A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
There was only really one question on my mind when I started reading A Week in December; is it as good as Birdsong? Alas, it is not. I was utterly captivated by Faulk’s opus, but this novel didn’t quite have the same effect upon me. A Week in December is an ambitious novel, but never quite manages to live up to its promise, playing with some big ideas and dealing with such lofty themes as the financial crisis, Islamic fundamentalism and mental illness but failing to offer a coherent message with any of them.
A Week in December takes place in London, sometime in the 2000s, all in a single week. The London which Faulks presents is one which is fractured, containing no kind of single community. Faulk’s London is one riven by divisions in wealth, religious conflict, and in which the majority of the population flee real life and society for meaningless reality TV and alternate reality videogames. The novel follows a large amount of characters, all centred around the guests of a dinner party at the end of the week, as well as their families. The varying lives of these characters offer many different perspectives of London, although the one noticeable lack is that of anyone of the working class. Many of the characters are fabulously wealthy, and those that are not are still from highly educated middle class backgrounds. As a portrait of a city therefore, A Week in December feels incomplete, with fantastical novels such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and China Miéville’s Looking for Jake short story collection offering more believable visions of London than Faulks achieves here.
A Week in December tells many different stories, some more linked than others. These include the unbelievably cold and sociopathic banker John Veals, who plays a key role in bringing about the financial crisis within which the world is still struggling. Another key character is Hassan, a young fundamentalist Muslim who is part of a cell planning a devastating terror attack on London. Alongside these more serious plot lines, we have the amusing tales of pretentious and arrogant critic R. Tranter and the Polish footballer Spike Borowski. There is a genuinely rather sweet love story between the penniless lawyer Gabriel Northwood and the damaged young tube driver Jenni Fortune, as well as the amusing yet strangely tragic idle lifestyle of teenage stoner Finbar.
A Week in December, by its very nature as a fragmentary narrative following many different characters, deals with a vast amount of topics for all of its relatively short length. All of these are unified under one central theme however, misanthropy. Faulks seems deeply unimpressed with pretty much everything, with the once virtue celebrated being literacy, but even that can go too far through the portrait of the snobbish critic R. Tranter. Faulks portrays the common problem underlying London as a separation from reality. For Jenni Fortune it is in the thinly veiled Second Life parody Parallax, for Veals the banker it is in a financial market which doesn’t seem to deal with anything real and for Hassan it is in the Qur’an. There’s an interesting comparison between the actions of the bankers who bought about the financial crisis through reckless trading and Islamic fundamentalists, suggesting that both require a severance from basic reality to commit the awful acts they do. The difference in Veals and Hassan’s characters strains this comparison however; whilst Veals is a cold and calculating figure, well aware of what he is doing, Hassan is simply a confused young man whose insecurities were exploited by a charismatic Jihadist. Islam also receives some relief through the gentle and kind portrayals of Hassan’s parents, Farooq and Nasim Al’Rashid. Some of Faulk’s targets can be deeply amusing, such as the reality TV show ‘It’s Madness’, in which mentally ill people are placed in a Big Brother style house with the winner receiving expensive psychiatric care. It can be a bit wearying as Faulks embarks upon lengthy digressions about how terrible everything is, often through the character of Gabriel Northwood, a figure so bland that I suspect that he is essentially the authorial insert, a non-character who exists to allow Faulks to post his critiques upon society. Although certain aspects of the narrative aren’t as compelling as others, there’s enough in this novel to maintain interest, but I did find myself looking forward to certain character sections much more than others.
Faulks is a beautiful writer, and does an admirable job of capturing many different facets of London, although London never feels quite as vivid as First World War France did in Birdsong. Faulks doesn’t quite manage to capture a variety of styles as well as David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, or Dan Simmons in Hyperion, but he does well enough at varying from high drama to comedy to the marijuana hazed narrative of Finbar. A tendency towards moralising is possibly the most irritating aspect of this novel, as characters have repeated epiphanies which seem to sometimes simply be Faulks injecting his own opinions. At first I was somewhat put off by the slew of technical financial jargon thrown the reader’s way in the storyline of the sinister banker John Veals, but as time went on I realised that this was sort of the point; it does make no sense, it is a mess of meaningless and nonsensical practices focused only upon boosting the wealth of a few individuals at the top, leaving me with a sort of confused anger, which I may suspect is what Faulks was going for.
For all of their lack of screen time, Faulks does an excellent job of making each of the characters distinct and interesting in their own way. The moral quandary which potential terrorist Hassan finds himself in is fascinating to read about, as it the complete lack of moral consideration in Veals. Farooq, a billionaire lime pickle tycoon, is a particularly likeable character, devoutly Muslim but interpreting the religion in a much gentler fashion than his son. His storyline, in which he is given a crash course in English literature by the acerbic critic R. Tranter so that he has something to talk about with the Queen when he gets an OBE, is genuinely funny and charming. Jenni is an interesting one as well, although as a gamer I’m not sure that I like that her gaming habit is presented as simply a symptom of how damaged she is. The weak point is Gabriel Northwood, the aforementioned vessel for Faulk’s authorial voice. It is possible to do this and keep the character interesting in themselves, but it’s bloody hard and the only successful case I can think of is Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Faulks does not manage this, and whilst I actually tended to agree with Gabriel/Faulk’s assertions, particularly on greed, it’s an irritating self indulgence which pervades the entire novel. Gabriel excepted, Faulks does a remarkable job of creating a large crowd of distinct and interesting characters, many of whom could have carried a novel in themselves.
A Week in December is a decidedly uneven novel, yet it’s strengths just about outweigh its weaknesses. What had the potential to be a mind numbingly dull novel actually ends up very entertaining, but I’m not sure if the messages of this novel are quite as complex and deep as Faulks thinks. The cartoonish villain John Veal is merely pandering to the stereotype of the greedy banker, and Faulks doesn’t say anything here that hasn’t already been said better. Criticising bankers these days isn’t interesting, it’s like criticising the BNP or Shell; blindingly obvious.