O’Loughlin, Ed (2009), Not Untrue And Not Unkind, Penguin
I used to look forward to the announcement of the Booker long- and shortlist and the eventual winner. Many books and writers I hold dear I pilfered off those lists, but in recent years I’ve found the Booker judges’ decisions and choices frequently bewildering. Now, I’m well aware that people tend to complain about prizes a lot, claiming objective stances for their own peculiar tastes. So, I’m well aware that it’s my literary taste-buds that led me to disliking Hensher’s last novel and loving Rushdie’s most recent. So what I said is not a general complaint about the deterioration of culture or literary prizes, it’s a personal complaint, a dissatisfaction with the reliability of literary authorities. It’s laziness, basically. Thus, it won’t do to start with winners or short-listed writers; as I commenced to do last year, I’ll start reading books at random off of the longlist, hopefully turning up a gem or two. This here, Ed O’Loughlin’s debut novel Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the first of those reads and most certainly not a gem. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the worst book on this year’s longlist. It’s just a thoroughly bad novel, a disappointment on almost every level, although there is much that is, potentially, interesting about this book’s enterprise, starting with the structure, which appears, at first, to be intriguing.
Not Untrue And Not Unkind contains two narratives, basically, both relayed to us through a first person narrator named Owen, who’s a journalist and reporter. One, we could call it the frame narrative, although that would not be quite true, is set in Dublin, the other is set in various countries in Africa. The Dublin narrative tells us about the inside workings of a newspaper and it is roughly divided into past and present. The past part is about Owen’s faltering career in the newsroom, doing odd jobs, hoping for a promotion, before deciding to try his hand at freelance reporting in Africa. But, as in the Africa section, the contexts and environments are kind of blended into the background while Owen is busy drawing a portrait of the people in these environments (without making any insightful connections between one and the other, really). The character he’s centrally occupied with in these parts, is Cartwright, a mean editor, who keeps tabs on ‘his’ journalists, compiling, as it turns out, extensive reports on each. He enjoys confronting and humiliating them over their mistakes and errors, to which end he invites them out for a coffee where he takes his time to slowly erode and dismember their self-esteem. It is after such a humiliation (although not necessarily because of it) that Owen decides to go to Africa. The present part sets in after Cartwright vanishes and Owen goes through his desk (and, later, his apartment), remembering his past life as a journalist and reporter.
Cartwright is a catalyst of sorts and in one of the final chapters you can clearly see how O’Loughlin means to use this narrative to close the meandering Africa story but the book rather hobbles to a close, adding chapters upon chapters that make the obvious just more obvious; to be honest, I felt manhandled by the author during the closing pages, due to the relief of finishing the book, however, I wasn’t overly bothered by it. But the fact remains that the author doesn’t appear to have confidence in his own creations. The poet James Merrill once, famously, said, roughly, that whenever he stalled in writing a poem, he focused on the objects in the poem, the furniture and things like that. Not Untrue And Not Unkind is not that kind of novel. The environment just consists of props for O’Loughlin’s characters and they themselves are but hastily constructed scaffolds for his plot and other ideas. This is something to regret when encountering characters such as Cartwright, where we can almost smell the wasted potential. Like the close of the book, wasted potential is marked by the reader’s disappointment at the end of the book. Throughout the book I kept thinking there was more good stuff in the back, more good stuff to come, that all this was just preparatory, that it was a lead-in for something that would make reading all the toss worth it, until the great catastrophe near the end disabused me of such a notion. Cartwright’s character is unrealized but then he doesn’t play such a major role in the book.
A much larger role is played by Owen’s fellow journalists in the sections of the book that deal with Africa, and the flaws of O’Loughlin’s characterizations are more of a problem there, as is his disregard for contexts and environments. Superficially, these sections are quite interesting. We, who usually only consume the end product of journalistic work, get to see the photographers and writers at work, but actually, we hear little about that aspect of their lives. When we do, it can be arresting, and O’Loughlin is clearly capable of constructing compelling images, such as a correspondent who is confined to a small room where he talks to TV stations around the world and there, in his chair, in front of the camera he spends his life waiting for the next call, slowly going mad. Images like this are very few and far between. Most of the time, we hear the journalists bicker, drink, fall in and out of love with one another. The group of journalists isn’t a constant entity, people drift in and out again, the only constant is Owen. The literary reference that came to mind when I read the book was Ernest Hemingway’s masterful The Sun Also Rises, which is, I think, one of the best short books of its time, or of its century. One of my favorite novels, in any case.
