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December 02, 2009

David Womersley asks, has Sebastian Faulks plagiarised Joni Mitchell? And was it deliberate or unconscious? A Week in December - Sebastian Faulks

Posted by David Womersley

A Week in December
by Sebastian Faulks
Pp. 392. London: Hutchinson, 2009
Hardback, £18.99

Towards the end of A Week in December there is a very curious moment. Hassan al-Rashid, a radicalized British muslim, is on his way to take part in a co-ordinated series of suicide bombings on a London hospital. Sitting on the Tube, he is suddenly struck by an aspect of his own posture (p. 368):

He had shaved in order to look less threatening and he held his right hand firmly in his left. What could that hand desire, he thought, that he gripped it so tight?
Ring any bells? To people of my (and, I guess, Sebastian Faulks's) generation who listened to West Coast music, the words of Hassan's question unmistakably bring to mind a Joni Mitchell lyric. In "Edith and the Kingpin", a track on The Hissing of Summer Lawns about an encounter between a businessman and a woman he picks up, Mitchell sings of the businessman:
What does that hand desire
That he grips it so tight?
Allusion or plagiarism? Hassan has been raised in a Westernized milieu, it's true; but there is no prior mention in the novel to suggest that he nurses an enthusiasm for 1970s Californian rock. It seems unlikely, then, that this echo of Mitchell's lyric is to be taken as a stroke of characterization; as, that is, an implicit revelation of how saturated Hassan's mind has become with Western culture.

We are driven therefore to the possibility of plagiarism, and the question then arises: deliberate or unconscious? Is this a case of deliberate passing-off, or is it, more innocently, just an instance of an arresting phrase from long ago rising to the surface? And does it matter? I'll come back to these questions.

A Week in December is a thriller with a social conscience, which in my experience normally results in something insufficiently thrilling. It follows a group of characters over seven days leading up to Christmas 2007. John Veals runs the hedge fund High Level Capital, and is planning to make billions by shorting the share price of Allied Royal Bank; meanwhile, his neglected wife anaesthetizes herself with two bottles of wine a night, and his son smokes dope of increasing strength while watching It's Madness!, a reality TV show in which psychologically unwell members of the public are locked up in a house and made to perform demeaning tasks.

Farooq al-Rashid, a millionaire chutney manufacturer, is about to receive an OBE, while (as we have seen) his shallowly-radicalized son, Hassan, has been recruited into a terrorist cell. The website through which the cell communicates is a soft porn site, and the picture they use as a message board displays Olya, who is both the girl friend of a Polish footballer newly arrived in London, Tadeusz Borowski, and the obsession of John Veals, himself a frequent visitor to the site. Ralph Tranter is a vindictive jobbing reviewer whose biography of a minor Victorian novelist is on the shortlist for a literary prize, and who is giving Farooq some last-minute coaching on English literature in case the Queen should decide to make literary small-talk when he receives his decoration.

Gabriel Northwood is a struggling barrister who is defending an Underground driver, Jenni Fortune, in a case of negligence arising from a suicide who threw himself under her train. Jenni is addicted to an alternative reality program called "Parallax", where she has an encounter with a London schoolteacher, Radley Graves. (If it was tedious to read that last paragraph, take pity on your poor reviewer.)

So much by way of dramatis personae. The novel's claim to be, not just an honest thriller, but a piece of social criticism, rests on the way its various strands of plot cohere into an indictment of what the cover blurb calls "the complex patterns and crossings of modern urban life". What does Faulks's accusation boil down to? It is that the modern world not only cannot bear very much reality, but is running as fast as possible in the other direction. A minor character, previously presented to us as a hopeless drunk, is suddenly galvanised at the dinner party at the end of the novel where most of the major characters are gathered together to denounce in precisely these terms the modern financial world which permits men like John Veals to thrive (p. 376):

. . . investment banks and hedge funds created ever more arcane instruments which they could flog to one another in a completely false market. Because it was over the counter [sic], in private, the regulator couldn’t see it. Then they could sell an inverted iceberg of bets on the likelihood of the original instruments defaulting. They were able to account a notional profit on the balance sheet on all this Alice-in-Wonderland crap and so pay themselves gargantual bonuses.
Jenni's nightly recourse to Parallax, Vanessa Veals's nightly recourse to the bottle, Finbar Veals's nightly recourse to skunk, "reality" TV and fantasy football, Ralph Tranter's abandonment of novel-writing for meretricious reviewing, Gabriel Northwood's inability to let go of a previous, departed, mistress: for Faulks these, like the exotic instruments of modern finance from which John Veals extracts massive profits without any care for the harmful "real world" consequences of his actions, are all symptoms of the radical modern malaise of a desire to construct alternatives to reality; and the fundamentalist Muslim hatred of the West which temporarily ensnares Hassan is presented as a perverse, but not inaccurate, response to that culture.

Which takes us back to that fragment of the Joni Mitchell lyric which pops up without warning in the midst of Faulks's serviceable prose, where its superior imaginative power makes it stand out like a raspberry in a bowl of porridge. For Faulks seems not to be aware of the pressures you put on yourself when you decide to run this kind of analysis of the modern world. When you do so, you implicitly claim that you are not prey to the failings you anatomize; that you, in contrast to your characters, are indeed in touch with reality, and that your mental world is not prey to the shallownesses and confusions which disfigure theirs.

Both these claims are unsustainable in a novel where all the characters come from central casting, and where snippets of songs can arise without explanation. On this showing, Faulks may not like the subtle prison of the modern world, but he has no standpoint from which to launch an authoritative critique of it. He may be rattling on the bars, but, like his characters, he has no key.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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..and I thought I was the only one to spot that JM reference, which seemed to be crow barred into position with no special meaning

Posted by: charlie at November 1, 2010 11:17 PM
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Secret Santa gave me the book and I was initially pleased, never having read any Faulks before. I became increasingly irritated by the style - as if it was an answer to a piece of first year creative writing course work. I persuaded myself to finish it, thinking I would then look up some reviews, but when I saw the Joni Mitchell allusion/plagiarism that gave me the key. Thank you Prof Womersley (and "charlie"). By the way, what's the cyclist motif all about?

Posted by: Nick at January 1, 2012 01:00 PM
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