Anyone who knows the work of James Meek (who won the Saltire Scottish book of the Year in 2005 with his astonishing and surreal Russian epic, The People’s Act of Love (as well as being short-listed for the Booker Prize), will be wary of accepting at face value the blurb for this ambitious new study of idealism and betrayal, when it describes it as ‘an old-fashioned story of modern times … a rich family drama of love, death and money in the age of gene therapy and internet exposes’. ‘Old fashioned’? This novel is mercilessly up-to-date in its satire on child abuse, media egotism and exploitation of private lives, and fashionable social attitudes. I can only think that the blurb is a sly joke. Yes, there is a look to the past, as in Evelyn Waugh’s caustic eye for social folly, but such satire is timeless; and Meek’s closest affinities seem to me to lie with the best of contemporary commentators like Iain Banks in The Crow Road or William Boyd in Any Human Heart, with their detached observation of human predicament, paradoxically enclosed in an implicit humane understanding and sympathy.
Meek has (since McFarlane Boils the Sea in 1989) four novels and two collections of short stories. He varies his approach and topic with each, moving from the darkly comic surrealism of the short stories to the apparently, but deceptive realism of Drivetime, a claustrophobic and nightmare car journey across Eastern Europe. Recognising Meek’s unpredictability and the sly subtlety of his work, while The Heart Broke Inthus would appear on first glance to be a deliberate re-working of the family saga novel, it almost immediately reveals that it uses a deceptively traditional structure for a host of contemporary explorations of the way we live now, with Meek mercilessly deconstructing the surfaces of contemporary British lives and values, exposing (or more accurately, implying, since Meek is far to detached and non-committal to articulate an explicit moral judgement) the excesses of our time, from the sexual exploitation of children, the hypocrisy of press and media, and the shallowness of so-called business friends. As Meek’s most humane character, the scientist Bec Shepherd, sighs ‘I wish there was some kind of moral foundation I could stand on or try to blow up, if I didn’t like it, but there isn’t one’. The novel is a kind of human comedy, but its genius lies in its interweaving of contemporary weaknesses, allowing them to expose themselves through the actions of its dramatis personae, with no overt intrusion by the author.
Four people dominate this exploration, brother and sister Ritchie and Bec Shepherd, Uncle and nephew Harry and Alex Comrie. The book is structured around their moral (and amoral) questioning, and their inability, shared by the reader, to find a moral foundation on which answers might rest. Ritchie is a middle-aged London ex-rock star now producing TV shows featuring new bands, she an internationally known malaria researcher. The contrast is striking — he, despite having a loving family, is having an affair with a fourteen-year old groupie, while she, working in Africa, infects herself with malaria parasites to try to find a vaccine. Theirs is the central pairing; and it is Meek’s achievement to present Ritchie as a kind of monster of our time, with his self-deceptions and rationalisations, seeing no connection between his sordid affair and his genuinely caring wife and children. Meek manages to make Ritchie all too human and believable, since this, it is implied, is the way we live now. Ritchie at first admires his sister for her humanity, but will betray her, in an act of appalling deceit, which simultaneously satirises tabloid and BBC media, his justification being that she has betrayed him (which she hasn’t).Ritchie is a magnificent Iago-like creation; manipulating his children and his lovers, exploiting the murder of his father by Irish terrorists by sitting up a TV interview with the killer, promising a tabloid a defamatory story about his sister if they will not expose his child-affair, moving inexorably towards self-humiliation and loss of family.
Bec moves in an entirely opposite direction. From her obsessive and selfless research, seeking her vaccine, allowing herself only casual lovers, genuinely thoughtful of others, but essentially alone, she has to find something in her life to give it meaning. Meek typically avoids any bland answer to her search — rather he shows the randomness and casual unpredictability of human relations, by leaving her meeting with the man who will, after several misunderstandings and apparent endings, bring meaning (and the meaning of the book’s title) into her life.
Alex Comrie is a Northern Scottish misfit; drummer in one of Ritchie’s early bands, he is a fine scientist, a medical geneticist, gauche yet charismatic. He wanders into Bec’s life a third of the way into the novel; along with his uncle Harry, Head of a world-famous Research laboratory. If anyone stands for Meek’s values, it must be this erratic genius, utterly uncompromising and flamboyant, whose crazily attractive way of dealing with his own imminent death is a prime example of Meek’s ability to work rich comedy into human tragedy. Alex will take over from his uncle as Head; but the second half — the positive half — of the novel is mainly about how Alex and Bec salvage their relationship from the hazards of international travel, Alex’s infertility, and the betrayals of family.
All this cannot convey the acidly humorous and satiric texture of Meek’s observation; not a page without its wicked barb or summative comment on human failing and folly. The overwhelming triumph, however, is to make the reader believe that out of all this human mess of greed and hypocrisy something survives of value. Cleverly, the symbolic parallel to this discovery of meaning lies in the scientific work of Bec and Harry, complementing each other in their cellular research. Bec seeks to find in her parasites a means of resisting malaria, so crucial to her beloved Africa; Alex begins to glimpse a way of introducing new cells which just might cure disease and prolong life. Both see their introduction of cells as a kind of beneficial ‘breaking into’ humanity; both, in their enhancement of each other, illustrate a human and emotional parallel, in which the heart does indeed break in, rescuing them from their betrayals, as well as from a random and often meaningless world. Perhaps there is indeed a side to this fine novel which can be called ‘old-fashioned’ family drama, since from the welter of satire emerges a bruised yet genuine human love. In this magnificent novel Meek has managed in the end to balance the impossible opposites of science and emotion, human folly and a just conceivable human worth.
References & Further Information
The Heart Broke In by James Meek is published by Canongate Books, 2012.