Fiction - paperback; Jonathan Cape; 384 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
"This book is different. You've really never read a book like this before."
So says the blurb on Leo Benedictus' debut novel, The Afterparty, which has just been published by Jonathan Cape.
Oh god, I thought, this is going to be another one of those newfangled, patronising marketing ploys, aka Chris Cleave's The Other Hand. But I was wrong. Without wishing to give away any punchlines, the blurb is a bit of an in-joke -- you need to read the book to get it, but once you do, it's pretty hilarious.
Indeed, much of this book is laugh out loud funny, but not quite in the way you might expect.
The Afterparty is one of those clever postmodern novels -- featuring the trademark stories within stories and the author giving himself a starring role -- but there's a lightness of touch, a playfulness, that makes it a real delight to read. I figured I'd try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn't I'd put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading...
The story is set in the space of a single evening. A reclusive movie star, Hugo Marks, is celebrating his 31st birthday in a London nightclub. The event, organised by his glamorous American wife Mellody, is attended by A-list celebrities and hangers-on. But there's one attendee who really shouldn't be there -- and he's kind of the hero of the piece and the one with whom we most identify.
His name is Michael and he's a lowly sub-editor at a national newspaper. Despite his bad fashion sense and low self-esteem, Michael harbours ambitions to be a writer -- and if he can pick up a few gossipy crumbs from Hugo's party table he might just crack the big time.
When he finally overcomes his nerves to strike up a conversation with Calvin Vance, a teenage singer riding a wave of success from his appearance on TV entertainment contest The X-Factor, he finds a way in. What he doesn't realise is that this one little chat will draw him into a whirlwind of events, including an after party at Hugo's house, that will all go terribly wrong...
Of course, I can't really tell you much more than that, other than the story is a totally addictive one, written in such an engaging, realistic style it feels as if it's based on characters from real life. Indeed, some appear as their real selves -- Elton John, for instance, makes a star-studded appearance tinkling the ivories for a cheesy performance of Happy Birthday, and chef Gordon Ramsay makes a wisecrack about the inedible food. There are hints and essences of other personalities, mainly British, that we know or think we know, and half the fun is trying to identify them.
The story is told from multiple points of view, but is easy to follow, because each character's perspective is printed in a different font.
But the real twist of The Afterparty is the email exchanges which come at the beginning of each chapter. At first I thought the emails were a cheap trick -- emails are, in fact, one of my pet hates in modern fiction. But the further you get into this book, the more you realise they are what make it truly work.
The exchanges are between a writer, calling himself William Mendez, and a literary agent, Valerie Morrell. William pitches his new novel, Publicity, to Valerie, who eventually agrees to submit it to various publishers, but not before a long, protracted and very funny correspondence occurs between the pair.
Because it is a work in progress, William submits his novel to her chapter by chapter -- and these chapters are the story of Hugo Marks' birthday party. So what you get when reading The Afterparty is this: an email exchange between a writer and his agent, then the latest chapter he has written, then another email exchange, then the next chapter and so on.
It probably sounds like this would make for a disjointed read, but it doesn't. Aside from being very humorous, the emails inform what happens next and add a new, ironic dimension to the story. And they bring a light-hearted touch to what is essentially a rather dark tale about a party that goes slightly off the rails.
There's a lot to like about this novel, one of the smartest and most contemporary I've read in a long while. It feels fresh and new, and the satire, which is incredibly biting about our current obsession with fame, fortune, celebrity and the media, is spot-on. It never feels fake though. It never feels as if the writer is trying too hard to be clever and knowing. It just feels very natural and slips down as smoothly and deliciously as the dram of whisky on the front cover.