Wednesday, January 16, 2013

522. What a Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe

History: This book was published in the UK by Viking Press in April 1994.
Plot: Godfrey, son of the wealthy Matthew and Frances Winshaw of Yorkshire, is shot down by German anti-aircraft fire during a secret wartime mission over Berlin, on 30 November 1942. His sister Tabitha alleges that he was betrayed by their brother Lawrence, but no-one believes her, and she is committed to a mental institution. Nineteen years later, after a party to mark the 50th birthday of their other brother Mortimer, Lawrence is attacked in the night by an intruder, but survives, killing the intruder in the process. The intruder, a middle aged man, remains unidentified.
Later, in the 1980s, a young novelist, Michael Owen, is commissioned to write a history of the Winshaw family, receiving a generous stipend from Tabitha Winshaw to do so. He works on this on and off, but with no deadline or pressure to complete, the project stagnates and Michael becomes reclusive, staying in his London flat watching videotapes of old films – in particular the 1961 British comedy What a Carve Up! starring Kenneth Connor, Shirley Eaton and Sid James. He emerges back into society, and resumes his interest in the project, following a visit from a neighbour, Fiona, seeking sponsorship for a 40-mile bicycle ride.
The novel focuses by turns on the various figures in the Winshaw family: the lazy, hypocritical, populist tabloid newspaper columnist Hilary, the ambitious and ruthless career politician Henry, the brutal chicken and pork farmer Dorothy, the predatory art-gallery owner and art dealer Roderick (Roddy), the investment bankerThomas, and the arms dealer Mark. In each of these sections the novel depicts the way in which actions by individuals from the same family, serving their own greedy interests, have distressing and far-reaching consequences.
Michael's renewed interest in the Winshaws coincides with the appearance in his life of Findlay Onyx, a private detective hired by Tabitha to pursue the mystery of whether or not Lawrence was complicit in Godfrey's death. Michael develops a warm, but platonic, relationship with Fiona. She suffers from the symptoms of some mysterious illness, but her consultations are constantly delayed, or her records are misplaced, by underresourced health service professionals. She is eventually admitted to hospital, but because treatment was not administered soon enough, she dies shortly after New Year, 1991.
Very soon afterwards Michael is surprised to be invited by Mortimer Winshaw's solicitor, Everett Sloane, to attend the reading of Mortimer's will at the remotely located Winshaw Towers in Yorkshire. Until this point he believes he was invited to write the history by chance, but as events transpire he is more deeply related to the family than he realizes. He attends the reading of the will along with the artist Phoebe, one of Roddy's conquests and lately Mortimer's personal nurse. The family members learn that they will inherit nothing from Mortimer but his debts. As the night progresses events begin to shadow those of the film of What a Carve Up! more and more, with the various members of the family meeting violent deaths that accord with their professional sins. It is the night that allied warplanes embark on the bombing of Iraq following Saddam Hussain's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It is revealed that Michael is the son of Godfrey's surviving co-pilot, who was also Lawrence's mystery attacker. The following morning Tabitha ensures that she is piloting Hilary Winshaw's seaplane to take Michael home, but deliberately destroys the plane, killing them both.
Review: Michael Owen, the narrator of alternate sections of What a Carve Up!and the apparent author of those parts written in the third person, has been a fan of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes stories in his youth. When he visits Findlay Onyx, the elderly, camp private detective who has befriended him, he notices that his Islington bedsit is furnished exactly like the apartment of Thaddeus Sholto in Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four. The recognition is a symptom of his narrative self-consciousness.
"Mystery" is a word that Michael himself often uses. It signifies that he knows that he is a character in a plot. Indeed, he voices exactly this understanding near the end of the novel when he tells his new inamorata, Phoebe, "I thought I was supposed to be writing this story . . . but I'm not. At least not any more. I'm part of it."
This ̩claircissement is more a confirmation than a surprise, for Findlay has already told Michael "the real mystery is you". Michael has been commissioned by the apparently mad but wealthy Tabitha Winshaw to write a history of her family, a collection of the nastiest and greediest and most successful individuals spawned by postwar British society. At the heart of his account, and the beginning of this novel, is the "mystery" of the disappearance of Godfrey Winshaw Рthe one decent member of the family Рin a secret mission over Germany in 1942, and of Tabitha's deranged insistence that their brother Lawrence is to blame. While playing Cluedo with Joan, his friend from childhood and one of several women with whom he will fail to have an affair, Michael has had a premonition of his own involvement. He has been playing as Professor Plum, who, he realises, is the culprit: "I wondered what it would actually feel like, to be present at the unravelling of some terrible mystery . . . to find, all at once, that you were thoroughly and messily bound up in the web of motives and suspicions which you had presumed to untangle."
Michael was once a novelist, though as he begins his narrative he is a depressive recluse who has abandoned his career. In the middle of the novel he rediscovers a narrative fragment he wrote as a child called "The Castle of Mystery"; an awareness of mysteries is his narrative addiction. He keeps hearing the word. Joan uses it about his commission to write about the Winshaws. "So . . . are you going to tell me about this mysterious new project of yours?" He keeps using it himself of the odd events surrounding his attempts to catalogue the misdeeds of the Winshaws. When his own publisher has his house burgled and documents and photographs stolen, he is questioned by the publisher's formidable deputy: "The only effects of our conversation were to leave the mystery more clouded than ever." Riding a London bus to his next appointment with the hapless Findlay, he thinks of himself travelling "ever closer towards the next stage in a mystery . . ."
Made aware of "mysteries", the reader is alerted to the narrative significance of any otherwise unexplained detail. When characters smell jasmine, though there is none growing in any garden, we know it is a clue. When we hear that Lawrence wrote a note on the night of Godfrey's death containing the words "BISCUIT, CHEESE and CELERY" we realise that it cannot have been only an instruction for his supper. When Michael mentions twice that he and his parents never used to see his father's parents, we know that we will eventually discover the reason for this.
Mysteries are, in one sense, reassuring. For narrative mysteries, unlike mysteries in life, have solutions. Puzzles are set whose solutions a playful author has already envisaged. When Dickens died, he left The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his uncompleted novel, a mystery. What is the explanation of Drood's disappearance? We can at least be certain that there would have been an explanation. In life, mysteries tend not to have solutions, for there is no plot-maker (unless, like 18th-century novelists, you believe that God makes plots of all our lives). In the prologue toWhat a Carve Up! Michael ruminates on the mysterious death of his childhood hero Yuri Gagarin in an air "accident", and calls this "another of adulthood's ubiquitous, insoluble mysteries". Yet in the ending to this novel, Gagarin's fate is recalled and made part of Michael's story.
It is a mystery made into a final explanation, for explanation is always the other side of mystery.
Opening Line: “Tragedy had struck the Winshaws twice before, but never on such a terrible scale.”
Closing Line: “Tragedy had struck the Winshaws twice before, but never on such a terrible scale.”
Quotes: “The upshot was that she lost her religion - with a vengeance - and walked out on him, taking these three daughters with her. Faith, Hope and Brenda.”
Rating: Very Good

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