Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Head of State

Andrew Hickey Head of State (2015)
Full disclaimer: I painted the cover. I sort of know the author, and in fact he asked me if I wanted to read an earlier draft of this novel prior to publication - which I declined as I dislike reading off a screen and wanted to wait for the finished thing; and I get massive shout outs and nuff respeck on the closing page. My impartiality may therefore be somewhat open to question blah blah blah...

Fuck it. This is a great book, and I'm pretty sure that has nothing to do with any of the above any more than it derives from the stark contrast of my having recently emerged from an agonising trawl through all four-billion chapters of Perdido Street Description - I mean Perdido Street Station.

Actually, to be honest, I passed on the offer of getting to read the earlier draft because I was a little worried that I wouldn't enjoy it and would thus find myself in the awkward position of disliking the work of someone I generally admire, and the entire internet would become an expanded version of Father Ted's increasingly uncomfortable encounters with novelist Polly Clarke, author of Bejewelled with Kisses. Andrew had sent me a few excerpts in the vague hope of providing some inspiration for the cover image, or maybe just for the sake of feedback, and I noticed the entire thing appeared to be written as a series of first person accounts, and that one of those accounts took the form of the self-conscious blog entries of a young journalist, somewhat irritating self-conscious blog entries to my mind. It all seemed so heavy-handed that I really wasn't sure there was any advice I could give, for the same reason that I'm not sure I could really give any useful advice to China Miéville aside from write a better book. On the other hand, despite these misgivings, I've read Andrew's fiction before, and also his non-fiction which itself demonstrates a profound understanding of how fiction works, and his track record has been pretty fucking great, so I assumed and hoped it would all work out in the end with further rewrites, which it did and with knobs on.

I had a feeling that, regardless of the above, Head of State would have plenty going for it once polished up a bit, but I had no idea it would pupate into something quite so solid, quite so impressive as it has. Andrew wrestles prose with the skill of a master of many years standing, setting narratives against one another, lightly scenting passages with secondary and even tertiary levels of meaning, nesting stories within stories, even speaking directly to the reader without so much as a hint of either points or literary ability stretched beyond natural reach. It may help that behind all of the curtains, Head of State is a fairly simple story at least some of which is about the means by which that story is told, and the way in which the story is told actually constitutes a fairly essential plot detail. It's the kind of thing Grant Morrison has tried to do in comics on occasion, but here it works better, related with a somehow friendlier tone by an author who seems quite keen that the reader should understand what he is trying to say; and to further extend the analogy, of all the Faction Paradox novels published since This Town Will Never Let Us Go, in certain respects Head of State seems the thematically closest to the writing of Lawrence Miles, albeit a slightly happier Lawrence Miles who listens to the Beach Boys. I should probably stress at this point that Head of State doesn't read so much inspired by as in sympathy with. It's very much Hickey's own thing, and does much which eludes other writers, not least being that Rachel Edwards' somewhat irritating self-conscious blog entries are actually supposed to be irritating and self-conscious and as such work perfectly within the context of the whole. Similarly impressive is our token conspiracy driven right-wing gun nut written as a rounded, believable, even sympathetic character rather than a check-list of hate-filled clichés driving around in an El Camino with Kiss on the tape deck. Andrew's powers of characterisation are such that even the most unpleasant characters speak to us on some level without need of the whining qualification of oh he's only racist because when he was just a kid... which is entirely consistent with what I understand to be Andrew's generally humanist view that the great majority of people are essentially decent in some respect, regardless of evidence to the contrary; and whilst we're here, his clear and erudite understanding of the American political landscape makes a refreshing change from the usual sub-Frank Miller bollocks.

Looking at the individual pieces, this is an incredibly ambitious novel, not least in terms of how it is written, and there's an awful lot which could have gone horribly wrong, but it's the tidiest piece of work I've read in some time.

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