Grip­ping glimpse of a life cy­cle

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books Reviews - Re­view by Nick Ma­jor

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?’”

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