The Brainstorm, by Jenny Turner

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Having confessed my fondness for “newspaper” novels (see my review of The Imperfectionists for a summary), I was on pointe immediately when a post from Will Rycroft alerted me to another oneThe Brainstorm, by Jenny Turner. It is not the best of journalism novels ever, but it has much to recommend it. And, whatever concerns that I might have with it, I suspect it heralds the end of the “great journalism” novel. I can only hope that Michael Frayn and some of his colleagues who toiled as both journalists and fiction writers in the last few decades will continue to document their experience.

Even today, most of this genre is set a few decades in the past (actually, the era when I worked in it) with ink-stained wretches, as much time spent in the pub as at the desk, Fleet Street the centre of the journalism world. That all changed some decades ago — so if “post-modern” is a term that can be applied to a newspaper novel, The Brainstorm fits that bill. The newspaper in Jenny Turner’s novel, a fading, formerly liberal, serious publication, is located in the Docklands, midst the shopping plazas, train stations and barren concrete approaches that Rupert Murdoch and his competitors made the “new” Fleet Street — as soulless a world as the former was drunken.

The central character of the novel — and the subject/victim of the brainstorm of the title — is Lorna, a sub-editor of the “brainy” section of the newspaper. Here is Turner’s introduction to Lorna at her desk:

Lorna turned her chair to look behind her, letting her eye sweep around the office floor. It was huge, like a park, but low-ceilinged, with walls of glass. It was crammed with workstations, broken up by banks of shelves. An executive cubicle jutted out at the far corner, with glass walls and potted-plant screening and beautiful flush doors. On the partition wall opposite, a sign had the name of a famous newspaper on it, etched in black on a sheet of thinnest tin. The same newspaper was heaped up in piles underneath it, and in more piles by the window, and in a smaller pile on Lorna’s desk. I’m in the office of a famous newspaper, she decided. The question was whether she was meant to be, and if she was, in what way. Just trying to frame the question made her feel alarmed and shaky. Her eye fell on a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. A passageway through the problem seemed to open up.

For anyone who has worked in — heck, even wandered into — a modern, high-rise office floor in the last couple of decades, that paragraph can only say “yes, I’ve been there”. It is typical of some of the best parts of Turner’s novel. She has an astute eye and an appreciation for what has changed and how things look now. Those descriptions aren’t limited to office life, they include shopping precincts, pubs, even dry-cleaners and they are a bedrock of what is strong with the novel.

The excerpt also introduces the reader to the “brainstorm” that Lorna is in the midst of — it isn’t so much defined as presented, in bits and pieces. Part of Lorna is all there, the part that examines what she doesn’t understand. Part is not there at all, a victim of the brainstorm, and Lorna is as puzzled by that as the reader is. For those who follow plot, it is the central story line of the novel; for those of us who appreciate the digressions and expansions, it is a necessary device.

Unfortunately, novelist Turner’s perceptive eye also has it downsides and these too play out in the book. There is no doubt that she believes quality newspapers have “dumbed down” in parallel with the move to the Docklands — and that means the staff, even of the “brainy” sections, has dumbed down as well.

The more dynamic of the souls clustered around Beatrice’s [the exeuctive editor] office had a blur about their outlines. They were only in this office in transit. Even before they had got here, they were already on their way to somewhere else. So what if they all had other needs, other agendas. So long as there were enough people buzzing around that office, wanting what they wanted, feeling their painfully felt desires, enough of these energies would intersect with one another to keep the thing afloat.

That description is about those who float at the top of the pile — Lorna is much closer to the bottom. Her colleagues are people like Julie, the power-driven, ambitious, deputy section editor, willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to get ahead; Miranda, who has determined that planning a party and her Rolodex are the path to success; Daisy, dippy as her name; and Kelly (“Kells” to the girls), a philosophy star who didn’t quite make it in the academy and is proving even more of a disaster in journalism, not the least because of her lack of fashion taste. (I am not being sexist — the males are even worse, but you will have to read the book to confirm that.)

