Archive for the ‘Benedictus, Leo’ Category

The Afterparty, by Leo Benedictus

March 28, 2011

Purchased at the Book Depository

Debut author Leo Benedictus (a columnist for The Guardian) has a very high opinion of the ground-breaking nature of The Afterparty. In the novel itself, he refers to it as post-post-modern (I am no academic so I’m not really sure what that means). In an online interview (titled “A new kind of novel? I honestly do think so, yes” — taken from an exchange in the interview), he compares himself to Paul Auster, Martin Amis and Italo Calvino. Whatever, he stakes a claim to the innovative nature of the book: it is not “metafiction”, it is “hyperfiction”. If you read that interview, he also thinks he is the first novelist to actually use real quotes from celebrities (Elton John is one) in his book — I find it hard to give credence to that claim.

On the other hand, for this reader, in some ways he was dead on, albeit with negative not positive implications (would that his writing talent was half as substantial as his ego). Less than a quarter of the way through the book, my interest in the novel itself had been overtaken by a rather morbid curiosity: Is The Afterparty an example of what contemporary fiction produced by the texting, twittering, mobile-chained generation is going to look like in the future? I know there is a healthy market in Japan for “novels” written by teenage girls on their cellphones, filed on-line and later turned into conventional pulp-and-paper books. Are we headed that way too? And where does that leave 63-year-old, Jane Austen-loving me?

So, in the spirit of The Afterparty, here’s an attempt at a post-post-modern, hyperfiction review (including the compulsory introduction of the writer — in this case, KfC — into the text). For me, this novel comes in three storylines:

Storyline One: The actual “novel” of the book comes in the form of draft chapters that the author, William Mendez, is submitting to a prospective agent under the title of Publicity, later to be amended to Publicity*****. The staging event for these draft chapters is the 31st birthday party for actor Hugo Marks (who has a new film about to be released in a couple weeks — a major motivating factor in the need for a party to attract the paparazzi) at a private Soho club, Cuzco. Much drink and cocaine will be consumed at the club and the ensuing afterparty.

The Soho party features a number of real-life celebrities (Elton John, Mark Wahlberg and Gordon Ramsay among others — I am not up to date on UK celeb gossip, so a number of them passed me by). A fair grouping of rock stars, including Calvin Vance, a grad of The X-Factor who is about to release an album, are also present. Like most parties of this nature, it is part party, part substance-consuming excuse, part meet-and-greet business. One of Benedictus’ distinguishing post-post-modern contributions is to include a sub-editor from The Standard, Michael, as an observer and participant — in his working life, Michael fine tunes the copy of the paper’s diary columnist and is there on the strength of her invitation, since she had a more important function to attend.

Benendictus writes these chapters from four different points of view and, helpfully for the reading-challenged, each is set in a different typeface in the novel: the actor, Hugo Marks; his wife, the drug-rehabbed but still-addicted supermodel, Mellody; Calvin, the 20-year-old budding rock star and Michael, the hapless sub-editor.

Without giving too much away, at the halfway point in the novel, they all end up at Hugo’s house for the afterparty of the title — either drunk or drugged, but still partying on. Calvin falls off the roof and dies (I gather this is a fictional version of a real event that this North American does not know about and I am not interested enough to google it). A police investigation — and celebrity cover-up — ensues.

Storyline Two: All of the above draft chapters are interpersed with e-mail exchanges between author Mendez and his prospective agent, Valerie Morrell. Benedictus has said that many of these are real copies from his own experience writing the novel and searching for an agent and publisher. Here is a sample, taken from agent Morrell’s response to Mendez between receiving chapters two and three:

Thanks for this. From what I have seen of it so far, I think the book is very promising. I enjoy your style, and the introduction of Calvin adds a valuable extra dimension. You say you are still polishing the rest so I was wondering if there might be any more I could have a look at, perhaps with a synopsis? Let me rephrase that: I’m desperate to know what happens next!

I wasn’t that desperate (as you have already discovered) but I’ll admit that Benedictus uses these emails to significant effect and some humor. Just at the point when I was thinking this novel was a possible Richard and Judy contender, if only Benedictus eliminated a few “fucks” from the narrative, he introduces a scene where a rock musician character tells the story of “fucking” a dog at some previous party. Agent Valerie responds:

Read the new chap this morning, by the way. Splendid stuff, especially the dog sex. I think that’s safely excised you from Richard and Judy’s list…

Storyline Three: In which the reviewer introduces himself into the review. As noted earlier, at about the one-quarter point, curiosity that my own reading tastes might now be consigned to some historical dustbin took over from any real interest in the novel itself. This feeling became even more distressing as the novel progressed and The Afterparty became ever more littered with sophomoric gimmicks.

Author Mendez (that turns out to be pseudonym, incidentally — bet you can’t guess who shows up as a stand-in author?) also includes a number of marketing ideas in his exchanges with his putative agent. He thinks it would be a great idea if online reviewers (at Amazon or on blogs like this one, I presume) were promised that quotes from two reviews would be included on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book to be published in 2012. Even better, the author would promise to introduce a cameo appearance for one lucky reader in that edition — just email your personal details to the publisher and “the most enticing character will be written into the Cuzco party scene under your name. No pets.” Also, if you post a twitter message with an identifying link to the novel’s website it will be included in an appendix to that 2012 edition.

And, guess what? Random House’s Jonathan Cape is promising to do all that — for real — with the next edition of The Afterparty (my UK version of this edition is already in paperback, so I’m assuming Benedictus missed out on a hardcover edition and they are talking about the mass-market version). So this whole project is not so much an exercise in fiction writing, but rather the institutionalization of social media in traditional book publishing. “Hyperfiction” turns out to be an exercise in mass sales promotion.

I did finish the book with a sense of personal dread, I must admit. The cute gimmicks are so appalling — and pervasive — that I had to see them through to the end. My bigger concern, though, was that I had had a similar reaction to another book just a few months ago, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad — and that novel has attracted rave reviews from a wide variety of sources and is a fixture on most U.S. prize lists this spring. And another novel recently reviewed here, Timothy Taylor’s The Blue Light Project, has some similar characteristics of multiple story lines, and internal excerpts from a book about them, although the social media element in that one is a graffiti collective.

There is a major difference, however — Egan and Taylor are both talented writers and, while some of their gimmicks annoyed me, I can understand why others found them persuasive. And neither had the gall to inserts themselves as a character in their book. Benedictus’ novel, on the other hand, is all gimmick with no underlying substance or style. Even the “satire” of the celebrity world is embarrassingly amateurish.

The most positive spin that I can put on this is that it simply represents the emergence of a new genre that doesn’t appeal to me, much like those Japanese cellphone romances. The nagging doubt is that all the prize attention these books are attracting (if The Afterparty makes the Booker longlist I am in serious trouble) means that this reader is being left in the distant wake of the course of contemporary fiction. Fortunately, I have a library of a couple thousand volumes to fall back on. And if you drop in here some time in the future and see that the name of the blog has been changed to CurmudgeonfromCanada, you will know that I have admitted defeat.


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