Thursday 8 July 2010

'remembering the forgotten'

The News Where You Are
by Catherine O'Flynn

I never read Catherine O'Flynn's Costa-First-Novel-Award-winning and much-prize-nominated debut, What Was Lost, but I do remember that much was made at the time that this was great breakthrough for a woman who had once been a postwoman (although it was her work in a series of shopping centres that clearly influenced the subject of that novel). Her previous jobs are detailed once again in her author biog and amongst them is a brief stint in journalism which may have influenced this second novel. We follow Frank Allcroft, a presenter on Heart Of England Reports, the local television news programme for the Midlands. Frank is something of a local legend, not because of any kind of journalistic scoop but because of the terrible jokes and puns he uses as links between items. These are something he has inherited from his predecessor, Phil Smethway, who died 6 months ago in a hit-and-run accident. The jokes are actually the work of a gag-writer, Cyril, who Frank has inherited, but where Phil was smooth and charming, Frank is clumsy and awkward, and whilst that might seem to be a problem it has actually helped to pull in more and more viewers - 'developing a cult status amongst students in the city...Eventually a website was dedicated to him - www.unfunniestmanongodsearth.com'

But Heart Of England Reports is a long way from the journalistic frontline. So many years of reporting the kind of fare that serves only as background noise have lead to the kind of generic news coverage with which we are all familiar.

The faces changed but the stories were the same. Another sick child hoping to get an operation abroad, another old couple swindled out of their life savings, another bare paddock of neglected horses. Sometimes he almost anticipated them. Like counting cards and knowing when to expect the next king. The different incidences became compacted in his mind to form generic news staples and the faces merged to form the composite face of a local news victim.

He hasn't, he hopes, become desensitized. In fact the opposite may even be true. Frank has become interested in the stories of those that die alone, seeming to leave no trace at the end. He becomes the lone mourner or flower bearer, determined to remember those that seem to have been forgotten or left behind by their friends and family, the kind of bodies that are only discovered after a neighbour reports a funny smell to the police and the front door is broken down -'It was always the gaps that drew Frank's attention. They seemed to matter more than the other pieces.' When a local man is found dead on a park bench Frank decides to dig a little deeper and finds that their may be a link between this man, Michael, and the previous incumbent in the Heart Of England Reports chair, Phil.

Frank also has his own family to think about. His grumpy mother is interred in an old-people's home, all doom and gloom when she's with him but concealing a hidden sparkle for some of the other residents, and O'Flynn has lots of fun with their exchanges His sparky daughter Mo is a constant source of youthful enquiry into the way the world works and there is a real charm to her conversations with her father. Frank wants her in particular to see some of the buildings in Birmingham designed by her grandfather. Frank's late father was an architect working at a time of concrete municipal buildings and tower blocks, the kind so out of favour with modern developers and in danger of destruction. Frank's need to protect his father's legacy taps into one of the book's major themes. Just as he feels the need to save this final building from demolition, he is desperate to find out what legacy, or trace may have been left behind by the man on the park bench. Whilst he lives everyday with Phil's comical legacy he also talks to his (much younger) widow about the lasting effects of his sudden death. For Frank personally this will mean a journey to confront his own father's passing and why it is that he doesn't see himself as perhaps the most important legacy his father left behind.

Fiction writers in the UK have been accused in the past of thinking small, of writing novels that feel far too domestic in comparison to the pursuit of the Great American Novel over the water and the grand generational epics elsewhere. Whatever one feels about that argument there's something of that here. Despite the big ideas, there is something about this book which makes it all feel a bit light. The comedy is there, but light; the bigger themes are there, but lightly sketched; the character development is there, but kind of obvious. The biggest problem for me was one of credulity with the machinations of the plot. The vain figure of Phil is (perhaps understandably) the biggest absence in the book and I found the depths of his unhappiness hard to believe in with the denouement of the plot even harder to swallow. It all feels a bit sensational, something you'd be far more likely to come across in a soap rather than the local news, and it detracts in the end from the nicely realised character comedy that O'Flynn has created throughout the book.


