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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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