Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reading Allowed #1

Robert Newman “The Fountain At The Centre Of The World”

I’m largely ambivalent about the suggestion that knowing something about an artist leads to a greater appreciation of their work. From personal experience, it’s one hell of a gamble, as likely to have a negative than a positive effect on me. Unfortunately, the former applies in the case of Robert Newman. During his rise to fame as part of the early 1990s comedy quartet The Mary Whitehouse Experience, I thought that he and David Baddiel were undoubtedly the more inspired half of the partnership. After TMWE disbanded, Newman and Baddiel found their star continuing in the ascendant, peaking with some unbelievably huge stadium gigs. And then, the pair split and, as far as I was concerned, Newman disappeared from sight. I only realised he’d been busy writing when, in 2003, I came across a review of “…Fountain…”, actually Newman’s third novel. Shortly afterwards, Robert Newman toured with a stand-up show called “From Caliban To Taliban: 500 Years Of Humanist Intervention”. I’d heard good things about it and was able to catch it at Bristol’s
Comedy Box . As a fan of fellow comedian and political activist Mark Thomas, I felt that Newman’s show lacked the engaging delivery and seemingly effortless pace of his peer, bordering at times on lecture. Newman had undoubtedly done his research, but a gradual loss of direction left me cold by the show’s end. However, when he announced that he would be signing copies of “…Fountain…” for sale, I was still keen to get a copy. In truth, I asked my wife to get it for me. Returning with book in hand, she casually mentioned that Newman had been flirting with the women in the queue and had looked rather crestfallen when she asked him to dedicate the book to me. Curiosity piqued, we couldn’t help but overhear Newman’s conversation with a couple of girls as we were leaving. He was explaining that he was waiting for some friends, but wondered if the girls would like to join him for a drink. They declined and we followed them down the stairs to the exit. Suddenly, Newman popped his head over the banister and called after them. Apparently, his friends had accidentally gone on without him, so could he join the girls instead? We carried on walking, so I’ve no idea whether this was resolved to their mutual satisfaction, but it left us thinking that Newman was a rather sad twat. Returning home, I popped “…Fountain…” on the bookshelf and, though I’d pick it up a few times in the next year, I’d recall the night at The Comedy Box and replace the book, unread. I stopped being a narrow minded idiot a couple of months ago and finally read it.

In brief, the plot centres on Chano Salgado, a Mexican political dissident. The murder of his wife and loss of his son have led to a withdrawal from collective action but Chano is inextricably drawn back in, his actions forcing him to go on the run. However, the authorities aren’t the only ones looking for Chano; his son Daniel has returned to Mexico, hoping to be reunited with his father. In addition to this, Chano’s long-lost brother, Evan Hatch, a powerful PR executive living in England, has a life-threatening condition that only a bone-marrow transplant from his sibling can hope to address. The novel charts their respective journeys through Mexico and England, converging on Seattle for the World Trade Organisation talks in 1999.

I initially found “…Fountain…” a bit of hard slog, not due to my previous prejudice, but because I found the central characters unengaging and difficult to empathise with. Newman has obviously gone to great lengths to provide, in sibling protagonists Chano and Evan, two sides of an opposing political argument. The problem for me was that I didn’t agree strongly with their viewpoints or care for them much as characters. The addition of Chano’s son Daniel, ostensibly as a catalyst for his father’s renewed political vigour, did little to rouse my interest, thanks to some frankly belief-suspending experiences. The lecturing tone of Newman’s stand-up show emerges in his writing from time to time, particularly in his tendency to belabour an explanation to the point of occluding it altogether. Describing the impact of the Ethylclad corporation’s toxic waste plant on the neighbouring Mexican community, Newman concludes “(In this instance the alphabet soup had been spelt out thus: ICSID through NAFTA through WTO. But whatever the arrangement of letters it was the same old toxins in the mulligatawny.)” You’ll notice the use of parentheses. Newman likes these. A lot. I found myself subconsciously trying to skip them after a while, as they often detract from, rather than add to, the narrative flow. In fact, I started to wonder if the brackets had been inserted by the editor at the draft stage, to indicate extraneous text to be excised from the published version, only for them to be overlooked at the printers.

Targeting the World Trade Organisation and (bad) globalisation is fair enough, but I’m not sure I was as enlightened by the novel’s end as Newman may have wished me to be. The final act, “The Battle Of Seattle”, is largely responsible for this; it sounds like a Pearl Jam song title and is every bit as turgid as their musical output. What could have been a taut, tense account of four days of protests, riots and unreasonable police intervention instead reads as an overlong sequence of contrived near-misses, as Chano, Evan and Daniel traverse the city in almost farcical fashion. Some judicious editing may have avoided diluting the political impact of this section. Good though it is that Newman avoids a ‘Hollywood ending’ with the three characters reunited and changed ‘for the better’ - now that would have been contrived – I finished “…Fountain…” feeling that nothing much had been learned, either by Chano, Evan, Daniel or myself. Newman’s use of symbolism doesn’t always help matters. Early on, Chano considers the eponymous fountain as “a seismograph…the fountain at the centre of the world, responding minutely to everything that’s going on everywhere on earth.” Even more helpfully, a community plumbing grid appropriated by Chano for his home is symbolically referenced throughout. At the novel’s end, there it is again, assisting Chano to conclude that “collective action” is much more effective than “doing things just for myself.” Well, duh.

It’s encouraging that there are writers like Robert Newman, with a passion for politics, the environment and, from a literary perspective, the use of language and vocabulary. That said, Newman could benefit from the realisation that an implausible fictional narrative is not required to make complex arguments and statistics accessible. Quite the opposite, in fact – check out Michael Moore and Al Franken, for starters. I don’t think Newman is a twat anymore, but I do think that, on the strength of “…Fountain…”, he’s got some way to go to be the important novelist that he could – and presumably – wants to be.

You can buy a copy of “The Fountain At The Centre Of The World” directly from Robert Newman’s
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