There is much that connects these two books, but O’Loughlin falls short in almost every respect. Now, it’s no big flaw to fall short of as well made a novel as The Sun Also Rises but it is if the results are as singularly uninteresting as they are in this case. It’s a big risk to assume the stance, to use the tools that Hemingway uses. He himself, in some late novels, showed how easily this kind of writing turns into dullness, into unconvincing posture. What aggravates the problem in Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the fact that everything else that Owen talks about becomes unconvincing as well, and this is a problem with a book that tackles as fickle a subject as African politics and their reflection in the Western media. For a novel of places, a novel that is concerned with all kinds of places in Africa (it does mark places in Africa as places, in contrast to Dublin, which is basically the unmarked backdrop to the whole thing), it is remarkably weak on that count as well. All the African countries are treated as one big ‘African’ country, except for the few passages that contain explicit references to persons and events. This approach completely wipes out any possibility to understand something or to have any kind of insight into any of these events. All we have is a group of vaguely neurotic journalists who travel through Africa, taking notes and pictures. It’s not actually bad, just uninteresting. Disappointing. It’s not moving nor intellectually challenging in any way. It’s just there.
Even the huge amount of violence in the book doesn’t change that. Although, again, O’Loughlin is capable of producing affecting images, as he demonstrates in the story of a man mistakenly left for dead, he makes little enough use of this capability. Mostly, we are confronted with images that are calculated to shock but fail to achieve that goal. There is a weird kind of economy behind this writing, as if the author drew up a table, assigning moments of shock to a portion of the book and moments of emotional distress to others and so forth. They are not genuinely shocking, they are there as objects, the intent to shock in plain sight, which thwarts any opportunity to actually shock or move somebody. However, I may have come to this opinion due to the fact that I was reading a literary novel. Had I encountered the same in a newspaper, in a magazine or something similar, I may not have judged it so harshly; because this, really, is another point of reference for the Africa sections. It all reads rather like routine journalism, spruced up to fit a novel. This explains why it’s so disappointing yet at the same time rather decently written, decently structured, and so on.
The sprucing up also explains why so many ideas appear to be pasted onto the book. One of those ideas is a rather ineptly done metafictional element, with one of the characters writing a thinly disguised memoir with the title “Not Untrue and Not Unkind”, a book that Owen has less than kind words to say about. The infrequent essayistic remarks feel similarly out of place. One of the most memorable one of them is about the changes in journalistic practice which, Owen tells us, is more and more about rewriting, regurgitating the same babble over and over and not going into the field anymore. But, the reader may ask, if these morons in the field, dense as a log of wood, if we source our news from their reports, how is that better? It’s certainly not going to help with insights. Yet, at the same time, this exact question might be one of Not Untrue And Not Unkind‘s points. It is undeniable that there is one, only one, well-drawn character, and that’s Owen himself. His observations, his thoughts, his perceptions, they paint a vivid picture of a deeply unsympathetic person, one who is in a position to help shape public opinion on important issues but who appears to not be qualified to do this in a helpful and satisfying manner. If it was his intention to show this, he succeeded admirably.
It does not, however, make reading the book more of an enjoyable experience. It’s a point well made but the dullness of the whole book can be exhausting, as is the ham-handed way that Owen has with Africa, writing and other issues. At least it’s a light enough read. Maybe it’s a better book than I make it out to be, maybe I’m being misled by my disappointment. But really, even if all this sounds harsh, I’ve been holding back. Some of its portrayal of Africa is highly problematic and having Owen as a lens doesn’t protect the book at all times. If you trust me, don’t read it. It’s not worth your time or your money. Let’s hope it doesn’t get shortlisted.