“Enjoyment” is a word that well describes Thomas Ovans’ reaction to Alan Brownjohn’s dystopian comedy set in the near future.
This entertaining book came into my hands as a species of early Christmas present – albeit with the proviso that I was expected to write a review on it at some time in the future. At first I mentally relegated this critical task to the still remote days beyond Christmas; but I soon became so engaged with the narrative that the idea of writing about it became a pleasurable prospect. Hence, sooner perhaps than the editor imagined, here is my assessment of Alan Brownjohn’s Enjoyment. (It is of course up to the editor when he chooses to publish it.)
The novel is set in London some twenty or so years in the future. No political context is given (e.g. no mention of Brexit) but everyday life seems beset by escalated versions of current inconveniences. There is still austerity; there is almost constant traffic gridlock; young people have difficulties getting into secure employment and paying the rent; older people, particularly in public services, lose what had once seemed steady jobs. To offset these grim circumstances, the authorities have taken to declaring each year a Great Year, with official Fun events taking place in which the public are expected to take part with enthusiasm. (One might see here the logical extension of a climate where such expensive frivolities as a “garden bridge” are promoted against a background of under-funded health services.) Brownjohn conveys this mildly dystopian city rather well – presenting barely exaggerated versions of recognisable settings such as the overpowering shopping mall in which a fast food outlet deterred customers by putting large coloured pictures of its meals in the windows. Brownjohn does however add some speculative touches of his own, such as ‘Trackdown’, a system whereby those who have turned off their mobile phones can still be contacted via the phone of someone else who happens to be sitting near them on the bus or tube.
The story centres on a recently-redundant Town Hall employee, William Bridgnorth, and his (very mild) protest against the drabness and artificiality of daily life. This protest takes the form of running classes in which people are taught to speak spontaneously in iambic pentameters – the natural rhythm for expressing ourselves in English as he puts it (perhaps labouring this point a little too often). Bridgnorth persuades potential pupils how often this rhythmic pattern occurs in courteous everyday speech by citing examples like Weren’t you before me? – But I’m sure you were and May I sit here? – Yes … Well l think it’s free.
The book’s main characters come from two of Bridgnorth’s tutorial groups; but some of them have had prior contact with one another before attending the classes. Their individual back-stories – some of them decidedly odd – are revealed in a number of ways; but in three cases they chiefly emerge through the final oral examination in Bridgnorth’s teaching programme which requires students to recount, in unrehearsed blank verse, a significant episode from their earlier life. (Brownjohn may be accused of ducking the issue here – but perhaps he makes a wise decision from the reader’s point of view? – because he does not present these test pieces verbatim but as prose paraphrases with only a few sample iambic extracts.) Particularly entertaining among these reminiscences is one involving a sex-therapy clinic in an un-named Eastern European country where local custom requires people to refer to one another by fictitious military ranks. The initial impression one makes upon, say, a hotel receptionist will be immediately clear from whether (s)he uses ‘Field-Marshal’ or ‘Sergeant’ as form of address.
As well as recounting their past histories to one another, the characters also have interactions in the present which take a variety of forms. There are a couple of surprising sexual encounters; two characters meet in a studio which provides canned laughter for television programmes; two others have an alarming confrontation with a store detective; a young intern experiences some cynical exploitation (being guaranteed a salary from the start only to realise later that her employers have failed to specify what they took “the start” to be); and representatives of a fly-by-night consultancy company reveal their business philosophy as You don’t need to know anything at all about the work the client does … You just have to tell them convincingly how to do it all better. Towards the end of the book there is also an unexpected brush with potential violence; and this turns out severely to complicate the Bridgnorth group’s much-anticipated involvement in the Great Fun Parade which provides the main climax to the action.
The book is an easy and engaging read. A few of the chapters are written as first person accounts in the voice of one of the young women characters – the rather oddly named Merlinda. For some reason, however, she does not report on every scene in which she appears; and most of the story is told by an omniscient narrator with a pleasingly elegant writing style and a gift for wry observation. This rather detached authorial voice is particularly effective in scenes such as the one where two characters, Frank & Anna, meet in a cinema in order for Anna secretly to ask Frank to perform a risky and difficult task. Unfortunately Frank becomes too engaged with the film that is being shown (it happens to be Citizen Kane) and Brownjohn gives a beautifully paced account of Frank’s mental struggles to take in Anna’s somewhat challenging request while being more interested in keeping up with the on-screen plot.
It is often easier to think up intriguing situations for a novel than it is to contrive satisfying resolutions. The final chapter of Enjoyment does seem rather downbeat, in contrast with the bravura touches that characterise the rest of the book. But it is fair to remark that events during the Great Fun Parade have shown more clearly the coercive nature of society in 2030; and Frank, while half-watching Citizen Kane, has been reminded what mental control – whether on the individual or on the mass level – does to both perpetrator and victim. The book’s guardedly non-committal concluding sentence may be intended to suggest the need for resistance of a more substantial kind than the recitation of iambic pentameters.