The hair is unmistakable: old-fashioned Russian hair, swept back from the forehead, thickly and unusually abundant. Leonard stands on the rug a meter from the television screen to see more closely. The video footage is grainy and unsteady, purposefully amateur. The man reading the prepared statement in the curtained room does not mean to be recognized. Instead, he has masked his face to the bridge of the nose with what appears to be a child’s scarf. His voice, crudely distorted on the sound track, is childlike too. He wears sunglasses, defiantly unfashionable E-clips, ten years old at least. The light beam from the camera is lasered at his chest and the lowest half of his scarf, so that what little of the face can be seen — the ears, the eyebrows and the forehead — is underlit and ghostly. But the hair is unmistakable.
Lennie recognizes the image — it’s Maxie, Maxie Lermon, Maxie Lermontov, “the big-smiled American son of Russian immigrants”. Eighteen years earlier in Texas, Maxie was “a comrade, colleague, accomplice” of Lennie’s. The television image evokes memories of some dubious activity then — Lennie, a classic avoider of involvement, has opened the door to his own version of personal hell.
That is the opening of All That Follows, the tenth novel from Jim Crace, a Birmingham-based writer of some renown. I had heard about him but have not read any of his previous work. I have been meaning to rectify that and when he said in a recent interview that he would only be writing one more novel, now seemed a good time to start. A blogger whose opinion I trust highly — John Self at the Asylum — is a Crace advocate, which added weight to that resolve. I won’t try to summarize Crace’s career — you can find a link to John’s review of this novel (which does include that history) and an online interview with the author here. I recommend both highly as supplying far more Crace context than this review will.
That hostage-taking and its eventual conclusion form the thriller part of the novel. But for this reader at least, the much more interesting, parallel, story line is introduced in the final paragraph of the first chapter when Lennie contemplates what he should do now that he knows who the unidentified hostage-taker is:
Leonard could pick up the telephone at any time to offer information to the police. He knows he should. Identify the unidentified. Supply a name. Provide intelligence. But it is already late and Leonard is still trembling. It has been a tense and shocking day, and he is too troubled for anything except retreat. It has gone midnight. Everybody will be sleeping now, or trying to. The police, the comrades, the hostages. Leonard will be sleeping soon, still dressed, on his futon, so frequently his bed these days, the television flickering, Francine unreachable upstairs. Tomorrow he should phone. He will phone. He will never phone. He does his best to sleep.
Back in Austin in 2006, Lennie was one of three members of a political group of “Texas troublemakers” who called themselves Snipers Without Bullets. The other two were Maxie and his girl friend, the newly-pregnant Nadia who is Lennie’s reason for having flown in from England (he didn’t know about either Maxie or the pregnancy). Maxie has developed an “action” for Snipers — code-named AmBush — and mentally bullies Lennie into taking part. That radical action wasn’t life-threatening (it becomes hilarious in fact) but this one seems more serious. Crace does have a sense of both humor and the absurd.
We don’t find that Texas history out until well into the book so I will go no further. In an action-driven book, reviews that indicate too many of the driving incidents effectively destroy the book — part of what is attractive about this novel is the way Crace takes his next absurd step and he needs the element of surprise. Take my word for it, all three plot streams — the semi-dystopia, the hostage-taking and Lennie’s devout conflict avoidance — all have numerous surprises. Indeed, perhaps the biggest problem with the book is that there are simply too many of them.
So how do those three streams flow?
The semi-dystopia (sorry about the term, but the novel isn’t really dystopian; neither is it normal) is perhaps the weakest. The author needs the conflict between 2006 and 2024 both to set up the tension arising from the 18-year-gap in his narrative threads and to underline the powerlessness of his characters. While there is a Reconciliation Summit about to take place in the district and the hostage-taking is believed to be linked to it, the thread doesn’t really go anywhere — when Crace inserts one of his surprises on this theme it is almost as if he has thought “whoops, have to get back to that one now”. The problem with dystopias in fiction is that they always need to be there at the centre of the story and this one is merely a third of it.
The hostage-taking line works far more effectively and is what kept this reader turning the pages. The twists and turns in the present stretch credibility but provide rewards if you go along with them; the excursions back into history are equally worthwhile. Again, however, if you are going to use a device like this it needs to be the dominant theme throughout the book and, like the dystopia, it is only an equal strand in this one.
By default, that leaves the conflict avoidance thread as the strongest in the book. The Lennie of 2006 wants no more a role in being part of the action than the Lennie of 2024 does — even to the point of being unwilling to call the police to reveal an identity. And yet…he has a curiosity that means not only is he equally incapable of taking evasive action, he has a driving need to get close to what he sincerely wants to avoid to see what is going on. Which of course locates him as an unwitting victim right at the centre of what he is trying to avoid.
Action, absurdity, humor and a sympathetic, if hapless, central character — coupled with a reader-friendly prose style — make All That Follows a fast-paced, entertaining read. Unfortunately, a product of those three equally-weighted story lines is that it is not much more. I closed the book thinking “that was a good read” and four days later needed to pick it up again to remind myself what it was about. I’d call it “a great airplane book for serious readers”. There is nothing the matter with that but I must admit that, given Crace’s literary reputation, I was expecting more.