I’m calling it very early but I’ll be stunned if this novel isn’t in my Top 10 books for 2018.  White has set a very high bar.

opening remarks

This is my first 2018 book… in the sense that The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White was published in 2018.  It’s rare I read a book so hot off the press but I’d pre-ordered it based on buzz and then Andy Miller said it was great so I thought rather than catch up on more 2017 novels, which is a mug’s game anyway, why not read a book before the critics have had the time to ruin it with their informed opinions and views.

Also, I love the cover.

knee-jerk observations

In the opening chapter Detective Sergeant Rex King ruminates about the gentrification of Convent Garden. Not having lived in London I can’t say how accurate his observations are, but I can’t help but feel angry on his behalf:

Gentrification aside DS Rex King has been called to Covent Garden theatre where a man has been murdered.  At first, King thinks the body is as that of his mate Terry Hobbs who sublets a studio at the Royal Palace Theatre.  On closer inspection, it seems not to be Terry but rather persons unknown which, of course, invites the discomfiting question as to whether Terry may have committed the murder.  Already I’m getting a Stav Sherez vibe from the novel – the police procedural, the layers of bureaucracy, the detailed exposition that should be dull but is utterly gripping.

Here’s some lovely writing albeit a depressing insight:

In one sense Rex King is a familiar sort of character, almost a cliche.  He’s good at his job, he lives alone, his girlfriend ran off with his best mate, he’s worn out by all the paperwork, acronyms and bureaucracy and he’s prone to a drink.  But, and this is the important bit, he has a level of maturity and wisdom that’s missing from this sort of hard-bitten trope.  Take, for example, our murder case where King’s ex-best mate, Eddie Webster, is the lead officer on the investigation.  Eddie is still with King’s ex-wife, they’re married and have kids, and unsurprisingly that relationship is a touchy subject between the two men, something they’ve more or less navigated as they’ve continued to work together.  King though has the epiphany that with so much water under the bridge there’s no need to be sensitive:
Eddie and King were best-mates during the academy. Not so much anymore as evidenced by Webster’s homophobia and King’s genuinely stunned reaction (the Tinkerbell bit made me laugh):
We readers are so fickle.  Rex has just uncovered further evidence regarding the case, including a wicked knife, had a heated argument with Webster about that knife and whether Rex might have planted it to push suspicion away from his mate Terry and had the insight that the murder may have been committed by two people.  But what do I focus on, what gets my heart racing?  The fact that Rex is a Next Gen fan:
One of the interesting subplots involves Trevor Tennyson, a protester who died in police custody.  It’s relevant to Rex because while he wasn’t directly involved in the handling of Tennyson, he was responsible for SiC or Safety in Custody.  The cops involved in Tennyson’s death were acquitted, but it would appear that person’s unknown have hacked into the department’s files and potentially have something incriminating about the case to share with the public. This Tennyson issue is a thread that keeps bobbling up in the narrative and, while I doubt it’s linked to the murder, it does provide a sheen of authenticity, suggesting that there’s more going on in the life of an officer than just a single case.

I have now reached Part 2 of the novel where we seem to have switched tracks and are following JJ, an English tourist in France, who has befriended a French-punk named Pea-tag.  I don’t want to spoil my own enjoyment of the novel, but given we are near the halfway point of the book and this is our first introduction to JJ and Pea-tag I’m going to assume that it’s JJ’s body that’s found in Terry’s studio.  I’m also going to assume that the events of Part 2 are set before Part 1. Let us see.

One of my assumptions is correct in as much as JJ’s visit to the abandoned village of La Fontaine-en-Forêt – now occupied by bohemians and hippies – takes place in the past.  Around 1978 based on the musical and political references.  What’s fascinating though is that apart from the odd hint, mention of the Republican calendar and the painting of Kilroy on a door, two clues central to our present day murder case, this section of the book, dealing with JJ, feels like it’s from a different novel.  I want to go back to Rex King investigation, but I’m also interested to see where JJ’s story goes (nowhere good I assume).

I have no idea if the story of the Conforti MkI, the first fully electric oven built in Italy during the later part of WW2, is true, or just a flight of fancy, but Tony White’s love for detail, odd tangents and telling a story as indirectly as possible, is proving to be enormously enjoyable:

A reference to Superman 3 dates the JJ section in the 1980s, 83 or 84.  Actually, it’s 1985.

Part Two of the novel is finished and we leave JJ in La Fontaine-en-Forêt.  He has lived in this village, alongside its unconventional populace of punks, painters and philosophers, for a number of weeks.  During his time he has been told of the village’s history, fallen in love, been taught how to make bread, and re-opened the old bakery outfitted with the world’s first electric oven.  How this all ties in with Rex King and his murder investigation has me guessing.  I’m hoping our corpse isn’t an older JJ, I have grown to like him: laid back but curious, enthusiastic and respectful of others.  He even gets to shag the beautiful Sylvie in a scene that’s surprisingly touching rather than lewd or graphic:

Wait.. what!?! [The rest redacted because it would be a spoiler and while I know there are some who believe that a book’s quality shouldn’t be contingent on the twists and turns of the narrative in this instance I think you’d be better off not knowing what just happened.  I think you’re going to want to read this book and you deserve to enjoy the mix of bewilderment and shock I just experienced because in a world where everything is telegraphed having the apple cart upended, smashed to pieces and then sold as firewood is something to cherish].

With all those random bold words scattered throughout the text (you can see some in the excerpts above) I thought there was something wrong with my Kindle.  But, no, it’s just Tony White being very fucking clever:

The Gist Of It

Recently, Tim Lott wrote in The Guardian about the demise of literary fiction.  He blamed writers eschewing a three-act structure and story for works of “elegant tedium”, shapeless things that promote voice above plot.  Lott was offended by writers like Martin Amis, Jonathan Coe and Edna O’Brien actively denigrating story, which, in the words of O’Brien, was for silly boys.

Whether you agree with Lott or not as with all articles of this type it creates a binary based on a limited amount of examples while asking the reader to choose sides.  You either support story-telling and conventional structures or you’re on the side of voice and experimentation.  You certainly can’t be both.  That’s bullshit, of course, as evidenced by Tony White’s The Fountain In The Forest which, literally, has a three-act structure and deep understanding of the “fundamentals of plot” (to quote Lott) while also being bold and experimental in how it delivers that story.  It’s not just that White’s police procedural revolves around the French Republican calendar or that he decides to adopt a mandated vocabulary in the fashion of Georges Perec by featuring all the answers to the Guardian Quick Crossword in 1985 within the body of the novel, it’s also how he plays with the genre with a twist so brazen that, on its own, is a commentary on the police procedural.  What’s remarkable is that these experimental flourishes don’t undermine what is a gripping, stunning read.  The last of the Lott’s three-acts is as thrilling, page-turning and suspenseful as any pot-boiler anyone will read this year, brilliantly set up by the attention to detail, the little nudges and clues and the odd tangents of the first two acts.

This is a novel that takes its inspiration from the crime/mystery genre and Oulipo (look it up) and somehow brings the philosophies of Tim Lott and Martin Amis together.  It’s about the story and about the voice.  It’s about the conventional thrills of genre and the excitement of experimentation.  The Fountain In The Forest has set a high bar for the rest of the novels I read this year.