Turner captures all of this with a resolute faithfulness — that observation is both an acknowledgement of her success and a pointer to her failure. The newspaper is dumber, its workers are dumber and, alas, the novel is dumber. The book is certainly not restricted to the workplace but even when it ventures beyond it is faithful to the emptiness of its characters and that leads to a void in the book.

I was reminded often during the reading of this novel of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, another modern “workplace” novel set in a Chicago ad agency — even though it is a continent away in geography and a few layers away in creative content (we journalists have nought but contempt for ad agency workers). I liked Ferris’ novel because of its relentless portrayal of the modern workplace, and I would give Turner equally high marks. And I was frustrated by Ferris’ work, because it seemed to spin its wheels in its devotion to an accurate portrayal of the mundane — again The Brainstorm does the same. (And both authors can criticize this reviewer on the basis of “that is exactly what we were trying to do”.) And having raised the comparison, I should note that many readers are ruthless in their evaluation of Ferris and I suspect they will dislike this book every bit as much.

I’ll offer another, more positive, assessment despite some of my grumpy observations on the novel. As I said at the start, there is an excellent subset of English fiction that explores the “newspaper” and creates the vision of Fleet Street and the characters who worked there (and for those of us who were old enough to have actually visited the Street in its heighday, it remains a remarkably accurate vision). Turner’s novel is at least written in that spirit, even if it does read like a lament for what once was.

Thirty years ago, those newspapers began the move to the Docklands and all those old structures (not just the physical ones, but the internal ones) were knocked down. The Brainstorm is a novel based on that older tradition, but it has followed the industry and its people to their new home. It is faithfully rendered — it is not Jenny Turner’s fault that today’s newspaper characters are so much less interesting than the previous generation was. The elastic bands on the cover of this novel are not just a clever graphic device — they are an appropriate symbol of what has happened to that world.

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17 Responses to “The Brainstorm, by Jenny Turner”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Have you seen other reviews of this book? It would be interesting to note the reactions of those who have not worked in journalism and whether they note the same strengths and weaknesses (makes me think of that racetrack novel you reviewed recently).

    Have you read Gissing’s New Grub Street?

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I miss having a quality newspaper to read…

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I haven’t seen any accept Will’s — didn’t really look, I must admit. New Grub Street rings a bell but that is all; I’ll check it out.

  4. kimbofo Says:

    Thanks for your review, Kevin. As you know I’m partial to novels about journalists, so I’ll be adding this one to the wishlist. Heck, if it’s available in Kindle format, I may well download it tonight ;-)

    It will be interesting to see whether we ever get any novels about the switch from print journalism to digital journalism – all that tweeting, facebooking, blogging, podcasting, you-tubing stuff newspaper/magazine staff now do as opposed to straight reporting. Hmmm… maybe that’s the novel idea (pun not intended) I’ve been looking for…

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: Interesting…I read your comment immediately after reading Frank Rich’s column in today’s New York Times. It is a commentary on American values as reflected in True Grit and The Social Network with some observations on the business ethic of new media, which of course is what drives both print and digital media. I suspect the screen (movie, tv or you-tube) is going to be ahead of print on this one for a bit.

    My guess is that various genre fiction will get to it first.

    As for this book, I did think about you and your recent work experience on more than one occasion while reading it. As someone with real-life experience in the changing medium, I suspect you will have more accurate observations than my lament for the past.

  6. kimbofo Says:

    Kevin, I think one of the MAJOR changes to journalism over the past 5 years has been the fact that journalists are no longer expected to be just straight reporters – they have to be marketeers as well. Of course, they never use the terms “marketing”, it’s called “social networking” but essentially it is the same thing.

  7. anokatony Says:

    That is a Question – How do you get an accurate portrayal of the mundane and still keep it interesting.

  8. LeeMonks Says:

    Kevin, have you read The Rum Diary?

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy, Lee: Thanks for adding to my list of potential newspaper novels:

    I now see that New Grub Street has been around for more than a century. I like the way that Trollope inserts journalists of questionable character (that hasn’t changed) into some of his novels, so I may have to consider this one at some point to broaden my historic reach.

