But Honor is approaching her 80th birthday and, like so many journalists, has lived on the “spend as you go” financial plan. Her economic survival is dependent on a friendly book publisher who produced a life-saving volume collecting some of her best work — volume two is about to appear and a third is in proof form. Honor needs them to sell to continue her current style of life — and that means granting an interview to promote the second volume of her collection:
She had two hours to conceal the secrets of her life. Evidence of vanity, foolishness and worse must be expunged. Domestic disorder was not a concern; the maid had remedied that this morning. And though Honor Tait might have been a slattern by inclination, she was never a collector, of people or of things. Divorce, bereavement, a house fire, a stringently unsentimental nature and the protocols of regular travel had ensured that, for a woman of her years, the flotsam was minimal. She had always travelled light. In love, as in life, it was hand baggage only. So what was left here in the London apartment? Which piece of junk, what accidental survivor of time’s winnowing, would betray her?
The reporter who is about to arrive is one Tamara Sim, a “regular casual” at The Monitor, a national newspaper with pretentions, who is looking for a more secure footing, i.e. a full-time post. She’s in her twenties and her knowledge of Honor is limited — the piece on “the wife of a Chinese dictator from the 1950s” was a set text in her Media Studies course and that is about all she has read. She has been commissioned to do a 4,000-word piece for S*nday, the paper’s upscale weekend magazine known more for the credentials of its contributors (Nobel and Booker prize winners) than its actual content. Tamara hardly fits the mold:
Tamara worked four days a week on The Monitor as a freelance sub editor and writer for Psst!, the paper’s Saturday celebrity gossip and TV listings magazine — a brash oik to S*nday’s snooty metaphysician. The world described in the primary-coloured pages of Psst!, peopled by sex-addicted soap stars and feuding boy bands, anorexic footballers’ molls and drug-taking TV hosts, was as remote from the intellectual aristrocrats of S*nday as was Pluto, in both its planetary and Disney incarnations. Lyra Moore’s [she is S*nday‘s editor] magazine, irreproachably elegant and cerebral, was regarded as the British riposte to the New Yorker, with the added appeal of pictures.
I’ve confessed previously a fondness for newspaper novels, so I approached The Spoiler with a positive frame of mind. Added to that was the appeal of what author McAfee personally brings to the project. On the professional side, she has worked in newspapers for more than three decades, including a stint as Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times and she founded the Guardian Review. So she has met and worked with more than one version of Tamara Sim in her career,
Perhaps more important to the success of The Spoiler, however, is McAfee’s private background — she is married to British author Ian McEwan. In the literary world, McEwan is as close as you can get to being a “celebrity” and he has experienced both the ups and downs of press coverage that come with that designation in the world of journalism. McAfee knows as much about what it is like to be Honor Tait as she does Tamara Sim.
Tamara shows up for the reluctantly-granted interview totally unprepared — she hasn’t actually read the new book and her “research” has been limited to looking at the Monitor’s clipping file on Honor, mainly the Hollywood aspect, with particular attention to the sexy pictures. There is more Psst! than S*nday to her planned story — she wants sex, celebrities and scandal, not ancient journalistic history like discovering concentration camps. Honor, who wants no part of the interview at all, is only willing to revisit the circumstances of the serious journalistic pieces that are being recycled in the book — and would far prefer that the reporter read those instead of talking to her. In no time at all, using her inherent reporter’s skills, she reduces Tamara to tears by exposing her shoddy preparation for the interview.
That establishes the two ongoing story themes of the novel and McAfee is faithful to them throughout the book. Tait’s social life at the moment is pretty much restricted to the Monday Club, a monthly meeting of younger, male sycophants at her Maida Vale residence, which Tamara (who crashes a gathering of the Monday Club) zooms in on as the possible “sexy” angle for her story — what scandal lies behind these poseurs who regularly visit an elderly woman? On the other side of the coin, Tamara needs to keep performing for Psst! — she does the A lists (Ten Best/Ten Worst — haircuts, diets, cellulite thighs, that sort of thing) and other lists (What’s In/What’s Out, Going Up/Going Down, Good Week/Bad Week). If you read newspapers at all, you know about those lists which seem to show up on every other page. Somebody has to compile them — and I can assure you the “journalists” who do all aspire to be doing something else.
I have done no more so far in this review than outline how McAfee sets her story. After this, she sets both Honor and Tamara’s stories in motion and performs admirably in keeping the novelistic version of the story together.
It is time for full disclosure, before offering an assessment. I spent 27 years in the newspaper business, the last half as a senior editor and publisher — it is a coincidence of timing that I left the business in 1997, the present day of this novel. I employed and mentored versions of ambitious Tamara; I dealt with scores of versions of Honor (or their agents) complaining on the other end of the phone or, even worse, in person. I also supervised Canada’s largest international news agency for a number of years, so I even have experience with the foreign correspondent part of Honor’s background (rest assured, they are a very special breed — and McAfee portrays it well). It is impossible for me to just be a “reader” of this novel — so bear that in mind when considering the following assessment.
What’s good about The Spoiler? What works best for me is the way that McAfee uses the superstructure of her story to explore in significant satirical detail the way that contemporary print media work. Just as an example, she has an extended riff on what departments are located where in the Mirror building — Psst! and TV listings are in the basement, S*nday is on the top floor, along with the editor’s office (he’s rarely there as he enjoys visiting aristocratic friends in the country). Aspiration in the Mirror is literal — moving up a floor, or more, is promotion. If you want to learn about how newspapers work, this novel is an excellent source. Equally strong is McAfee’s understanding and portrayal of the tension between reporter and celebrity subject — in the final analysis, she doesn’t come down on either side, since she knows both equally well.
What’s not good? The author has a tendency to go overboard on some detail. I love newspapers, but the repetition started to grate even with me. McAfee also employs another device that just doesn’t work. Honor is composing a “coda” to introduce volume three of her collected works, a look back at the Pulitzer-prize winning story about Buchenwald. She retreats to working on it whenever she is upset in the present (which means most of the novel) and there are more than 20 versions of the opening paragraphs in the novel. Tamara does the same thing with her magazine piece. In both cases, it is interesting the first four or five times — after that, it becomes annoying.
Despite those quibbles, I heartily recommend this novel for anyone who is even mildly interested in how the news gets presented to you in print form — be it on dead trees or online. McAfee knows the business and has captured it exceptionally well, acknowledging that there is some exaggeration for effect. What makes The Spoiler special, however, is her understanding of the “other” side, the persecuted subject. As the novel moves to a close, the conflict between these two points of view becomes ever more important — and McAfee uses her knowledge of both to great advantage.
(A special thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters who drew my attention to this book. Kim is a journalist as well and we exchange touts on “newspaper” novels. Click on her blog title for a link to her review of The Spoiler.)