veals. But while it appears that the author has a primary goal of making the reader feel disgusted and disdainful of this man, the relationship he has with his family that is put under the microscope seems to indicate a type of sympathy as well. One of the things that I loved about the writing style was the ability for the characters to be well rounded. For example, I felt bad for Jenni because she had someone try to kill themselves on the underground while she was driving and she had become caught up in the lawsuit. But at times her need for escapism in her computer game annoyed me despite the fact I understood why she needed release. Each main character is fully fleshed out, there are aspects of them designed to both cause us to empathize with them and aspects that are designed to irritate us.

  2. Peter Raynard says:

    Thanks for the session Jon. Just wanted to point people to what Faulks says about writing about state of the nation novels and how the approach is different for British authors than Americans. “You can’t solemnly say — as Philip Roth might say, ‘I’m going to write about a family of glovers in Newark’ – ‘I’m going to write about a family who make luggage in Leicester.’ People would just laugh.” (This is written into the book, see page 122)

    Full article can be accessed at http://tinyurl.com/6f6nuvx

    I wondered what people thought about how British authors approach this, as elsewhere in the article Toby LItt believes that “the real state-of-the-nation novels now are more focused than this. They don’t do sweep, they do stab”.

    Also, Toby LItt has a new short story in Granta (and it’s free!), http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Auto-Suggestion

  3. At a slight tangent, but following the thread of alternative versions of reality that arose in our discussion of A Week in December, for anyone interested in Toby Litt’s review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 on Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this week you can find it at the url below and then jumping to Chapter 2 in the list at the bottom of the page:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015yt84#p00l797q

    • While I agree with many readers of Faulks’s novel that ‘A Week in December’ could have been streamlined and edited to become a much sharper narrative, I also feel that, as Jon points out in his main post, it does attempt to engage withe the intricate overlappings of virtual and ‘real’ lives in the twenty-first century. In a sense, this is also why what was noted as one of the novel’s flaws – the fact that it doesn’t specifically comment on London – becomes a feature of the 21st-century metropolis, a ‘non-place’, to borrow the phrase of Marc Auge. An increasingly centreless city, where each of the remaining principal thoroughfares looks identical to the other high streets all over the country, the 21st-century city is a centrifugal kind of place, which pushes its energy towards its peripheries, its motorways, airports and, of course, out-of-town shopping malls. Faulks could have pushed this aspect of the globalised city space – a city that, namely, could be any city – much further, but I feel there is a tentative move towards this reading of the urban space into and beyond its postmodern incarnation. But then again, almost 40 years ago J. G. Ballard had already foreshadowed these concerns in ‘Crash’ (1973).

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