I should start by saying that I’m a fan of Faulks’ novels, all but one of which I’ve read and enjoyed. But they were all set in the past – various parts of the 20th century – whereas A Week In December is that most self-concious of literary forms, a State of the Nation Novel.
During the course of the week in question (the year isn’t specified, but the book was published in 2009), we follow the progress of a number of characters in London. Most notably, there is a ruthless, amoral hedge fund manager and a would-be Muslim suicide bomber, and the main question at the heart of the novel is which of them is going to cause the most damage. Then there’s a down-at-heel but sympathic barrister, a female tube train driver, a Polish Premiership footballer, the hedge fund manager’s pot-addled teenage son, a cynical literary critic, an ambitious politician’s wife, an Asian businessman who’s made a fortune from chutney...
The list goes on and on, to such an extent that Faulks has provided a sort of key to them all in the first chapter, under the pretext that most of them are being invited to a dinner party that takes place on the final day of the week in question. A friend suggested that the publishers must have insisted on this list being added to help the poor, confused reader, and I suspect he may be right. I certainly found myself referring back to it at regular intervals.
Using a large number of characters isn’t a literary crime in itself, of course, though in a novel of fewer than 400 pages, it’s not particularly reader-friendly. The contrivance of the dinner party is clumsy, too – pretty much the only major character who isn’t invited, children aside, is Jenni the tube driver, and you sense that Faulks would have sent here there as well if he could just have contrived to make her one of the other characters’ long-lost niece or some such. And don’t get me started on the caricatures, most notably the critic, R Tranter (Art Ranter – geddit?), whose entire characterisation smacks of revenge.
No, what I really wanted to write about was the hedge fund manager, John Veals. Clearly, any State of the Nation Novel written towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century is going to have to deal with the financial markets, and Veals is a folk devil, the personification of everything that led to the financial crisis whose effects we’re still feeling. The trouble is that, in order to explain why Veals is so evil, Faulks has to go into detail about what he does and how it works. Thus, approximately 80% of the long sections of the novel in which Veals features are devoted to meticulous explanations of how various aspects of international finance operate.
Many years ago, I read a book about how to write fiction. I don’t remember much of the advice it contained, but one phrase stuck in my mind: “Don’t let your research show.” Large parts of A Week In December feel like they consist of nothing but research, and for me at least, they spoiled the experience of reading the novel. It felt like homework: rather than engaging with the characters, I was spending my time trying (and failing, it has to be said) to understand the complex financial world they inhabited.
There is a counter-argument, of course: that this is important stuff, and that unless we all understand how a few clever, greedy, amoral people brought the global financial system to its knees, we can’t begin to have a chance of preventing them doing the same thing again in the future. Maybe the novel is a good medium for that kind of education. But on the basis of A Week In December, I don’t think so. I suspect many readers will simply tire of the economics lesson, put the book down and read something else entirely. And I wouldn’t blame them.