Seven Days In Seven Lives: 'A Week In December'
Seven Days In Seven Lives: 'A Week In December'
Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December is a seven-day tour of modern London written in Dickensian style. Charles Dickens' rich cast of 19th century characters dealt with class conflict, wealth, poverty and true love. Faulks' modern-day characters deal with terrorism, greed, the Internet and — because some things never change — true love.
The satirical story unfolds in 2007 over the seven days before Christmas. Readers follow the characters all over the city and its suburbs — often underground on the famous Circle Line train.
True to form, the long cast of characters turns out to be linked to one another: There's a hedge fund manager and his drug-addicted son, a lawyer, a book critic, a train driver, and a successful Muslim businessman and his religiously minded son, who is deeply conflicted about the true message of Islam.
The backdrop of the book was inspired largely by Faulks' own experience — he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he began thinking about the alternate reality of the banking world about 10 years ago, when he noticed that his London neighborhood of Notting Hill was filling up with bankers. (Back when he moved in, the neighborhood was made up mostly of artists and musicians.)
"I was having dinner with people earning $10 million a year," Faulks says. "This was strange to me and it was completely divorced from any reality that I understood."
He began writing A Week in December well before the financial markets unraveled.
"So much money was being made by banks and hedge funds," Faulks explains. "This was long before the credit crisis, and I began to understand that these vast fortunes were being made by trading things which didn't exist."
Faulks took a break from researching material for the novel to write Devil May Care, a sequel to the late Ian Fleming's James Bond series. When he returned to A Week in December, his storyline was overtaken by real life events; the financial boom was over.
"Instead of talking to this guy who was helping me about how much money was made and how it was done, he kept on looking down at his hand-held computer saying, 'Oh my God, another bank is going broke,' " Faulks recalls.
In keeping with 19th century novels, Faulks assigns punning names to some of his characters — particularly the villainous hedge fund manager, John Veals.
"I got his name from a real estate agent. I liked the name 'Veal' because it's a bit like venal, and of course veal is a kind of bloodless meat and these things to me suggested the character of John Veals. He is an extremely cold, bloodless, rapacious, calculating, ruthless, greedy son of a gun."
Many of Faulks' characters lead livelier lives in virtual worlds: They lead parallel lives in online gaming, play fantasy football, and get sucked into reality television programs. Faulks says he recognizes it in his own children — their eyes glued to hand-held screens when they're on family vacations.
"What A Week in December is about is the way that this whole city, London, has become detached from reality," Faulks explains.
The abstract nature of the financial world only reinforced for Faulks "the whole idea of a city which had completely lost touch with reality and preferred to live with its head up its rear end."
One character who is struggling with his identity is Hassan al-Rashid, son of pickle magnate Farooq al-Rashid. He's so disillusioned that he's easily swayed when a friendly extremist contacts him via a social networking Web site called YourPlace.
"This young man ... is led astray by demagogues and politically motivated people who want him to do a terrible thing — commit a terrorist outrage," Faulks says. "It is an extraordinary phenomenon to have homegrown terrorists in your country. ... And it is a kind of sadness I think that if you are a true believer in a certain fundamental way of looking at Islam then you are always going to be dissatisfied with the political structures that you find yourselves in because none of them really fit with the purity of the way of life that you aspire to."
He says that Hassan's character — a potential suicide bomber — is ultimately a victim, whereas Veals — a hedge fund manager — is a true predator. Faulks' book is full of good and evil, greed and generosity, and a few romances.
"It's a dark and angry book and it has dark and serious things to say about the way we live," he says. "I wanted there to be sunlight at the end. When you climb out of the Circle Line train, you emerge into the sun."
A Week in December
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Excerpt: 'A Week In December'
A Week In December
By Sebastian Faulks
Hardcover, 400 pages
List price: $27.95
Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and were blasting into the wasteland by the side of West Cross Route in Shepherd's Bush. With a bare ten months to the scheduled opening of Europe's largest urban shopping centre, the sand-covered site was showing only skeletal girders and joists under red cranes, though a peppermint facade had already been tacked onto the eastward side. This was not a retail park with trees and benches, but a compression of trade in a city centre, in which migrant labour was paid by foreign capital to squeeze out layers of profit from any Londoner with credit. At their new 'Emirates' Stadium, meanwhile, named for an Arab airline, Arsenal of North London were kicking off under floodlights against Chelsea from the West, while the goalkeepers — one Czech, one Spanish — jumped up and down and beat their ribs to keep warm. At nearby Upton Park, the supporters were leaving the ground after a home defeat; and only a few streets away from the Boleyn Ground, with its East End mixture of sentimentality and grievance, a solitary woman paid her respects to a grandfather — come from Lithuania some eighty years ago – as she stood by his grave in the overflowing cemetery of the East Ham Synagogue. Up the road in Victoria Park, the last of the dog-walkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, grey high-rises marked with satellite dishes, like ears cupped to the outside world in the hope of gossip or escape; while in a minicab that nosed along Dalston Road on its way back to base, the dashboard thermometer touched minus two degrees.
