Bookbuster Book Review: NOIR by Ken Champion
Review by Chris Connelley
I read a fair amount of fiction, and most of the British stuff is clever, elegant and slight. Its miniaturist map takes in comfortably-off urban worlds peopled with journalists, politicians and psychiatrists, eating well, drinking too much and living stylish, if unfulfilled lives, in the kind of well-appointed property that keeps the Evening Standard weekly property pull-out pregnant with promise.
When this cosmopolitan literary syllabub becomes just too cloying, and something grittier is called for, I usually turn to crime fiction, where meaner streets, housing recognisably ordinary people caught up in dark deeds proliferate. A lot of this genre is set ‘up north’, or over the border in Scotland, whose grim, grey, post-industrial landscapes host countless grizzling goings-on for the reader craving more carnivorous pleasure.
Painter turned poet turned prose master Ken Champion’s new novel, NOIR, scores highly for shunning the usual-suspect postcodes and for working outside the thriller format. His preferred manor is one he knows well, the east London mobility belt that sprawls from the low E-number newly hipster postcodes of Tower Hamlets through 1930s suntrap suburbia out into the Essex Badlands. Here, escapees from the old east end populate the seaside bungalows, the now middle-aged new towns and the sedate semi-rural retreats beyond the long-gone scampi in a basket and blue comedian palace of fading celebrity, the Circus Tavern.
His notional backdrop is the tight-knit world of World War 2 nostalgia, whose aficionados travel the country over the summer months in pursuit of vintage fashion, to hear big band sounds and ogle military hardware. Hovering on the fringe of one of these events, social science lecturer, Vincent, divorced, detached, lonely and the kind of meta-analyst more used to appraising a subculture without fully immersing himself in it, chances upon a veiled woman, Gail, who captures his attention, interests and intrigues him.
Over time, he becomes mesmerised, enraptured and obsessed by her, searching her out, fixating on her and craving her company. Circumstances conspire to throw them together. A relationship develops, escalating in a dizzy whirl until Gail, newly liberated from domestic tragedy, invites Vincent to move out of London to live with her in her remote Victorian cottage on Mersea Island.
All of which might suggest we are in the territory of clever contemporary romantic fiction – of Georgette Heyer being given a makeover by Michel Houellbeq.
We’d be mistaken, though, because around about its midpoint, NOIR turns seriously weird. Casting aside any preoccupation with the saccharine conventions of mid-life cohabitation – of detailing a world of tastefully etched fantasy sex games, life- drawing classes and country walks – Champion opts to take a walk on the wild side, charting Vincent’s suffocation in his new rustic setting and his increasing alienation from mainstream cultural values.
Like William Foster in ‘Falling Down’, Vincent is an everyman on the edge, angry and insecure in an ill-mannered metropolis defined by rampant consumerism, clamouring for instant, individual gratification in a culture increasingly dominated by a feelings-driven identity agenda now taking on enlightenment values of rational enquiry, science and progress that have prevailed for the last 200 years, and were defining for Vincent’s intellectual generation.
Gorging junk food in public, littering, hollering on mobile phones in public, sanctimonious managerialism, the tolerance of intolerance. Vincent rages against them all. What elevates this from the usual shock-jock ranting, though, is his armchair Marxist perspective, marinated over a quarter century of teaching sociology in urban colleges, yet stubbornly resistant to any practical engagement, or as he might put it, praxis. An emerging territory of conflicted leftism usually associated with another renegade social scientist, Frank Furedi and the clever rag-tag contrarians clustered around the online journal spiked.
These are vast, topical themes, edging Champion closer to explicitly political discussion than in any of his previous work, ensuring NOIR enjoys deep currency in a year that has seen alienation and anger on the part of disconnected publics generate upset on both the domestic and international stage.
Wry, raw, restless and risky, NOIR is very much of its time, combining social realism with a dreamlike intensity as a man out of his depth tries to make sense of a world out of control.