Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Class Novel 2: "Joyride" by Guy Adams (2016)

contains SPOILERS

One of the advantages of fiction - indeed, one of the reasons we read it - is that it allows us inside others' heads. We all know the famous Atticus Finch quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Compassion is a fundamentally imaginative act, as Ian McEwan memorably said in a non-fiction piece he wrote in September 2001 that's significantly better than any of his own published fiction: an inability to understand the pain or suffering others would go through as a result of one's actions is a failure of imagination. But fiction helps us to go to those places we would never normally be able to visit or sojourn, as distant as any alien world: if the book is good enough, like Anna Karenina, I can feel as though I'm inside the head of an aristocratic 19th century Russian noblewoman, every aspect of which it's quite impossible for me to ever be myself. I can understand how Anna thinks and why she behaves as she does, because ultimately the book allows me to imagine my way into being Anna. Inability to understand why somebody acts in a particular way comes from an inability to see what's inside their head.

Guy Adams' Class tie-in novel, Joyride, takes the premise of "being in someone else's skin" and runs with it in as literal a manner as only science-fiction can. The story's central concept is just that -- hopping from one's own body into someone else's and subsequently wreaking damage, "joyriding" if you will. There are various ways in which this plays out, sometimes sinister, sometimes shocking, sometimes even darkly funny. By some way, I think, the opening stuff with Poppy's joyride (literally, since she steals a car, mows down several bystanders and then kills herself by driving into a building) and Max Collins killing his family by burning his house down is of a powerful heightened reality - eerie and shocking but unable to unsee, much like witnessing a car crash - which the rest of the novel never quite recaptures. This slightly creates the impression that the book peaks very early on and peters out a little after that, which is both a bit unfair but perhaps also not too wide from the mark.

The power of What She Does Next Will Astound You (reviewed here) came from precisely the elevation of a horrifying banality to warlike importance: the mingling of our culture of trivia-guzzling with stomach-churning violence. The problem of Joyride lies in the fundamentally uninteresting nature of the threat, banal just where it shouldn't be; Garry Fletcher (who is rendered with some relish, to be fair) and his lacklustre cronies Mike and Steve are simply too bumbling and incompetent and motivated by mere petty cash to ever amount to much more than just an inconvenience. There are scary moments, but think how much more effective a novel this could have been if Adams had pushed the boat out a bit further and given us a fully-fledged alien race for the group to tackle. Or, better still, if he'd just narrowed down the entire book to a tautly-focussed look at one character's internal struggles, trying to leap into other's heads: a first-person perspective might have given it the dramatic oomph it needed.

As it is, Adams relies on multiplicity of perspective, and while this does create some clever moments (which I'll come to) and the free indirect discourse he relies on means we get a different set of points of view at different times, sometimes seeing the same event through different eyes, it also rather slows everything down and deflates the inherent tension of the premise. What's it really like to be in another's body and to feel someone else romping around with your own? Apart from a brief glimpse at Ram undergoing this experience, I never got much of an impression of what that would be like, and I think Joyride might've been stronger if it had had more to say on this front: portraying the intrinsic claustrophobic terror of being a stranger in one's own body, or of being a stranger in someone else's. Instead I got the sense - particularly towards the end of the novel - that we were just running around trying to stop the bad guys without much of thematic interest or power, and that was a touch disappointing coming after James Goss' excellent effort. It has the same flaw of many Torchwood episodes - takes a good premise and ultimately ends up rather cheapening it than selling its proper dramatic power. Perhaps the goal was to make it seem cheap (that's certainly the aim with the sleazy Fletcher, to be fair), but I think the book is the worse for that. The aliens remaining a mystery in What She Does Next Will Astound You felt tantalizing and even sobering; here it's just a bit of a wasted opportunity. How did they get here, given it's nothing to do with the tears in space and time? What might a society that "assimilates" or swaps bodies that often be like? What kind of loss of identity might that incur in someone? The story gestures at this ("for one happy moment, all goes black as he momentarily hangs between bodies") but never really goes there, and that's a shame; I'd have liked more of it.

Still, the moments where Adams does impress are when he leans closest to doing this, to capturing this kind of emotional truth. Early on in the book he does a great job of capturing Quill's loneliness and anguish here on Earth, most obviously the inadequacy of our limited human existence such that we attempt to distract ourselves with living vicariously through others' made-up antics ("What were soaps for? Were these humans' lives so empty of incident that they had to absorb fictional ones?"); similarly he closes that chapter with the simple (but powerful) statement "She falls asleep and dreams of being someone else." As have we all. And then there's Matteusz feeling lost and trapped outside of his lover's thoughts ("[Charlie's] looking inside, he's lost in his own head... Matteusz sometimes thinks Charlie's head contains more than he'll ever be able to imagine", a lovely little moment which toys with the theme of inner and outer spaces, inner and outer selves, which runs through this book but also throughout Class' first season, particularly in terms of the Cabinet of Souls and Charlie's claustrophobia, but also in the way both Quill and Charlie are people inside other people (their human forms). What is a secret, too, other than a part of oneself that one has hidden away, an extra dimension? When Adams is zooming in on that kind of emotional truth, Joyride really soars.