In his small rooms in Chelsea, Gabriel Northwood, a barrister in his middle thirties, was reading The Koran, and shivering. He practised civil law, when he practised anything at all; this meant that he was not involved in 'getting criminals off', but in representing people in a dispute whose outcome would bring financial compensation to the claimants if they won. For a long time, and for reasons he didn't start to understand, Gabriel had received no instructions from solicitors — the branch of the legal profession he depended on for work. Then a case had landed in his lap. It was to do with a man who had thrown himself under a Tube train, and concerned the extent to which the transport provider might be deemed responsible for failing to provide adequate safety precautions. Almost immediately, a second brief had followed: from a local education authority being sued by the parents of a Muslim girl in Leicester for not allowing her to wear traditional dress to school. With little other preparatory work to do, Gabriel thought he might as well try to understand the faith whose demands he was about to encounter; and any educated person these days, he told himself, really ought to have read the Koran.
Some yards below where Gabriel sat reading was an Underground train; and in the driver's cab a young woman called Jenni Fortune switched off the interior light because she was distracted by her own reflection in the windscreen. She slowed the train with her left hand on the traction brake control and, just before she drew level with the signal, brought it to a halt. She pressed two red buttons to open the doors and fixed her eyes on the wing mirror to watch the passengers behind her getting in and out.
She had been driving on the Circle and Metropolitan Lines for three years and still felt excited when she clocked in for her eight-hour shift at the Depot. She felt sorry for the poor passengers who sat and swayed behind her. Sideways on, they saw only bags and overcoats, hanging straps and worn plush under strip lights with suffocating heaters locked on Max. They endured the jostle and the boredom, with occasional stabs of fear when drunken, swearing youths pushed on.
From her view, Jenni saw soothing darkness, points, a slither of crossing rails and signals that glowed like red coals. She rattled the train through the tunnels at forty miles per hour and sometimes half-expected skeletons to loom out from the wall or bats to brush her face. Head-on, she saw the miracles of London engineering that no passenger would ever glimpse: the corbelled brickwork through which the tunnels had been cut or the giant steel joist that held up a five-floor building above the entry to the platform at Liverpool Street.
The week before Christmas was the worst time of year for people throwing themselves on the track. Nobody knew why. Perhaps the approaching festivity brought back memories of family or friends who'd died, without whom the turkey and the streamers seemed a gloomy echo of a world that had once been full. Or maybe the advertisements for digital cameras, aftershave and computer games reminded people how much they were in debt, how few of 'this year's must-have' presents they could afford. Guilt, thought Jenni: a sense of having failed in the competition for resources – for DVD's and body lotions – could drive them to the rails.
Books were what she was hoping to find beneath the tree. Her favourite authors were Agatha Christie and Edith Wharton, but she read with undifferentiated glee – philosophy or airport novels. Her mother, who had come from County Cork, had barely owned a book and had been suspicious of Jenni's reading habits as a teenager. She urged her to get out and find a boyfriend, but Jenni seemed happier in her room with 600-page novels with titles in embossed gold lettering that told how a Russian pogrom had led, two generations later and after much suffering and sex, to the founding of a cosmetics dynasty in New York. Her father, who was from Trinidad, had left 'home' when Jenni was eight months old.
After her shift she would return to the novel that had won the big literary prize, the 2005 Café Bravo, which she was finding a bit thin. Then, after making something to eat for herself and her half-brother Tony, if he was there, she would log on to Parallax, the newest and most advanced of alternative reality games, where she would continue to create the life of her stand-in, or 'maquette' as the game had it, Miranda Star.
Two years before, when she was still new to the job, Jenni had had a jumper. She was coming into Monument when a sudden flash of white, like a giant seagull fluttering from the platform edge, had made her brake hard. But it was too late to prevent her hitting a twenty-year-old man, whose leap had cleared the so-called suicide pit but not taken him as far as the positive rail on the far side. Don't look at their faces was the drivers' wisdom, and after three months' counselling and rehabilitation, Jenni had resumed her driving. The man, though seriously injured, had survived. Two months later, his parents brought a civil action against Jenni's employers, claiming negligence, because their lack of safety precautions had been responsible for the son's injuries. They lost the case, but had been granted leave to appeal, and the thought of the imminent second hearing — on Tuesday there would be another meeting with the lawyer, Mr Northwood — darkened the edges of Jenni Fortune's days.
From the book A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Reprinted by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of Random House. Copyright 2010.