Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus: review

In the spirit of the post-modernism (or post-post-modernism, as one of the characters would have it) of this book, I shall declare my interest - I know Leo Benedictus (pictured right); he was at the same university as me (albeit a few years older), and we have friends in common; I have also met his father, David Benedictus, and reviewed his book (a new version of Winnie the Pooh). This book is probably as far from the comfort of the Hundred Acre Wood as you can get, unless Milne was re-written by J G Ballard (imagine that! The Car Crash at Pooh Corner?). It is a debut, and it is highly accomplished, dark, slick and clever.

The conceit is to follow four different characters - archetypes, as (again) the novel itself discusses - as they attend a party for an ageing (well, ageing in thespian terms - he's 31) actor. Our 'hero', if such a term can be applied, is Mike, who is there by accident as his boss couldn't attend; he is a sub-editor, and he's there for gossip. There is Hugo Marks, the actor, being charming; there is his wife, Mellody, a model who prefers to stick things up her nose; and there is Calvin, the X-Factor sensation. Benedictus' grasp of dialogue is excellent. 'Real' characters crop up - Gordon Ramsay, Tracey Emin, Stephen Fry - who speak in 'real' dialogue culled from interviews. (I remember discussing this with Leo years ago, and it is a real pleasure to see it in print). Ellis, Easton and Brett are the watchwords (Glamorama in particular); the theme fame.

The really satisfying touch is that there are more layers to this book. We see the tale as it is written, sent chapter by chapter to an agent; so we also get the excitement of a first time novelist getting feedback and a possible deal, and their discussions about presentation of the book and its blurb and so on. In another wry twist, the marketing ideas promoted within the book are the ideas used to promote it outside the book - competitions to get a cameo in the paperback and so on. Within the novel, the 'writer' is called William Mendez. As things progress, his agent discovers that there are more sinister things going on. Leo Benedictus himself does (or rather doesn't - you'll have to read it) pop up at one point. It all builds to two involving crises, one within the book within the book, and one without it.

All in all it's a mightily impressive debut, sharp, bleak, and satirical, showing a world empty of morality, in which most people are only out for themselves. Its framing metatextuality prompts feelings and thoughts about the nature of fiction itself: newspaper reports 'cast' people into archetypes (think of the recent Joanna Yates case, where her landlord was immediately presented as an eccentric). Seek it out yourself, and you could well end up in the paperback version...

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