The blurb hooks us with a tantalising premise: aged ex-copywriter Frances sits on her stairs waiting for the bailiffs to give up and leave her in peace. By way of killing some time she pretends to reflect on the exciting array of world history she has beheld over the past five decades, including such delights as the rise and fall of Communism, Feminism, and Capitalism (which was promptly followed by the Shock, Crunch, Squeeze, Recovery, Fall, Crisis and finally, Bite).
Simon Mayo’s weekly book panel framed Weldon’s latest (and twenty-ninth?) offering as a sort of upbeat dystopian feast; a fascinating take on a possible future which sort of reflects on our present whilst reminding us of the past in a topical and droll sort of way. Just imagine; people simply get bored of consumerism, vandalism, of all isms in general. The good times where we bought all manner of unnecessary things with borrowed money were merely a blip on our otherwise toilsome shared existence; the recession was a return to the norm, rather than a rough patch. Rationing makes a comeback, and the national dish is a breed of meatloaf that may or may not be suitable for vegetarians, and may or may not be made from bits of old people. Sometimes it’s pink and easy to slice, whereas other batches can be a bit more crumbly. Regardless of its not so consistent consistency, there is something oddly moreish about this loaf shaped staple. Petrol is scarce, power cuts are plentiful, water is limited to certain times of day, and real coffee can only be procured by the privileged types who work for the government – which, incidentally, is a faceless operation led by psychotherapists and dubbed the National Unity Government. Despite these hardships, most folk simply embrace that mythical British make do and mend mentality we’ve heard about but probably haven’t seen firsthand.
Sadly, this dizzying array of economical, political and social upheaval is merely a backdrop for our narrator’s main gripe – namely, her ex husband, Karl (one of many) and her disparate handful of offspring and offsprung. She also happens to be the What If sibling that Fay evidently never had and most likely didn’t want anyway (Frances nicks Fay’s would-be hubby, but pays for it later). There is absolutely no real purpose to this, as Frances appears to be little more than a skinny version of Fay. I don’t think this is necessarily the case of shoddy characterisation (although let’s not rule that out) more than another symptom of the irksome line of wrongness that etches its way through the novel. This particular brand of wrong is very much Weldon’s own, since she cannot resist stamping herself over everything. I have nothing against a dash of distinctive voice in my prose, but Weldon edges too far into smug self-consciousness for her tone not to grate over prolonged stretches of mendersome narration. Rather than simply casting a shadow over the plot, it has been tragically swallowed up by Weldon’s ego.
Fay/Frances may have seen almost everything, but the wisdom she’s deigned us worthy of being force-fed hovers heavily over the various flavours of flawed marital and familial relations (something on which she considers herself to be something of an authority). These fragments of family frictions, fictions and romantic misadventures are peppered with details of the shady comings and goings of Frances’s favourite wayward nephew, Amos. Along with other members of a Greenpeace offshoot cunningly dubbed Redpeace, Amos is slyly taking hold of Chalcot Crescent for mildly subversive means. The strings of this operation are being pulled by none other than the lovechild of Frances’s favourite ex husband (the one whose absence, incidentally, left a bitter chasm in the latter chapters of her life and forms the crux of her obsession with all things past tense).
Every now and then Frances looks up from her laptop and takes a moment to speculate on the possible details of their scheme and types witty fictions to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. These episodes are more entertaining than her tales from the past, but as a consequence of this drib and drab approach, proceedings are frustratingly fragmented. Despite the individual merits of some of the rants and set pieces, the reader is deprived of any genuine desire to leap into the next chapter with much gusto; this is not a novel that begs you gobble it up. Some strands overlap and repeat, whereas others are left to fend for themselves – and then all of a sudden, before present events spiral into something interesting, they find themselves being wrapped up rather abruptly and neatly. Such details are, after all, secondary to the various tedious entanglements and aggravations that consume our aged narrator.
Overall, Chalcot Crescent reads a little like a first draft which was written in a hurry; an effect which fits in with the idea of our stair-bound narrator writing snippets whenever her nephew deserts her in favour of green-flicked tobacco breaks, but which is less forgivable once it’s revealed that we have in fact been treated to the second draft of her written witterings. You get the feeling that Weldon had tremendous fun writing all this, but that she chose to indulge her supposedly shrewd relation-based observations rather than explore too much by way of new territory.So many ideas are crammed in, but sadly, very few of them get a chance to develop into little more than knowing commentary and anecdotal asides. The world in which our narrator inhabits is certainly an intriguing one, and yet we are shown so little of it; thrown against Frances’s obsession with all that is lost, it lacks a convincing amount of weight.
It’s a shame Weldon doesn’t allow her readers more than a few choice glimpses of her version of our post Crunch future, as the bones we’re thrown are more satisfying than the flesh which surrounds them. As such, when the tale ends, you may be left with a lingering suspicion that Weldon just got bored. There are some interesting ideas nestled in amongst the domestic disputes and in the hands of a more humble agent there is the potential for something genuinely insightful and provocative here. By the end, you might be left wondering what really happened, or if it really matters. It’s not an anticlimax since there isn’t much by way of build up or a direction for events to hurtle themselves towards in gleeful self-destruction. Even our young aggravators suffer nothing resembling punishment. Comply like Frances, and all will end well; try to rustle up some hardcore mischief and things will still end sort of well. Perhaps this is a world in which all actions are meaningless and easily absorbed by a faceless administration?
At some point, Frances confirms what we have long suspected: ‘the world outside the home composes just the frame for our lives, not the life itself.’ Still, it’s hard not to wonder why Weldon went to the trouble of dreaming up this future fiction if she wasn’t planning on doing much with it. One can only assume she just wanted to let us know that she knows all about the future, as well as everything else. When we find ourselves munching on vat-born protein[i] of dubious origin and scanning over the latest Redpeace newsletter we call all think ‘Ah, Fay told us about this. She was so very wise and witty.’ Although in terms of plot it doesn’t quite hold itself together or unfold with any sense of momentum, there does remain a hearty sprinkling of clever remarks that will make you think ‘oh yes’ more than thrice. It might not leave lots of interesting thoughts rattling around your mind, but there is a vague chance you’ll be left with a strange desire to seek out a suitably twisted recipe for meatloaf.
[i] I kid not – it’s in the news already: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2009/nov/30/artificial-meat-pork-laboratory
Only Faye can tell us how it all will end…