The Heart Broke In by James Meek (Canongate - August, 2012)
At just about the precise moment of publication The Heart Broke In, James Meek’s ambitious, cumbersome, state-of-the-nation social novel, became suddenly and uncomfortably topical.
In the book’s beginning, boy-man Ritchie Shepherd, a former rock god turned teen TV Svengali, is sleeping with one of the subjects of his show, who is very much the wrong side of the age of consent.
In the real world, the many crimes of Top of the Pops TV fixer Sir Jimmy Savile were finally starting to come to light.
Although we are never asked to sympathise with Ritchie, we are required to indulge him throughout the lengthy plot as he tries to wriggle out of getting caught. This would be a tall order anyway, but even more so when in the real world even St John Peel was coming under attack for relationships with young girls. Ritchie is confronted not so much with a moral dilemma, more a one-man Mexican stand-off. How long, the reader is left to ask, before the inevitable happens? Answer? Nearly 500 pages.
In the book, the vile, moralising tabloid editor who finds out Ritchie’s dark secret has, it so happens, just been dumped by the TV presenter’s sister, a heroically anonymous scientist called Bec. So married dad Ritchie is set the challenge: dish the dirt on sis or the paper publishes and damns him, bringing on the police and bringing down his family.
A large part of the rest of the book is devoted to manoeuvring Bec into a position where she is both famous enough and compromised enough to be worth the exposé.
The book is really Bec’s story, although it takes too long for that to become apparent: we are eight chapters in before we go near the thoughts of anyone other than Ritchie.
Along the way she starts going out with Ritchie’s former bandmate Alex, now a faintly more famous scientist. We trawl over the death of her and Ritchie’s soldier dad at the hands of an IRA terrorist who now writes sensitive verse. This being a Big Social Novel, there are also some devout Christians to argue with Alex’s Dawkins-esque Uncle Harry, and a new-age, middle aged woman to snigger at.
Some of this is amusing and well-observed, but time and again the reader is left wondering what purpose these elements are serving other than showing this is a Big Social Novel. That we dart around between conciousnesses, often mid-scene, doesn’t help the feeling of being bombarded by too much high intention and not enough humanity.
It is the Tom Wolfe problem. Wolfe was a journalist who deployed novel-writing skills to his trade, then traded jobs and became a novelist who used the observational and loosely investigative skills of a reporter in his novels. In his best work – Bonfire of the Vanities and the recent return to form Back to Blood – the eye on society is so exacting that the inevitably ungainly and blatant plotting doesn’t matter. But in the lesser works – A Man in Full – things get a little awkward.
Meek is a journalist. A foreign correspondent on the Guardian and Observer and latterly an excellent prober of public life for the London Review of Books.
The Heart Broke In is, incidentally, the second Big Social Novel this year by an LRB man: John Lanchester’s Capital is another flawed, sprawling epic.
But what marks Meek out from Wolfe and Lanchester is that he is also a lyrical novelist of the first order. His 2005 breakthrough work, The People’s Act of Love, is a vivid, snowbound and beautifully contained leap into civil war Russia. Currently being filmed by Johnny Depp, it was very warmly received and shortlisted for the Booker.
His follow-up, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, was a highly competent newspaper novel about a war reporter in Afghanistan, a love story that had a lot of incidental things to say about that conflict and media coverage of it.
One telling difference between that novel and this is the treatment of newspapers. In the previous work the paper was entirely believable and the compromises it imposed on the main character were perfectly entwined with the man’s personal difficulties.
In The Heart Broke In, however, Val’s moralising mid-market title drifts sharply and quickly into being little more than a cartoon. Val invites Ritchie into the boardroom for a lunch where he casually reveals the TV man is going to be exposed, with the page proofs ready to taunt him:
‘Val raised his voice suddenly to a shout, almost a scream, so loud that Ritchie could hardly believe it came from a man’s mouth. “Do you have any idea what right and wrong is, Ritchie?’ Ritchie looked at him. “I asked you a fucking question, you weaselly cunt! Do you know the difference between right and wrong?”’
Nothing here, apart from the swearing, is realistic. The lunch would not happen, the page proofs would not be ready nor would they be presented.
It can reasonably be argued, of course, that this being a novel such unrealism shows off a greater reality.
But this is where the logic of the Big Social Novel falters. If you are trying to show the actual state of the nation, such a vast picture can only be achieved in broad, inaccurate strokes. The method necessarily corrupts the mission.
A more pointilist portrayal of tabloid power would never include such a meeting. In fact, the lack of contact between raging editor and victim is the point. It is that very distance, that anonymity of the mid-market moral rage, that makes it so septic and malign.
All of which is not to say the book does not have some wonderful moments. The Milky Way is ‘like something frantic that had been frozen there.’ Passing cars’ sound-sytems vibrate with noise ‘like thumbs plucking at slackly strung strings.’
Bec is a strong, central female character and there are never enough of those to go around. The science is expertly researched and explained, and the number of mainstream novels you can say that about is not large.
But many of the book’s pearls seem to occur in spite of or incidental to the book’s broader purpose. Examples abound: the authorial voice quite exquisitely maps the limits of Ritchie’s self-knowledge in a single line: ‘It hadn’t occurred to him that striving for a monopoly on generosity was the chief characteristic of a despot.’ Perfect… but why tell us now, just as we are getting to know him for ourselves? Uncle Harry’s “fountain of youth” cells are brought to him by Alex in a carrier bag, described in bullseye acoustic terms. ‘The thin plastic made a crinkling sound as its wrinkles relaxed.’ But over a paragraph later comes Harry’s line, obvious as an ITV stand-up’s: ‘“Sainsbury’s,’ he said. ‘Son of a gun. My genetically modified self should be a Waitrose product.’”
But more than enough of the constituent parts of this novel are effective and impressive.
And it is a noble aim: to do big realism, and to do it using high-brow, head-hopping literary smarts. What results is an interesting, engaging but ultimately flawed work, that makes you yearn for another, better book by this highly impressive writer.