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.