Was it Randall Jarrell who defined a novel as a long piece of prose fiction with something wrong with it? By that yardstick, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is a novel thousands of times over. Timothy Mo has decided to go solo with this book, and has set up his own press for the purpose. This is not vanity publishing as that phrase is normally understood (Mo has in the past made money for himself and his publishers) but vanity certainly seems to come into it. What was intended as a declaration of independence reads as an inadvertent tribute to the missing – to the many people who, in the case of a conventionally published book, intervene with their skills between the originating ego of the novelist and the bookshop of final destination.
The style of a novel is its atmosphere, not in the sense that the little bistro on the corner has atmosphere, but in the sense that the Earth has an atmosphere. Style is what a reader breathes. Plot is made of words, character is made of words: if those words are badly used or hard to make sense of, then plot and character become technical terms rather than things followed and felt.
Sometimes the faults are grammatical: ‘Now a choir of what looked like hundreds but, consulting his hand-out, logic said had to be less than 50, the number of available skates, swooped round the circuit trailing helium-filled balloons and giving the national anthem an even jerkier rendition than was its due.’ ‘Consulting’ here has no subject, and the numerical details are unhelpful (there can only be 25 skaters).
More often, it is simply that there is no reader over Mo’s shoulder, no immediate imaginary consumer of what he produces. As a result, he writes sentences that are tiring to read: ‘These days, local debts of honour discharged in the electoral aftermath – and from earliest days it had been ingrained in him that the national political picture was essentially a mosaic of local power bases – the correct palms greased from his pork-barrel in the just proportion – the Congressman spent five days a week in Manila, coming home at the weekend.’ Readers of English need a sentence to have a subject, and shouldn’t be deprived of one for so long. The phrase that starts with ‘local’ has potential, but turns out to be an ablative absolute, with ‘having been’ omitted before ‘discharged’. The search must go on, for another thirty-plus words.
Main verbs are sometimes similarly elusive: ‘The sights and sounds of this, the Congressman cooing sweet nothings down the receiver, stunned, stymied and amazed, in the way that the spectacle of a vulture squawking “Who’s a pretty boy?” might inspire true humility in the heart of the learned ornithologist.’ Since the verbs ‘stun’, ‘stymie’ and ‘amaze’ are all transitive, the reading eye construes them as past participles adjectival in function, describing the Congressman. In fact they are the main verbs of the sentence, although admittedly the sentence contains no clue about who is being stunned, stymied and amazed. The Congressman is alone at the time, after all.
Timothy Mo has a powerful knack for sabotaging rhythm even when his grammar is reasonably clear: ‘ “Because,” said Charina, parrotting with the obligingness of one who has had scientific principles drummed into them by parents very much unwillingly but against appalling odds has fought through to mastery because of the delightful potential for practical application, “the water temperature will chill the outside of the glass.” ’
Readers of literary prose don’t mind doing a bit of work, but in this book the division of labour between reader and writer is highly unequal. Time spent within the book trying to make sense of basic verbal structures is time taken away from enjoying what it might have to offer. Nothing whatever is gained by Mo’s presenting information in the reverse of the logical order, so as to render a simple sentence baffling: ‘Carla therefore felt able to give her a knock on the door, ascending in the elevator, the occupants of which were visible from the lobby in a huge glass tube, much like boli travelling on the peristaltic wave.’ Logically: Carla notices while waiting for the lift what its occupants look like from the lobby, then ascends in it, then knocks at someone’s door.
Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is full of tautologies and near-malapropisms. There’s ‘neutral indifference’, there’s ‘many preceding drinks earlier’, there’s ‘nemesis looming with a fatal inevitability’. Timothy Mo uses ‘unusual’ to mean ‘unfamiliar’ (‘the languages more unusual to him’), and ‘on the right wavelength to’ for ‘on the same wavelength as’. He writes ‘none of those two things’.
When Mo uses figurative language, he habitually mixes metaphors: ‘In those circles where reputations were brokered he had obviously been gazetted promotion’ (stock exchange, military). ‘Her oceanic pity for the suffering masses in the abyss was matched only by the dizzy crest of her personal hauteur.’ (Is she the ocean or perhaps only a single wave? Might ‘crest’ refer to armour? Heraldry?) Sometimes the imagery is too mixed for its constituent parts to be identified at all: ‘There were others like him, but they were thin on the ground and not guaranteed to get to the top of the pile in brazen times.’ Or: ‘not carrying head luggage ... made you nimbler around the posts on the everyday course.’
Successful metaphorical language is efficient, in the sense that it compresses meanings. Mo, however, manages to be baffling and diffuse at the same time: ‘Anyway, as she wasn’t planning to continue the voyage there was no need to salt stock in the barrel.’ ‘Voyage’? Is that sea voyage? Are we to think of food preserved for long journeys in a time before refrigeration? ‘Stock’? Would that be livestock, or a soup base? Wouldn’t you have all your pickled supplies in place before you set off from port? The image stymies so in its own right that there’s hardly time left over to question its applicability (to a politician who doesn’t accept bribes because she’s soon going to retire).
Plot and character in Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard both suffer from a strange restlessness of the point of view, so that we never know for very long whose eyes we’re meant to be looking through. One example will do:
One of the girls, fussed in by Momo, a lot brighter than the others, a student of chemical engineering, one of the co-eds whom Nestor affects to scorn, notices, sums up the situation in a glance and thinks: ‘Anyway, they have bigger hearts than small girls, even if they’re stupider.’ No one will choose her, by the way: too short, too dark. The other 17 girls, each wearing a round red and white number badge ranging, Boyet notices (with what he thinks of as a journalist’s eye), from 3 to 86 ... line up in room centre with serious faces.
The passage as a whole is narrated from the point of view of the journalist Boyet, and it is highly distracting to be sidetracked into another consciousness, for so little increment of insight. Where is this girl, apart from anything else? In the room, obviously, or she couldn’t ‘notice’, but where? Does she know she’s not going to be picked? Is that why she doesn’t line up with ‘the other 17 girls’? She doesn’t appear again, so we never know. She has a subject of study and a relative IQ, but no name, no place to stand, and no reason to be there in the paragraph.
Once in the book Mo tries to play with point of view, when a woman sees what she takes to be an unwelcome sexual advance from a middle-aged man to a young Filipina. In fact the two have been accidentally reminded of a traumatic incident in the past, and are consoling each other, but this is not the moment of revelation it might be elsewhere because we know the real explanation all along, and none of the characters engages us humanly.
It is by now well known that this novel opens with a scene of coprophilic sex, no better written than what follows. The theme of shit is certainly pervasive in the novel – consider the name of Mo’s personal press, Paddle-less, and remind yourself which creek, exactly, people are up without a paddle. Even the title has more to yield in this vein: ‘brownout’ is a word for a power shortage (not quite a blackout), but not in British English, and in context it takes on a digestive overtone. ‘Breadfruit Boulevard’, or so we are told at one point, is local slang for anal sex.
Certainly the author seems to take pleasure in a faecal subtext, as in this description of the winding up of a conference: ‘Final motions would be passed: the end-product of whatever the general gut-feeling was on issues dirty, dangerous or otherwise ... there was no doubt Ruth Neumark’s speech was the true grand finale, the one big one whose grandeur and finality would only be emphasised by the spatterings, dribblings, and short-lived blasts that were subsequent.’ Don’t you love that crazy British toilet humour? It’s good that the author has found some amusement, but here as elsewhere we readers are unreal to him.