    I looked at The Rum Diary some years back in a bookstore a couple of times — I’m afraid my aversion to Hunter S. Thompson overcame my interest in the subject of the book. Off the descriptions I read this morning, I’d say the case is still the same.

    Lisa, Kim: I shouldn’t admit it, but having worked in the newspaper business for 27 years, I stopped reading any actual physical newspaper a couple of years ago. The one that I used to edit and then publish is now what I would call “an oversized tabloid”, more dreadful than the one Turner describes — and I have access to very good newspapers like Canada’s Globe and Mail, the NY Times and the Guardian on line. In that sense, the newspaper world for me has got much better — less drek and access to journalists who are still very good. When you add in aggregators (like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast), you even have a selection mechanism in place — alas, it tends to fit a political profile. So there is both an upside and a downside (how would we three ever talk about books in the “old” world?).

    I have to admit that newspapers today are driven by a business model that I have to accept. The same technology that provides me that access drives the kind of instant communication (whatever term is used) that destroyed the kind of newspaper that I used to like to read.

    When I entered the business, the maxim was that a lede para should be less than 25 words. A “word” being five letters and a space, that would be 150 characters — almost exactly Twitter length. The ability to construct (I won’t say write) a single paragraph is the key characteristic required of young journalists today, so it is no wonder that they are not in-depth, thoughtful analysts. Turner illustrates that quite well, incidentally.

    I also read a column recently that talked about how column-writing (and even more important headline-writing) has changed in the new world. Since the bosses measure columnist success by web hits. And to get hits you need the search term in the headline. So finding a way to get “Paris Hilton” into the headline suddenly makes you a far more successful columnist. You both blog, so try it some time (not Paris Hilton, but another less sexist searchable term, perhaps). I did very well a few years ago when I included a picture of a “toque” in a review — get regular hits on it from “toque” searches to this day.

  10. Lee Monks Says:

    I understand that completely, but urge you to reconsider. It has some of the funniest passages I can remember in it: the ‘Lotterman’ character, and his interactions with his motley staff, are hilarious. I do think it’s an undervalued work.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: Well, it has been some decades so perhaps a Hunter S. Thompson re-evaluation might be in order. And this would certainly be a better starting point than his pseudo-journalism which is what most annoyed me. From the description, he also fills a void in the genre in that his newspaper is an almost-colonial sheet.

  12. kimbofo Says:

    Headline writing is a different art form these days, Kevin. Clever puns just don’t cut it in the online world – headlines have to be SEO friendly.

    I had a long discussion about this in a class I had to take at work last year – I was the only web savvy person in a room full of old-school sub editors who spent their whole time moaning about how restrictive it was to write headlines for websites and blogs. The only way I could fire them up — or to make them see it was still a stimulating job — was this: in print you are restricted by space (a certain number of characters and lines) but online you are restricted to key words (SEO friendly ones). That doesn’t mean you can no longer be creative with your headlines, you just have to approach writing them in a different way.

    It’s interesting to see which online newspapers are very good at this (The Guardian) and which ones struggle (The Age – in Melbourne).

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: If we start exchanging comments about headline writing, this post will never end. It is interesting that it is the same skill of “twisting” words, just with a somewhat different objective. I am sure Kate Middleton while staying at the Paris Hilton, near the Grand Oprah House, would (Will?) agree.

  14. Shelley Says:

    Sadly, I read somewhere that the major with the most graduates working in food service these days is…journalism.

  15. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Kevin, re: your comment about headlines being almost exactly Twitter length, now I know why I can’t warm up to Twitter. It’s like reading nothing but inane headlines.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Susan: Actually, it is the first paragraph, not headline — but the idea is pretty much the same.

  17. Lee Monks Says:

    Don’t be put off if you find him to be posture-heavy re: the journalism: it’s a measured and very funny take on a faltering Puerto Rico paper and the numerous ‘types’ and characters that such an enterprise may inevitably find in its midst. There are trademark favoured phrasings and so on but they’re not, I suggest, enough to dissuade even the most Thompson-averse reader.

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