Tuesday 30 November 2010

'how unsure of ourselves we are'

The Brainstorm 
by Jenny Turner

I mentioned Fiction Uncovered earlier in the month (you can find out more about it here) and on the day it launched this title was the first (of what I fear will be many) to inspire me towards a purchase. Recommended by novelist and journalist James Meek, he describes it as 'Funny, clever and disturbing, with a uniquely subtle, British take on 9/11'. Well the take on 9/11 must be very subtle because I'm not sure what he means by that, especially with a book set in the late 1990's, but it is certainly both funny and clever. It also has a rather lovely jacket - nothing says 'office tension with hilarious consequences' like several colourful elastic bands straining around the cover. Another recommendation was the realisation, thanks to good old Twitter, that Jenny Turner was the author of easily the best review I read of Tom McCarthy's C. If this novel contained anything like the enthusiasm and erudition of that piece then I was sure to be in for a treat.

Anyone with a taste for the Fleet Street novel will lap up this skewed take on the inner workings of a newspaper. Turner herself worked for the Independent on Sunday in the 1990's but the fictional broadsheet at which she places her heroine, Lorna, as part of the editorial staff, is a newspaper that 'had a good name and an illustrious reputation, though the reputation, by the time Lorna got her job there, had long since begun to drop.' This is the modern world of newspapers, away from the ink and nicotine-stained corridors of Fleet Street into the glass-fronted and sterile towers in Docklands. And the period is a specific one, socially speaking, the economic consequences of which we are living with today.

Back then, in the mid-to-late 1990's, the spots to which the mad glare of wealth did not extend were beginning to look burnt out and forsaken, although they had looked just normal, only a year or two before. Wealth was getting more intense and more prevalent, and the world shone like the television inside it. Poverty was getting more forgotten, more marginal, more squeezed out by the day.

The novel has a central conceit, the brainstorm of the title, and from the opening sentence we are aware of its impact.

Lorna looked around her, puzzled. Good, she thought, I'm still here then. I'm sitting in an office. I have a desk and chair.

Is it some kind of memory loss? Almost as though she has come to at her desk Lorna must bluff her way through the rest of the day, slowly feeling her way through the motions that will help her to establish who she is, what she does, who she likes, where she lives, and how all of these pieces fit together. This conceit allows Turner to play with quite a few things. Firstly we have the perfect opportunity to see the workplace afresh. Turner is a great observer of people and the office is filled with characters who may recall some of the real faces from that era but which are very much their own. Lorna has only her instinct to turn to when sorting out the friends from the foes and she can often sense how she feels about each character from feelings buried somewhere deep inside,  but we all know how deceptive first impressions or hunches can be.

We also get a chance to look at the environment in a new way. Turner has a wonderful way of making the office a place not of beauty but at least of promise and potential. Processes, technologies and systems that we take for granted are suddenly seen as the miracles that they are, especially by someone looking for structure and order.

Lorna, too, felt excited as she booted up her computer. She loved the way the pages came to the desk, electronically, through plugs and cables. She loved the shapes of the letters, the way they leaned into one another to make words. She loved the way the words made phrases and sentences, and somewhere in that, the miracle of meaning, lucidity and purpose: the possibility of structure, the possibility of hope.

Environment extends into a sense of place too. The glass and steel cityscape of Docklands and the constant construction around it refer back to that polarisation of wealth mentioned earlier and also Lorna's search for her own personal architecture.

Lorna's eye bounced and bounded across in freedom. 'As Hegel would say, it's a dialectic, innit,' she thought to herself quite suddenly, with an awareness that she voiced this thought quite often, and that she said or thought it because in some way it was true.

The dialectic is hugely important to this novel. I'm not going to pretend to know anything about Hegelian philosophy or phenomenology but Turner clearly does and Lorna's dialogue with herself (which could be seen as a dialogue between old Lorna and new Lorna and their quest for agreement) and the way in which the book itself is constructed (together with the structures of consciousness as they return to Lorna) make this a novel that doesn't attach philosophy to itself to appear clever but has it as its very foundation and support, all whilst remaining an easy read - that really is clever.

I've read so many novels now where some conceit or other leaves the narrator as a blank slate or the world as a mystery. Some are more successful than others but the sheer prevalence of them now means that they need to be special to stand out. Whilst this book didn't bowl me over like Remainder, by the author Turner so clearly admires from her review of C, or indeed impress me for exactly the reasons Meek highlighted it for in the first place, it was an impressive and intelligent read, a book rooted in reality that dares to play with something just outside of it and one that despite the difficult journey of its heroine manages to contain a hopeful message.

She didn't know what it was or how it had happened, but she was being given another chance.


Anonymous,  30 November 2010 at 16:55  

Great find, excellent review. I've ordered the book and many thanks for finding it. I do have this sub-category of "journalism" fiction and this seems to fit that bill.

William Rycroft 30 November 2010 at 23:18  

I'd love to take the credit for finding it Kevin but the gold star must go to James Meek. I think there's a good chance you'll find something amusing about the characters that inhabit the office, and may even recognise a few of them too. Hope you enjoy it.

Tom C 5 December 2010 at 13:37  

This looks very intesting - as does the website you link to. A very valuable initiative I would think

William Rycroft 15 December 2010 at 08:24  

I think it's a great initiative Tom and one that I fear will lead to plenty of purchases (as well as this book I have already asked someone to get me some Gabriel Josipovici for Christmas)

Jonathan Gibbs 10 April 2011 at 08:35  

William, right on with the review: "a book rooted in reality that dares to play with something just outside of it."

I re-read it a while ago straight out of Lee Rourke's 'The Canal' as that book reminded me of it. Something about the dissection of boredom in and out of the workplace.

If you want a third, similar-sized book to put alongside those two, I'd thoroughly recommend 'Inglorious' by Joanna Kavenna (who followed it up with the less focused and idiosyncratic 'The Birth of Love'). The narrator of 'Inglorious' shares her situation with that of The Canal, in that she's just walked out her job, but she's less classically, existentially alienated than him, and is closer to Lorna in The Brainstorm in being spacily dislocated from life in a way that feels very contemporary. She also, like Lorna, reaches for philosophy to help her out of her hole: there's a great running gag where she keeps writing herself 'to do' lists that include "Read the comedies of Shakespeare, the works of Proust..." and "Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Kant, hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and the rest".

William Rycroft 10 April 2011 at 09:10  

I hadn't thought of comparing this to The Canal Jonathan, perhaps because the narrator of that book is so separated from his workplace already whereas Lorna, despite her brainstorm, is firmly rooted in hers. It is a good comparison though and thank you so much for recommending the Kavenna. I shall put it in my mental basket immediately.

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