Friday, 15 October 2010

Author! Author!

There's something very strange going on with John Lanchester's latest book, beyond the presumably American-influenced swapping between titles, from I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay to Whoops!: Why Everyone etc. What I find odder is the erasure of the redoubtable author's entire back catalogue in its Penguin edition: The Debt to Pleasure (1996), Mr Phillips (2000), Fragrant Harbour (2002)... all gone. OK, his other books are published by Faber - and reality may be no more mundane than that - but it's as if his fiction-writing background is a dirty secret, which might put buyers off.

Now, Lanchester is a splendid non-fiction writer too, as we know from his extremely fine journalism - I hesitate to call him an essayist - and 2007's memoir Family Romance. All of this, it seems to me, would serve as a splendid advertisement for his ability to write a knowledgeable and incisive treatise on the global economic crisis. Instead, there's a painfully staged photograph of the author, presumably sitting in his Battersea back garden, Anglepoise and MacBook by his side, the very picture of confused efficiency. There's also an awkward attempt to claim Lanchester predicted the financial collapse in 2008, though I hardly think this phrase is definitive: 'You would be forgiven for thinking that some sort of crash is imminent.'

There is some autobiographical material in Whoops!, including references to Lanchester's childhood in Hong Kong with a banker father, which fired his interest in finance and, presumably, went some way to inspiring him to write Fragrant Harbour, a captivating portrait of the dependency in the 20th-century that comes after Timothy Mo's brilliant An Insular Possession (1986). (I'm surprised both books aren't more often mentioned in connection with the work of David Mitchell, with which they share many themes and interests.)

In Whoops! there's also some background about a flat Lanchester bought in King's Cross, which informed American writer Madison Smart Bell and, perhaps, Lanchester's lovely Mr Phillips. Phillips is an accountant who continues to commute into central London after he loses his job, and finds a number of comic distractions to fill his days, including meeting a porn publisher, who explains the joy of his business thus: 'Dual streams of revenue, that's the beauty… People buy the magazine to have a wank, and people advertise in the magazine to get in touch with people who wank, and it's all the best business in the world, since everybody wanks.' What marks the book, and all Lanchester's work, is his humanity, and that, you might think, would be eminently important for this latest. Especially when Whoops! is largely about wankers.

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