Jason Weaver sees two very different sides of London in Nicholas Blincoe’s Jello Salad and John L. Williams’ Faithless
What is there to say about Jello Salad by Nicholas Blincoe? Well, there’s a bit of sex, and a lot of drugs and even more violence. Blincoe’s characters do things to the body that will never have crossed your mind. Hopefully. There’s a plot which brings ex-pat gangsters, Mancunian ravers and a humpty chef together on a bad, bad trip during the opening night of a Soho restaurant. The role-call of outlandish coincidence so crucial to the crime genre is here stretched to the point of disbelief. Which is perhaps the point in itself.
Jello Salad is a novel that aspires to be unbelievable. It can be scrupulous with the details, documenting London locations with map and compass, but the book itself is outside the arena of criticism. Blincoe reaches the road of probability and takes a sharp left. When it comes to an absurd premise, the author is not afraid to push his fist in up to the elbow. You couldn’t write a novel more pulp than this if you put it in the liquidiser. Thus, shaking a stick of morality, taste or political responsibility – the trinity of criticism – would be to state the oblivious. If you want a dissertation, go read Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stalk Nightmares. Jello Salad flouts its degeneracy. And how.
What does that leave? With Blincoe, we are left with a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram: an art that has jettisoned morality offers only good writing or bad writing. Which is this? A bit of both, actually. Blincoe has an almost mathematic mind for cruelty, which would give De Sade something to think about. In many ways, Blincoe’s imagination is both the best and worst thing about Jello Salad. Sometimes it is inspired, as when henchman Cardiff gets his memorable punishment – I won’t spoil it. Often events are just plain creaky, when a body is found in the kitchens, for example, and Cheb agrees to dispose of it with great gusto but no clear motive. The logic of anything-will-happen easily cheapens any shock value the book might contain.
In terms of ye olde qualities of plot, character and dialogue, Blincoe’s writing is uneven. He has none of onmouseover=”window.status=’Spike review of the latest Welsh book, Ecstasy – Three Chemical Romances’; return true”>Irvine Welsh’s sensitivity to voice. Blincoe needs to work up his dynamics. Things have a habit of merging, one character blending into another. At times, this is apt, adding to the chemical air of dysfunctionality. There is an early scene, when Hogie’s cocktail of acid and speed kicks in and Blincoe’s writing distorts time, space and perception without resorting to cliche. Exciting stuff. Moreover, Jello Salad is at least democratic in its world of precarious highs and nefarious low-lives. Blokes, birds, Asians, blacks, toffs, scallies, straights and gays all get a crack of the whip. Very cosmopolitan. The book is fun, despite all the violence. Or perhaps because of it? It is actually a light read. Easy going because we don’t have to do any of the work. We’re not even called upon to disapprove, the reader is never implicated in what happens as removed from reality as it is.
Which leaves us with what? The vexed question of entertainment. What does it mean for a culture to read to pass the day. Why kill time when you can kill yourself, as Tony Hancock said. I enjoyed reading this book. Is that enough? When we invest money, we expect a return. I enjoyed Jello Salad, at the time, but bought nothing away from it. Time is a precious commodity and when we give it out perhaps we should demand more than a cheap thrill?
John L William’s book Faithless, on the other hand, is not especially entertaining but is still a stimulating read. There is something old fashioned about it. Set in the england of the transi-Tory Eighties, the novel lacks the psychedelic tinge of Blincoe. It is almost documentary. Set in the same London streets, less than half a mile across the Charing Cross Road, Faithless has the same Ordnance Survey attention to place but treats it in a very different manner. Soho is territory under threat, it needs to be protected from the gangsters with money and mobiles as much as with muscle. “A new wave wave coming in and what we thought was our world was washing away. We didn’t know it yet but we were all Thatcher’s children.” There is something effectively creepy about the spread of the Yuppie here, like a slow disease. The occupation of these streets becomes an intrinsically political activity and, because of this, Faithless is a valuable witness-documentation of how our lives changed forever. I found it very authentic.
The plot is a not-very thrilling thriller, development is tenuous and has none of the tight-arsed machinations of Jello Salad. Things happen, people are murdered, a red-herring blackmail is attempted. The novel is appropriately anti-climatic. Jeff would be in a band but is in a record shop. His former colleague is making it big with pretentious pop. Jeff is the forgotten and bitter twin to Ross’s upward mobility. Ross seems to have been modelled on Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, punk turned post-modernist, wrapping pop up into a tangled political alibi. The novel is called Faithless, the name of an early Scritti single. And with the Welsh connection, perhaps there’s some biography going on in here?
Referring to Tom Wolfe’s background in journalism, Anthony Burgess claimed that Bonfire Of The Vanities was not literature. I have that feeling about Faithless. There is little in the way of poetry. The language works with verbs and dialogue, giving us the bare bones of the matter. Some events are startling, fires and stabbings but they come at us in camouflage, unruffling the inexorable rise of the new money. I finished feeling a little battered, repressed and depressed, but I identified with its version of the Eighties. Like the book they seemed cold and gaudy, gauche and defeated. Unlike Jello Salad, there’s the chime of truth to Faithless. That’s some kind of success.
What strikes me about both of these novels, and others, such as those of Jeff Noon, is their specific location. Noon’s Nymphomation takes the streets of Manchester and blasts them into an incredible floral cyberspace. (Indeed, Blincoe’s debut novel Acid Casuals showed the same city’s drug cartels and club mafias through the eyes of a crime noir transsexual out for revenge). Quite literally, mate, these authors are on the street, taking domestic properties and rewriting them anew. The bookshelves have been clogged up with campus novels and home counties romances that were the fruits of a bourgeois formula and little else. Literature is different these days. Rather than getting hung-up on the classics or importing our reading from abroad, there is a home-grown sensibility developing inside the greenhouse. Faithless and Jello Salad are novels about the same London, rendered very differently. As such, they are the latest flowering of an urban literature, growing out of the past with the vehemence of spring and using its feelers to find the future.