The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Rise And Fall

Another much-appreciated Christmas gift I received last year was the novel The Fall And Rise Of Gordon Coppinger by David Nobbs. Following on from Obstacles To Young Love (reviewed here) and It Had To Be You (reviewed here), TFAROGC concerns the life of the ultra-wealthy, ultra-successful businessman, the  eponymous Gordon Coppinger. He wakes up in the middle of the night (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s page one) and suddenly feels a stranger to his own life, a life entirely driven by sexual and financial gratification, and watches as the whole capitalist edifice he has created around slowly unravels (in the way that only edifices can do.)

I thought it was terrific, beautifully written, touching and with some wonderful, memorable characters. Nobbs makes you care for even the most unlikeable characters, and by the end you’re rooting for Coppinger himself, as well as wanting his family and associates to find some kind of happiness. As is the way of things, some do and some don’t. The book has a lovely sense of inevitability about it (each chapter title is a preview the chapter’s closing line) and the plotting is logical but never predictable.

It reminded me a little of one of the plot threads of A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks, but doing it much, much better, wearing its research lightly rather than digressing for endless pages as, like a PE teacher covering chemistry, the author attempts to explain something he obviously doesn’t understand. The Faulks book frustrated me vastly, with its facile characterisation, and prose so clunky that I was mentally rewriting each sentence as I went along (and given how clunky my writing is, that’s some criticism).

The other antecedent that sprang to mind was The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe (reviewed here), as both books have protagonists who react but fail to influence events, and who find themselves bewildered by modern society and technology. The little moments where the author’s voice breaks through and comments on the artificiality of the telling of the story also reminded me of Coe (though Nobbs has been doing it for years, of course).

Of course, I have a few criticisms. There were a few points where the reality of the situation felt a bit implausible; some of the media coverage that Coppinger faces, for instance, goes beyond even what has befallen Max Mosley and I couldn’t believe the press would go for the faked photo or print a picture of a middle aged-man full-frontally naked on their front pages. I was also taken out of the reality of the story a bit by some of the character names; with such a large cast I can understand the need to make them memorable, Dickensian character thumbnails, but it felt inconsistently applied, as some characters had utterly ridiculous names whilst others were perfectly ordinary. I’d have gone for realism, as some of the names were pushing the ‘cheap joke’ button a bit.

My main criticism with the book, though, is its title, which I understand was imposed onto the author against his wishes by his publishers. Nobbs tries to make the best of it, trying to justify it in the novel’s closing pages, but still can’t disguise the fact that the title does not accurately describe the trajectory of Coppinger’s fortunes. The Fall And Fall Of Gordon Coppinger might have been better. While I can understand the publishers' desire to elbow the book-buying public in the ribs with a reminder of Nobbs’ most widely-known work, I feel it’s really backfired here. As a Nobbs fan, I feel I’m being patronised, and that Nobbs himself is being undersold given his accomplished literary career. Where will it end? Will his next novel have its title unceremoniously replaced with Her Heart Might Be In The Right Place But Her Charlie’s Aunt?

In particular, slapping the words The Fall And Rise onto the title creates all sorts of inappropriate expectations, with the reader approaching the novel presuming it to be some sort of re-visitation or re-working of the themes of Reginald Perrin, inviting all sorts of comparisons, when in fact the book really has nothing to do with that earlier work and stands entirely on its own merits. I mean, yes, there are a few odd similarities for critics to point out – a couple of accountants who are modern equivalents of Tony Webster and David Harris-Jones – but anyone expecting Coppinger to be a TV sitcom-style laugh-riot will be disappointed, as this novel is about one man’s personal tragedy, and the tragedy that our society is geared towards of a state of sociopathic avarice.

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