Friday, August 17, 2018

the last book I read

The History Of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield.

Philip (who is seven as the novel starts) and his mother are on an extended road trip. It's not entirely clear why, but most likely they are fleeing from Philip's Dad who has committed some unspecified offence. Probably just being A Guy, right, ladies? Anyway, they drive around California, Mom hooks up with random guys periodically, makes use of their credit cards for a while, things go sour, Mom and Philip move on. Well, it's a living.

A living that suits Philip very well, as it happens, Philip not being the sort of boy well suited temperamentally to cosy domesticity and routine, or at least not that sort of routine. So when Mom shacks up with Pedro and they stop their peripatetic existence to move in with him, Philip is a bit agitated. Now usually a slightly agitated seven-year-old would just throw a few tantrums, refuse to eat his chicken nuggets, that sort of thing. Not Philip, though, who perpetrates some sort of murky atrocity on Pedro using Pedro's own toolkit. Mom seems fairly sanguine about this but decides, probably wisely, that they should move on.

They soon settle again, though, not with a man this time but just seemingly on Mom's whim, in a rented house from where Philip starts to make some friends, most notably twelve-year-old Rodney and his sort-of-girlfriend Beatrice. Neither of these are necessarily a good influence and Philip gets involved with underage drinking, burglary and joy-riding. Meanwhile, Mom has withdrawn into herself and rarely emerges from her room. Then, unexpectedly, Philip's Dad turns up and tries to impose some order. And a good thing too, as it transpires that Mom is pregnant, though it's not clear who by.

Once again, though, Philip balks at the idea of domesticity and order, and goes increasingly off the rails with encouragement from Rodney. Or is it the other way round? Either way, Dad had better look out. Sure enough, one evening, with some help from Rodney, Philip trusses Dad up and gets to work with the toolkit again. This time, though, Beatrice has got wind of things and tipped off the police, who arrive and cart Philip off before he can do something irrevocable like saw Dad's head off.

Philip winds up in a correctional facility where he is probed and analysed by a whole team of psychiatrists, before they deem him worthy of release, whereupon he is reunited with Mom and Dad and the new baby. But how rehabilitated is he?

One way of answering that last question is: how reliable are Philip's first-person accounts of his supposed crimes? Are we perhaps in Patrick Bateman territory where it's not clear at the end of the novel whether any of the events really happened at all? Well, Dad genuinely appears to be recovering from some injuries when we re-encounter him at the end. But what happened to Pedro? And what happened to Mom to make her retire to her room and scarcely ever speak again?

Well, answers are not really forthcoming to any of that. We are meant, I guess, to simply revel in the transgressiveness of having an eight-year-old (Philip ages a year or so over the course of the novel) do some weird psychotic shit, though it's hard to imagine that we're meant to find Philip personally appealing or engaging. The problem is that Philip's actions might have a slight ring of truth (or at least plausibility) if he were, say, fourteen rather than eight - I kept wondering whether I'd missed a narrative time-jump wherein six years had passed and Philip's Jim Beam consumption, ability to drive a car (and see over the dashboard) and sexual fantasies about Beatrice made any sense, but nope, he's barely eight-and-a-half at the end.

It sounds terribly condescending to say it (yeah, come back when you've had your first novel published, bucko) but there is a definite whiff of First Novel about this (and it was indeed Scott Bradfield's first published novel, in 1989) - it just seems to be trying a bit too hard to be shocking and original and what's described ends up not feeling "real" somehow. This is tricky territory, obviously, since the events described in any novel are by definition not real, but there is some sense in which even the most outlandish stuff has to make sense within the boundaries of the novel's own logic. So the same basic criticisms could also be made of, for instance, The Wasp Factory, but that seemed to "work" in a way that this doesn't. So, you know, it's not uninteresting, I daresay he's written better things since, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it. But, then again, what do I know, since someone deemed it interesting enough to make into a film (with the cut-down title Luminous Motion) in 1998, starring among others Deborah Kara Unger who I remember from the film of JG Ballard's Crash.

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