Ben Elton

 

Inconceivable

 

I sometimes feel like Elton is more of a worker than an artist, although thatís probably a false dichotomy. Maybe novelists generally are more about discipline and craft than, I donít know, magic and inspiration, but some manage to disguise it better. Perhaps something to do with the difference between being utterly absorbed by a piece, as opposed to appreciating it but still being very conscious that you are watching a play/band/construction. Occasionally I lost my self-consciousness with Inconceivable, but more often I was very aware of observational stand-up material or classic sit-com farce (e.g. the PM broadcast, the fertility rite) being incorporated into plotlines, or of the overt narrative technique of alternating voices. Iím not saying this ruins the book, but I think itís a weakness. Occasionally I feel Iím back at the desk of the author, diligently writing up their notes Ė rather than on the plane or in the conversation with the actual characters. An exception to this is the short story Ė I think writing up an exercise or simply actualising a cool idea can be enough in that framework. However at some point in a novel a cool structural idea can move from refreshing to restrictive. I think itís more effective, for example, that Lodge stopped being quite so tied to a formula after The British Museum is Falling Down, and might just dip into an alternative voice or text type just for a chapter or two rather than feeling he has to stick with it all the way. I am still a bit amazed that Iain M. Banks got away with his phonetic cockney voice for an entire book, but even he can sometimes let loyalty to a good idea impede the pleasure of the reader.

 

There are plenty of moments in the book: Elton has some writing chops, and the comic and dramatic potential of two perspectives on the same incidents is often well realised. It was ambitious for him to write half the book within this overtly personal and reflective structure from the female perspective, and he acknowledges this difficulty as a major plot point. I wonder if he had a lot of proofing/editing advice from women in the process Ė although Lucyís voice Ė despite brutally giving her different obsessions and trappings (including un-PC vanity and coquettishness) Ė still often reads to me too much like Samís.

 

I sort of think of the book in three parts, where I enjoyed the start and the end more than the (larger) middle. Initially I thought it might be enjoyable to read and discuss the perspectives together with my wife, although the charm somehow faded as the chapters moved on. The middle bit relied more on set comic pieces and will she/wonít she soap opera. The surprisingly dramatic finale was more engaging (reminded me of the plot of Livelyís Passing On).

 

July 2016