Gripping glimpse of a life cycle
WE BEGIN OUR ASCENT By Joe Mungo Reed (The Borough Press, 12.99)
AS a general rule, I’m wary of topical novels. Joe Mungo Reed’s debut is about a professional cyclist who starts using performance-enhancing drugs. It was published two days before the start of this year’s Tour-de-France.
I admit, I almost threw it in the charity shop bag. My initial scepticism, however, was put to rest after I’d read the first chapter.
It was the energy of the prose rather than the subject matter that drew me in.
Mungo Reed has real talent. His clipped sentences, droll humour and witty dialogue have produced a novel as fast-paced as the peloton descending Mont Ventoux, with a tail-wind.
His use of the first-person plural made me wonder why more novelists don’t employ it as a stylistic device.
It also complements the narrator’s absent, enigmatic tone.
All that being said, there is no excuse, even in a first novel, for adverbial laziness: “I could communicate blunderingly”, “I felt shatteringly unable”, “increasingly finding”.
As for the story: Sol is a domestique, like the majority of the riders on the Tour de France.
“We are governed by the will of the peloton, the mood of the mass, which is as changeable as that of any small village.”
His aim is not to win, it is to enable his team leader, Fabrice, to “push ahead” when the majority falter.
Sol’s wife, Liz, is a geneticist. The narrative is split between Sol’s progress through the tour and his family life. Sol and Liz have a young son. They are determined to disprove the idea that parenthood might “threaten” their ambitions.
Sol strives to live inside perfect rhythm. In this zone, “you become a passenger within your own body”.
One day, Liz takes him to a museum.
“In one of the upper rooms there was a brass sculpture: a figure striding forward, the specifics of its body lost in stylized whorls and dashes of teased bronze. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.
“I read the caption about
motion and futurism and the Nietzschean superman. ‘It’s you,’ said Liz. ‘It’s a man totally dedicated to his motion through the air.’”
The other principal character is Rafael, the team manager, who is like a malevolent army general. He shouts orders at his troops and dopes them with drugs and their own oxygenated blood.
His every decision is geared to impressing the team sponsors or shaming people into riding faster and harder.
When Liz joins Sol on tour, she has no reservations about helping the team win, the rules be damned.
As We Begin Our Ascent is not about anything so simple as the evils of cheating, however. It is about what we are prepared to sacrifice to satisfy some vague idea of success.
It is also a clever black comedy.
Yes, the finale is shocking. But it’s also hilarious.
Mungo Reed knows there is something just plain silly about professional cyclists.
As a friend of Liz says:“‘What kind of adult worries about how fast he can ride his bike?’”