Chris Bohjalian's riff on The Great Gatsby pays off in the pick of this week's paperbacks, reviewed by Hephzibah Anderson.
The Double Bind
Chris Bohjalian is one of those authors whose novels plug directly into the kind of capital 'I' issues so beloved by reading groups. Gun control, foster care and homoeopathy have all featured in the plots of his nine previous bestsellers, and this latest deals with the causes and effects of homelessness and mental illness. It also does something a lot more unexpected, unfolding in a world in which Jay Gatsby and other characters from F Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby are real people; though they have long since passed on, their offspring survive, as does West Egg, its neighbourhood of mansions based on the real-world New York community of Great Neck.
At the novel's heart is a young woman named Laurel Estabrook. As a college sophomore in Vermont, Laurel went mountain biking alone and endured a horrendous attack. Left for dead, she miraculously survived, eventually returning to college and graduating to become a social worker helping the homeless. Seven years on, she still bears the physical and psychological scars, though she has learnt to hide them well behind the trappings of adult life. She shares a flat with a friend and is dating a journalist who is much older than her, but considerably younger than his predecessor. (Her penchant for protective father figure types stems from the attack, as does her aversion to bicycling - she hasn't ridden since that fateful wintry afternoon.)
The plot's catalyst is the death of Bobbie Crocker, a charismatic and schizophrenic old man who spent years on the streets. During that time, he clung to a duffel bag full of photographs and negatives. There are portraits of presidents, poets and rock stars. There is even one of a young Paul Newman. Together, they suggest a flourishing career as a photographer. How did a successful seeming life unravel so thoroughly? It's a question echoed frequently in asides, but for Laurel, there are more pressing mysteries. Among Crocker's photographs are pictures of Jay Gatsby's mansion. Laurel happened to grow up around there, and even swam in Gatsby's pool as a child. More troubling still is the picture of a lonely Vermont back road, across which flits a girl on a bicycle, wearing the same bright jersey that Laurel was wearing when she was attacked.
As her fascination tips over into obsession, she begins to suspect that Bobby was the son of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who lived across the bay in tonier East Egg. When the Buchanan family lawyer wades in, Laurel decides that the photos must contain a family secret. She tries to ignore their chilling connections to her more recent past, but as the plot thickens facts begin to press in on her, forcing her back in time.
There is a twist in this novel's tale that will strike you as either ingenious or infuriating, but which it is impossible to discuss without divulging too much. Suffice to say, it will radically alter your reading of all that has preceded it, raising rather more questions than it answers. Bohjalian has risked plenty in making the work of so mighty a writer as Fitzgerald this central to his novel, begging comparisons that can only impoverish his own prose, especially when it lacks grace to begin with. Yet it pays off, and while its reflections on homelessness are predictable, The Double Bind makes some rewarding points about the interplay between fact and fiction, self-reinvention and the meaning of Gatsby and the American dream in the 21st century. Scattered photographs taken by the real-life man who inspired the creation of Bobbie Crocker add an extra layer of complexity.
Empire of Sand
Figures from history can sometimes jar when encountered on the pages of a novel, but TE Lawrence's brief life has attracted so much mythology that he already feels like a semifictional creation anyway. In Robert Ryan's hands, he becomes the hero of a complex historical epic, which begins in 1915. While war rages in Europe, Second Lieutenant Thomas Edward Lawrence pours over maps in the Cairo HQ of the British Intelligence Section's Geographical Services Department. Despairing of the limitations of his role, and determined to do more in the battle against the Kaiser after carnage in France claims the life of his younger brother, he builds up a network of agents across the Levant. He is convinced that the only way to rid the region of the presence of their enemy's ally, the Ottomans, is to incite an Arab revolt and inspire a self-governing Arabia. But first, there is his nemesis to deal with, the lethal German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Solitude-loving Lawrence comes across as an alluring character who takes his coffee syrup-sweetened and is able to curse fluently in Arabic. If that sounds predictable, the other characters are far more so, the women tending to purr while the men get "squiffy". Nevertheless, the action is smartly paced and the dialogue snappy.
Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex Andrew Wilson Bloomsbury Dh60
As you'd expect from the author known as the "godfather of the airport novel", Harold Robbins "invented, sensationalised, exaggerated, and elaborated". Unfortunately for his biographer, his fancy took off on some its wildest flights when describing his own life. He insisted that he was left on the steps of a Catholic orphanage as a baby, his publicity blurbs contained two different birth dates and he claimed to have three different names. He routinely responded to autobiographical probing from journalists, chat show hosts and even close friends with tales as tall as those that made him famous. Andrew Wilson rises with aplomb to the challenge of tracking down the real Harold Robbins, good-humouredly pursuing him from his Brooklyn beginnings (his mother did die just days after he was born, but there was no orphanage) to his giddy rise up the bestseller lists. In his heyday, he lived the life of an international playboy, squandering millions on fast cars and high living. There are yachts, poolside babes in bikinis, wild parties - in short, everything you'd expect from one of Robbins' own books. If you're craving the guilty thrill of a beach read, this will more than satisfy, and you'll glean some sly insights into the workings of the modern imagination along the way.
The Courilof Affair Irene Nemirovsky Vintage Dh54
In 1901, a student assassinated Russia's former minister of education, Nikolai Bogoliepov. This act of terrorism (and its moral implications) forms the basis of Irene Nemirovsky's bold novella. The book opens on a cold day in Nice, where a 50-ish Russian with delicate wrists, a sarcastic expression and a "beautiful but odd mouth" is recognised by another man in a cafe. That chance encounter takes the Russian, a man named Leon M, back decades, all the way to 1903, when he was charged by the Revolutionary Committee with "liquidating" Valerian Alexandrovitch Courilof, the Russian minister of education whose cold-blooded brutality won him the name "the Killer Whale". As the son of two revolutionaries, Leon M was born into the Party, and grew up envious of the tales of men who'd notched up terrorist attacks. Courilof's assassination must take place in public and be as dramatic as possible, in order to capture the popular imagination. To this end, Leon insinuates himself into the minister's home by becoming his physician. Inevitably, as he learns more about his victim's life - his failing health, his difficult domestic situation, the long shadow cast by the tyrannical Tsar - his resolve weakens. First published in French in 1933, this cautionary tale remains topical, ruminating on motivation and the abuses of power.