Sunday, 15 August 2010


by Mark Watson

You might know Mark Watson as a comedian. That's fine, he's a very funny guy. But he's a novelist, if not first, then foremost.

His third novel, Eleven, is funny, but only when funny can be squeezed in between small and important events, unwisely forgotten moments, consequences in chain, and good, flawed people.

I nearly added 'clever prose' to that list, because there's a lot of that around as well. But I'm not sure it that's such a good thing.

The problem with clever, make-you-smile/make-you-think similes and metaphors is that they make you smile/think. Both of which are distancing states of mind when you're getting lost in a story. It's not worth being clever if it makes the reader forget what character he was reading about.

Watson is too smart a writer to fall into that trap, usually. He doesn't show off with his prose, and he doesn't outsmart you in references and allusions. But the threshold of reader-sensitivy (a real concept, from now on) is already heightened in Eleven, and so he can't get away with his normal inventiveness without drawing attention to it.

The TOR-S (threshold of reader-sensitivy. Keep up) is heightened because Eleven is written in the present tense. So the line -- quoted by Watson in his book-launch as a personal favourite -- the air is cold to the touch like cutlery in a forgotten drawer, doesn't wash past like it normally would, leaving an aftertaste of originality and an interesting picture half-submerged in the subconcious.

Instead, it makes you (me, anyway) stop for a moment, put the book down, and try to remember if I've ever touched cutlery in a forgotten drawer. Was it any colder than the cutlery in the kitchen drawer, which I usually remember?

If I wasn't already on less familiar ground because of the present tense, I think it would have slipped past. So why the present tense? It obviously comes at some cost, so does it need to be there at all?

Those weren't rhetorical questions, by the way. You can go ahead and answer them.

I'm waiting.

Okay, I'll tell you.


The present tense/clever prose combo might make it harder to get beyond the text and sink into the story at first, but you get there in the end. And when you do, the present tense nails it. To the nearest wooden surface.

Xavier Ireland (there's a reason for the idiot name) unknowingly triggers a chain of eleven events. These are mirrored by events in his own life, which cause and document the change in Xavier as he becomes more involved in his own and others' lives. These two chains race each other -- will Xavier become responsible for his actions in time to intercede in the spiralling chain he unwittingly kicked off?

I'm not going to tell you the answers, but I will tell you this: the past tense is fatalist. In the past tense, the result of the race would have been fixed from the start. That's the problem with books. But present-tensing hasn't decided yet.

That's not to say Watson ignores the past tense. Because there's a third narrative, alongside and in-between Xavier and his responsibility. Xavier's past, which is fatalist (we know it has a sad ending already). This third strand weaves in, sometimes encouraging the others, sometimes hindering, and... Aaah, it's just clever. You'll like it, I promise.

I mentioned that, despite the distracting cutlery, I got involved in this book early enough for it to count. That's because of the two relationships that make up the foreground. There's Xavier and his sweetly incompetent, we've-all-got-a-friend-like-that wingman, Murray. And then there's Xavier and his brash, more-personality-than-you-know-what-to-do-with cleaner, Pippa.

The spiralling consequences, the past he can no longer ignore, and the present he can no longer deny responsibility for are what make this story move. But I wouldn't even have been reading it if it wasn't for the charming, flawed, uneven and awkward friendship that it begins with.

Oh, also: my first Amazon review.

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