Meet our vicious doppelganger
FOR those who know Sebastian Faulks as a best- selling author with a reputation for impeccably researched yet anodyne historical fictions, Engleby will come as a salutary shock. It’s a book so different in setting and tone from his previous work that the author considered releasing it under a another name.
What makes Engleby unprecedented is its nastiness, a squirt of lemon juice in the eye. In its pages Faulks inhabits the mind of a man who is as smart as he is disturbed and uses the morally uncensored clarity of his voice to bring down a malediction on the society that formed him. Faulks would have us believe that in Mike Engleby Blair’s Britain has got the murderer it deserves.
We first encounter Engleby as a student at Cambridge in the 1970s. From the get- go his mordant wit and sharp observations mark him as a gifted individual. We soon learn that he is a scholarship boy, set on escaping his drearily typical working- class origins with a determination that borders on panic. University is the means by which he will erase the past once and for all.
Almost as immediately the reader senses something wrong. Shining though his coyness and selective self- revelations is the picture of a loner who is virtually friendless, instinctively avoided by women, addled with drink and drugs, and whose vaunting ambition is, in reality, vague and amorphous. Grudgingly he circles back to speak of his childhood: semi- poverty in a bleak industrial city, an absent mother and an abusive father whose death enables him to gain a place at a third- rate boarding school that promises freedom but turns out to hold even greater horrors. The years of bullying and sexual abuse he suffers there are recalled in the partial, numbed language of nightmare.
What becomes evident is that Mike Engleby is engaged in an act of self- fashioning so shaky that his identity is under threat.
During a trip to Turkey he has ‘‘ the strong impression that the hostile otherness of my surroundings was such that my personality was starting to disintegrate. I was vanishing. My character, my identity, had unravelled. I was a particle of fear.’’
For all this, Engleby retains an animal cunning for turning weakness into strength. Even his loneliness ‘‘ is like any other organism: competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself’’. With the ascent of Margaret Thatcher the country seems to be in agreement: the era of rampant individualism inaugurated by her perfectly compliments his chilly Darwinism.
Engleby’s move from university to London coincides with this historical moment, although his future remains uncertain. Faulks started out on Fleet Street and it is one of his bitter jabs that this disturbed individual, living off the proceeds of drug- dealing and petty theft, whose days are spent drinking and stalking women, should naturally fall into journalism.
After starting out writing under a woman’s byline for a grassroots publication, Engleby rises to celebrity interviewer for a national broadsheet, a progression as bizarre as it is inexorable: like some sociopathic Forrest Gump he pops up wherever the decade gets particularly ridiculous. He even becomes friends with Jeffrey Archer.
Faulks takes evident relish in giving Engleby his head during all this. That his success should
go so farcically unchallenged says as much about modern Britain as it does about him. As with Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho , Engleby’s ugliness is invisible to a world grown ugly as well. But at least his self- loathing insulates him from the blindness of success. He is aware of the poisonous results wrought by the societal shifts that have benefited him. He watches the rise of the City with envy, the hopeless anger of younger immigrants with sympathetic despair and the hypocrisy of the media with astonishment.
On a trip to one of London’s dormitory towns he sees the nation’s anchor, its sense of historical continuity, break free: How did we lose it? Now you walk those same streets and it seems as though it’s all a sham, a play or a quotation. I didn’t see people rooted to that town: I saw people floating through it, disconnected, the thread is broken, the past is real enough— the only true reality — the present has insufficient depth to register it. The past is the cause of Engleby’s fall, too. It turns out that his memory, always brilliant, has scrubbed certain acts from his conscious mind, acts for which he is belatedly held to account.
The ’ 90s will be more muted, observed as it is from the safety of a mental institution near the school he once attended. The conclusion does not resolve the question of whether Engleby is innocent because he is insane or guilty because he is clever enough to use insanity as an excuse for his actions. But this is perhaps beside the point. Whether we pity or revile him, Engleby is our creation. He is the personification of those currents of viciousness and irrationalism running beneath the West’s prosperity and optimism.
Geordie Williamson is a Sydney- based reviewer.