Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Armadillo by William Boyd — modernity, Dickens and self-protection

I like Armadillo.

I like it because it marries a surging main narrative (the world of insurance adjustment is killer interesting in the hands of William Boyd. Believe it) with assured, psychologically nuanced writing. It's a comic novel, but by no means anodyne, by no means played for laughs, by no means shallow; a novel about identity, impulse and (above all) self-protection.

Our central character, Lorrimer Black undergoes (as opposed to instigates) a tumultuous series of events in connection with his job as a loss adjuster — one who investigates and disputes/upholds other firms' insurance claims. If this were genre fiction (which it is not), it'd be pretty much the only novel shelved in the Insurance Thriller section of Waterstones. Because it has a fucking punishing pace to it — and a suitably byzantine central mystery.

But, I repeat, it's not genre fiction.

Boyd is one of the few contemporary British authors who writes in a way that is unstrained, energetic and modern. He doesn't have that slightly faux-elegaic hankering tone to his prose — that hint of wistful Romantic nostalgia for a past in which Things Were More Poetic Than They Are Today. A fault I sometimes find in Ian McEwan, for instance. (McEwan is a good writer. But Boyd kicks his arse.)

Don't get me wrong: nostalgia can be a potent thing in literature. But what I'm talking about is a written tone that doesn't quite seem comfortable to inhabit the Right Now.

Inhabiting the Right Now is hard, though. It's really fucking hard. Because the Right Now can seem banal, obvious, shapeless. And because the Right Now is familiar to us (it's where we live, after all), it can feel dangerous, as an author, to attempt to grab a handful of the stuff and shape it. It'd be so much easier, so much safer, to reach for the comforting unfamiliarity of a remote country or another time or a hermetically sealed setting in which both time and place are pretty much irrelevant.

But Boyd sets Armadillo in contemporary London (well, to be clear, this is a novel written in the late 90s — but it still feels contemporary enough to me).

And contemporary London is braided right into the thing — dodgy taxi firms, cheap-baroque-facaded financial dealings, bleakly optimistic out-of-town property developments and the ceaseless crisscrossing, the litany of road names, the perpetual commute.

In this respect — as well as in its masterfully-named characters (a signature Boydism) — the novel has an unfussy Dickensian quality.

Symbolically and thematically (though, seriously — fuck themes. I don't care what anyone says: themes are only useful to authors, directors and people writing boring essays), there's a certain heavy-handedness: an obsessively self-protecting protagonist who actually collects antique armour; who probes others' insurance claims whilst scrabbling to maintain his own 'insurance' on the most fundamental level. Yup — not entirely subtle.

In a sense, this could be considered a flaw. But I find it oddly charming, for a savvy modern author to use symbolism in so barefaced a manner.

Oh, and the ending (though I'd read it before) filled my tender young eyes with tears. Because sometimes — even if only in fiction — people do take off their armour.

1 comment:

Graeme said...

I fucking love Armadillo.

I will reread it at some point I think.

How - seriously, how? - does he pull off that feat: making loss adjustment not merely interesting, but positively compelling? Remarkable.

One detail I especially liked was the euphemism used by the staff at the insurance firm for handling a threatening client: "cod-liver oil treatment". Then, later, the boss tells the protagonist: "You can sort out your own oiling." Marvellous stuff.

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