By Sebastian Faulks
Doubleday, 319 pages, $24.95
Until a couple of months ago, Sebastian Faulks had a solid reputation as a capable and successful writer of high-end historical fiction. Then two things happened: In July, Ian Fleming’s estate revealed that it had commissioned Mr. Faulks to write a James Bond novel. (He follows in the footsteps of Kingsley Amis, whose botched attempt at reviving 007, Colonel Sun, is now largely forgotten, and John Gardner, who wrote 16 Bond novels and died, coincidentally, in early August.)
The other thing is that Mr. Faulks published a new novel, Engleby, a cold, clever book about a cold, clever character with an apparent personality disorder and—crucially—a smothered sentimental streak. If his Bond novel (Devil May Care, which is due out next May) is as sharp as Engleby, Sebastian Faulks will soon be known as one of the most versatile writers at work today—and one of the most entertaining.
A character study enriched by narratological fun and games, Engleby begins with the uncanny, drifts a bit in the middle and ends on a powerful, unexpectedly emotional note.
We’re plunged without introduction into the journals of Mike Engleby, a fiercely intelligent, acerbic and curiously disturbing young man who’s studying natural sciences at Cambridge University in the early 1970’s. One of the first signs of Engleby’s oddity is his coy refusal to actually name his “ancient university,” even though he describes the town with scrupulous accuracy and names the various colleges, which identifies the place willy-nilly. This peculiar omission, we soon find out, is only one of many.
Engleby drinks and smokes a lot, and skulks, and does drugs—but not in a way that could be described as recreational. He pops little blue pills (also unnamed) but never seems to lose his capacity for lucid, almost clinical analysis of his surroundings. Hypercritical of others, he’s more than just a loner: He’s isolated, even in a crowd. He gives off no human heat.
Then there’s his creepy infatuation with a pretty fellow student, Jennifer Arkland, who disappears in their final year—missing and presumed dead.
Has Engleby killed her? The novel generates an unusual kind of suspense, a nagging puzzlement. Jennifer’s fate is a worry, of course, but the persistent question is, What’s his problem?
You could blame his sad and dingy childhood. He was beaten by his father and badly bullied at boarding school—the account of his torment is painfully convincing. He bullied others in turn. Would this be enough to turn him into a murderous psychopath?
The best way to enjoy Engleby is to concentrate, as the bizarre suspense percolates, on Mr. Faulks’ exceptionally precise writing. At one point a psychiatrist asks Engleby what he values most. His answer—“accuracy”—could be Mr. Faulks’ mantra. Here, for example, we’re asked to imagine the inside of a nursing home: “The clamp of institution. Gaslight, grey. Like the metal ache of an injection when it fills your arm.”
AFTER HIS PECULIAR CAREER AT university, Engleby’s condition, whatever it is, improves somewhat. He moves to London, drifts into journalism and eventually becomes a feature writer for a Sunday paper. This middle section of the novel, which covers more than a dozen years, is punctuated with cameo appearances by famous Brits the young reporter interviews for his paper: We meet Jeffrey Archer, Ralph Richardson, Margaret Thatcher. There are moments of amusing satire, as when Engleby takes a look around in the mid-80’s and notices that “there are people suddenly making huge sums of money—I mean preposterous, dizzying, comical amounts. … No wonder they look … Glazed. Honey-glazed. Money-glazed.” But the London chapters feel somewhat thin and aimless, especially after his torturous youth and the shock of Jennifer’s disappearance.
In the last several chapters, the reader is finally given some outside perspective on Engleby. A man who knew him at university gives his account of an “awkward,” “unprepossessing” “oddball” who “very seldom laughed or showed any emotion at all.” And someone who reads Engleby’s journal (the same text we’re reading) offers a formal critique—a narrative gambit that becomes pleasingly knotty when Engleby later comments on the commentary.
We also begin to get Engleby’s own view of himself, which is characteristically astute—and full of holes. Exposing for an instant his tender side, he tells us that too much “pure, continuing unhappiness is bad for you. It burns away your gentler impulses. It corrodes the soul.” This particular corroded soul has blind spots and memory lapses—just like the rest of us.
He turns his attention to consciousness itself and argues that “the defining human faculty—that of self-awareness—is a faulty one, at best partial and frustrating, at worst utterly misleading.” His own self-awareness is probably faultier than most, but the singular Engleby dares to present himself as somehow representative. His bitter self-diagnosis is based on genetic truths we’d all prefer to ignore: “I share 50 per cent of my genome with a banana and 98 per cent with a chimpanzee. Bananas don’t do psychological consistency. And the tiny part of us that’s different—the special Homo sapiens bit—is faulty. It doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”
As Engleby sees it, his problem is that he’s human.
Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer.