Monday, October 02, 2023

the last book I read

All That Follows by Jim Crace.

Leonard Lessing is a jazz saxophonist. Pretty cool, right, only he's more of a former/lapsed jazz saxophonist at the moment as he's taking an extended sabbatical for various reasons: a painful frozen shoulder, the sudden disappearance of his twentysomething step-daughter after a domestic quarrel, a drying-up of musical inspiration, general ennui and disinclination to leave the house.

This causes some slight friction with his sparky wife, Francine, who first met him in the aftermath of one of his most triumphant gigs and has found settling into the "real" Leonard a slight anti-climax. I mean, Francine is a sensible woman and knows that you can't be up there ripping out a complex tootly jazz solo the whole time, but has nonetheless found it a bit frustrating putting up with what she perceives as Leonard's indecisiveness and timidity, especially as he's now at home getting underfoot all the time.

So when an item comes on the news describing a terrorist siege at a house not far from where Leonard and Francine live, Leonard's interest is piqued, especially when he recognises the apparent terrorist ringleader as a man called Maxim Lermontov, a former acquaintance of his from nearly 20 years previously when Leonard had some ideas of being a political activist, and spent some time over in Texas with "Maxie" and his girlfriend Nadia. Typically, while Maxie and Nadia were wholly committed to the cause to the extent of being prepared to be arrested and imprisoned for disturbing a speech by former First Lady Laura Bush, Lennie chooses to keep his head down and slope off back to England rather than speak up.

Skulking around the suburbs near the police cordon that surrounds the siege, Lennie has a chance encounter with Maxie and Nadia's daughter Lucy, and, after they've been chatting for a while, she proposes a hare-brained scheme: what if they fake her kidnapping and use that (i.e. the prospect of securing his own daughter's safety) as bargaining power to persuade Maxie to bring his own siege to an end? In the heat of the moment (and after a couple of glasses of wine in a pub garden) Lennie agrees this is a terrific idea but, typically, cools off on the idea once he sobers up a bit and sees all the obvious problems with it.

Lennie's not off the hook, though, because Lucy, evidently still under the impression it's a great idea, goes through with the plan, and pretty soon the police pop round wanting to know the significance of these phone records they have which show calls between Lucy and Lennie in the last few days. Lennie manages to persuade them that he hasn't got Lucy bound and gagged in his attic, but Francine, in the dark up to now, wants some answers, and fast. Once these are provided (incorporating a lengthy flashback to Austin, Texas in 2006 and Lennie's rather farcical brush with political activism) Francine insists that they go and seek out Nadia to reassure here that Lucy is most likely OK. 

Not only do they manage to do this but Francine and Nadia spark up a friendship and Lennie manages to get himself into the right place at the right time to witness the end of the siege, albeit at the cost of getting knocked about a bit by the police. Every cloud, though, as the resulting internet celebrity results in a spike of interest in his back catalogue and a demand for some new gigs. Not only that but some of Lennie's endless meanderings on the internet during his fallow period come belatedly to fruition as well as Francine's daughter is located and tentative steps are taken towards a reconciliation.

This is the fifth Jim Crace book on this list, after Arcadia, The Gift Of Stones, The Pesthouse and Harvest. Of all those it's the one most recognisably set in our own mundane "real world" with the internet, bacon sandwiches, dishwashers and all that stuff, although, typically for Crace, given a slightly disorienting twist even then: published in 2010, it's set in what must be 2024 or 2025 and in a slightly more authoritarian surveillance state than the one we currently inhabit: I used the shorthand "the police" a couple of paragraphs up but actually the people Lennie and Francine get a visit from are agents of some slightly shadowy National Security agency. A bit like William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms this feels like an established "literary" novelist having a crack at something sort of resembling a thriller. It doesn't really work on those terms, to be honest, as there's precious little tension involved and the end of the siege is a bit of an anti-climax. I mean, that's how these things happen in real life, but thriller convention would demand Maxie get his big moment and go out in a blaze of glory or something. By contrast, rather like in Unless, the sub-plot involving a missing child is resolved a bit more neatly than plausibility would dictate, but Lennie and Francine are appealing central characters and you feel entitled to expect things to work out for them.

This feels like a fairly minor Jim Crace novel compared with The Pesthouse, Harvest and Quarantine, but there's plenty to like about it anyway. Crace did claim that he was going to retire from novel-writing after his next book, Harvest in 2013, but seems to have since changed his mind. 

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