John Self 8 July 2010 at 09:28  

I was one of the dissenters on O'Flynn's first novel (I thought it was an OK debut, but not worthy of all the plaudits and shortlistings it got). Nonetheless I had a look at this one, partly because I got a free copy sent to me and partly because I do like her subjects and themes - of frustrated lives, parochial stasis, media culture and so on. However I gave up about a quarter way through The News Where You Are as I felt her handling of the subjects, as with What Was Lost, just wasn't up to scratch. Yes it's enjoyable enough, but it's lacking the meat that someone like Gordon Burn would bring the subject. And the whole structure of the newsman famous for telling bad jokes just seemed to be a quirky idea she had had one day which suddenly acquired unreasonable importance and ended up at the centre of a novel, where it should never have been. (A little like Yann Martel's unshakeable attachment to his donkey-monkey-shirt idea.)

leyla 8 July 2010 at 12:05  

Interesting review, William. It's a shame this novel hasn't quite worked. It does sound as if there are certain areas of writing that O'Flynn is very good at, such as capturing the charm of children's thinking (which she did in her debut, of which I was a fan) but that perhaps she's let down by other aspects.
The question of whether writers should aim for 'deeper' subjects or confine themselves to lighter ones is an intriguing one. I can understand why writers early on in their career might be wary of important or philosophical/existential topics because if you attempt that and fail you can look ridiculous, whereas if you stick with more insubstantial subjects you just look whimsical or unambitious, which isn't quite as crushing somehow in the UK where 'getting above your station' leads to derision. I do think some writers get stuck because of this - I had high hopes for Mark Haddon after The Curious Incident, but had to give up on his second novel because it was intellectually untaxing in any way.
It's a shame O'Flynn took the path of an implausible ending. I don't know why so many writers with talent do that - I remember reading one of Kate Atkinson's detective stories and the multiple coincidences and links rendered it almost risible.

William Rycroft 9 July 2010 at 00:52  

Fay Weldon reviewed the book for the Guardian and loved it as you'll see here. What she seems to love are the details of characterisation and observation, which I would agree with, but she dismisses the 'wispy' plot with too much ease; it's not wispy, it's plain ridiculous.

Interesting thoughts on how an author's approach can have an impact. I don't think it's about tackling deeper subjects or not, any piece of fiction almost can't help but touch on fundamental topics or universal themes, it's just a question of how much you want to tackle them. You don't even have to get all deep with them in order to make good use of them but I got the impression with this book that O'Flynn was keeping a safe distance from anything potentially difficult which is always going to end in a book which feels ok rather than anything more than that.

kimbofo 11 July 2010 at 21:38  

I've been itching to read this book for awhile, not because I read her first one, but because I'm always fascinated by books that are about journalism. I got sent a review copy but forgot about it, and once or twice I've actually almost-but-not-quite bought it in Waterstone's. For some reason I woke up this morning and remembered I had a copy sent on spec! Have since dug it out of the pile and hope to read it this week.

I'm hoping the fun elements, which you describe here, may make up for any shortcomings in the plot. Will let you know when I've finished.

Interesting point about English domestic novels versus the Great American novel. I'd never really thought of that before, but I guess you're right. There was a similar debate not that long ago about Irish novels, the view being that they are always stuck in the past and not really telling the story of today (ie. country going bust as the Celtic tiger turns into a dodo).

William Rycroft 12 July 2010 at 11:50  

I look forward to reading your thoughts Kim. There are certainly lots of good things about the book but it never really hooked me. A consistently lukewarm reading experience I'm afraid.

Anonymous,  13 July 2010 at 01:45  

I quite liked the book as a summer read -- very entertaining, but I agree with your critical comments. Indeed, they set my expectations appropriately. It was fun, and that is just fine by me. Not great by any means. I think Kim will quite like it -- the journalism bits are the best part of the book.

William Rycroft 13 July 2010 at 08:59  

I agree, Kevin, that the journalism bits are the best.

Max Cairnduff 13 July 2010 at 14:55  

I'm rather looking forward to this one. I did like What was Lost, and it's nice here to have some warnings of the novel's failings so I can better appreciate its strengths.

Fay Weldon doesn't strike me as someone who'd be overly bothered by unlikely plots, I have to admit.

Anyway, I came here from Kevin's. He called it essentially a good summer read, which is likely the spirit in which I'll read it.

Thanks again for the plot warning. I sometimes find that sort of thing rather annoying, a bit of prior innoculation will do no harm at all.

kimbofo 13 July 2010 at 20:32  

Ah, I now see Kevin thinks I will like it. OK, that's definitely made up my mind then -- I'll get cracking on it as soon as I finish my current read.

William Rycroft 14 July 2010 at 12:34  

Wow, Kevin, did you see that, what power you have! Hope you both enjoy it and I'd be happy to hear that I've got it wrong.

Anonymous,  14 July 2010 at 17:22  

Will: It is what power "we" have, not what power I have -- if both you and I like the book, then perhaps it is worth a shot. I do understand John Self's objection to the book, but I think he ended up denying himself a quite good read. O'Flynn does not set her ambitions too high (Richard and Judy seems a more likely -- and better selling -- destination than the Booker), but I still think it is an entertaining read.

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