That dissatisfaction with ourselves, that wanting to be someone else, can make us do strange things. So here, for instance, clients at Garry Fletcher's Joyriders firm pay good money to hop into younger bodies and then do all manner of depraved things they wouldn't normally risk doing - whether that's enjoying being young and fit and athletic, trying on smaller-sized clothes, or screwing around, or trying out kink, or violence or murder or indulging one's repressed homosexuality or alcoholism... Most of them are investment banker and property developer types, too, really ugly pieces of work ("a portfolio where their soul should be"). Adams has really thought through the various rather nasty, yet also quite pathetic, implications of what "joyriding" into someone else's body might be like, and he does it well; take April turning up to school blind drunk on vodka one morning ("this isn't you!" the others cry - a nice nod to that well-worn phrase when we hear of somebody doing something they'd never do sober). Ram's horror at waking up in a fat, old, grey, shortsighted, middle-aged man's body could have been played up more, but when it does get an airing it's done well. In fact, frankly, - and I do hope this isn't misconstrued as me being rude about Adams' age - the middle-aged regret stuff just works a lot better than the teenage stuff: John O'Donnell (the fat old man who swaps bodies with hot young Ram, "this thing he can never be") getting to indulge his latent tastes he can never express by sleeping with young male escorts, and absolutely despising himself for it, is actually rather movingly rendered, and his eventual fate really quite distressing, even as we are simultaneously relieved to learn that Ram is OK. His final moments will linger in the imagination. And, in all fairness, Garry Fletcher fits into this rubric a little, I suppose, in that he's supremely comfortable in his own skin in the way that being a teenager or indeed a fat middle-aged man often isn't ("there is nothing Garry Fletcher likes more in life than being Garry Fletcher. It is, by any worthwhile standard, an amazing thing to be. The fact that he's really good at it is the icing on the cake").

Joyride is a flawed novel rather than a great one, but it is still a rattling good yarn, and has some great moments of tense, indeed rather clever plotting (there's some smart twists as certain characters jump into certain other characters' bodies and you race after the storyline trying to catch up - the end of chapter 22 in particular). As before, the idea of defining people by what they're not ("this thing we can never be", "the man who wasn't April") is fascinating; the story's opening chapters are truly nightmarish; and the very end prologue between April and Ram, as they have to try and settle into this new "normal" and change who they are to fit the world around them, is sweet and nicely done. People are inconsistent, we don't always know what to say or think, and as one grows up in the world one has to learn to change one's very self. I wish a bit more had been done to explore the idea of dissatisfaction with oneself and how it feels to be in another's world, but this is nonetheless entertaining, smart stuff.

Other things:
  • There's a neat moment where Poppy from the first chapter envisages a car alarm "like an indignant old lady" - that's exactly how Poppy would think but not necessarily the other characters into whose heads we jump; it's a good instance of illustrating a character's way of thinking, of literally allowing us into her head. 
  • The Transport for London operative who "would fancy Quill if she wasn't so terrifying. Then he decides he fancies her anyway and worries quite what that says about him". 
  • Being inside Quill's mind is a great place to be; I wonder if the novel should have been from her point of view. Her take on Charlie is "the enslaver, ruler of a toppled people, prince of a dead world and infrequent tidier of his room" while Matteusz "is Polish, which as far as Quill can tell means he's human but uses slightly less conjunctions". (Very funny, though that should of course be slightly fewer). Quill remembers Rhodia as "a world of violent skies and hot sands". Intentionally or not, that's quite a different image of the world from the one we see in For Tonight We Might Die, where it is presented from Charlie's perspective. I take this to mean the southern continents inhabited by the Quill race were of a harsher, wilder environment than the "paradise" where the Rhodians dwelt.
  • Adams' prose is slightly more descriptive and detailed than his fellow Class novelist James Goss' (author of What She Does Next Will Astound You), with one particular highlight coming near the very beginning: "she hangs through the shattered windscreen of the car, bloodied and dusted with crystals of shattered glass, head like a stomped-on jam donut... she's laughing through a ruptured throat, a wet explosion of humour, spluttering its last across the chrome paintwork of the bonnet long before the ambulance arrives". Another example: "the second-to-last thing that goes through his head is "why does today hate me so much?" The last thing to go through his head is a piece of scaffolding. His lousy day ends with his head looking like an angry cocktail cherry." Brutal, but bleakly funny, and with a very dark play on words. Cutting from Max burning his house down - and his family with it - to April getting a charred pizza out of the oven is a similarly neat trick.
  • Matteusz being reliably correct: "Friends are better than subjects because subjects have no choice. They're born to love you." And, rather adorably, when he critiques Charlie "it feels like...being caressed and slapped, all at the same time". He isn't in it much, but when he is, it's good. The same too with Varun - some good characterisation of him that feels appropriately halfway between The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo and Brave-ish Heart: he's worried about what Ram's getting into, but unsure about how far it's going yet and whether he should tell his wife Janeeta. Tanya going to see him when Ram is in trouble prefigures Brave-ish Heart nicely, too.
  • Guy Adams' single-chapter character Toby Moore, who is the Coal Hill School counsellor (shouldn't that be Coal Hill Academy, though? Tut tut), is absolutely hilarious. You can imagine what kind of mad, mad job that would be. That the academy is still between headteachers clearly sets Joyride between Episodes 2 and 4, and I'd put it quite near to 2 myself, as Ram seems to still be going through quite a bit of trauma and he clearly hasn't started dating April yet. A propos of nothing, there's also a cameo from Tanya's older brother Damon, who we first see in episode 3, Nightvisiting.
  • Doctor Who reference corner - Charlie and Matteusz briefly discuss "the man from space... the impossible man" who first dropped Charlie and Quill off at the school; the premise toys a little bit with aspects of the body-swap graft from New Earth, though that's never mentioned; and at the very end there's a nod to UNIT, who tow away the alien technology. So clearly UNIT are capable of interfering in the Class universe if they think something has got too serious and extra-terrestrial that it should be in their hands.

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