Your life depends on it

Thomas Jones

  • Surveillance by Jonathan Raban
    Picador, 327 pp, £16.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 330 41338 4

Jonathan Raban’s first work of fiction, Foreign Land, was published in 1985; his second, Waxwings, in 2003; Surveillance is his third. A gap of almost twenty years, and then two novels in fairly rapid succession. In the meantime, he has written a number of works of non-fiction: of memoir, reportage and – for want of a better way of putting it – travel writing. It may be tempting to see some significance in his recent turn to fiction, but perhaps this is to underestimate the porousness of the membranes between different kinds of writing. ‘By the time you’re writing memoir,’ Raban said in a recent interview, ‘you’re effectively writing fiction, because you’re concerned with all those fictional things – with the story, with making the character sound convincing.’

The heroine of Surveillance, Lucy Bengstrom, doesn’t acknowledge a difference between fiction and non-fiction in the way she stacks her bookshelves: everything is arranged alphabetically by writer, with Kathy Acker slotted in next to Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution. Lucy’s 11-year-old daughter, Alida, disapproves of this ‘promiscuous mingling’. ‘Alida was hungry for realism. Most of her favourite books were non-fiction, like Anne Frank’s diary . . . books where stuff happened because there was no other way for it to happen, however much the author might have wanted it to happen differently.’ That said, she also has a weakness for Agatha Christie and Miss Marple’s fussy talent for ‘human algebra’. People wouldn’t be people, and characters in novels wouldn’t be proper characters, without their contradictions.

Alida’s favourite subject is maths, ‘and this semester she was seriously into algebra,’ but she also ‘loved ten-dollar words’, collecting such ‘treasures’ as ‘azimuthal’, ‘egregious’ and ‘collateral’, and has lately taken up experimenting with irony, though this is proving difficult because other people, slow on the uptake, tend to assume that she means what she says. Lucy sees her daughter growing up and slipping away from her. ‘God, those sunglasses,’ she thinks: ‘they turned her into a nymphet.’ She later feels ‘an unsettling pang, half loss, half pride, at seeing Alida as this articulate stranger on the far side of the dinner table – someone whom Lucy ruefully thought she’d be glad to get to know.’

Lucy too is troubled by the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, or rather by the difficulty of making it. It ought to be easy: as a toddler, surfing through the channels on the TV, Alida had known ‘that fiction was differently lit from fact, and had only to glimpse a single moving image to categorise it, one way or the other, with deadshot accuracy’. But what happens when fiction is lit as if it were fact? A freelance journalist who, like Raban, lives in Seattle, Lucy has been commissioned by GQ to write a profile of August Vanags, the supposedly reclusive author of a bestselling memoir: Boy 381 is a ‘light, sweet-tempered, brave and funny’ account of an orphan’s feral childhood in Central Europe during the Second World War.

Lucy drives out to meet Vanags at his house on Whidbey Island in Useless Bay, a half-hour ferry ride from the city. Almost the first thing she learns about him is that he is not a recluse at all – or at least not a willing one. His publishers had at first planned to send him on a 21-city tour to publicise the book; but then they met him:

Lucy could imagine the scene at the publishers’ office. Counting on a ripely accented, gaunt and hollow-eyed survivor of the miseries of war, a figure of haunting telegenic pathos, they’d come face to face with this chipper and garrulous American know-all. August Vanags was unworthy of being the author of his own book. Put him on Larry King, and he’d unsell Boy 381 at the rate of thousands a minute.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in