Friday, 24 August 2012

Hensher: King of the Badgers

Philip Hensher (2011) King of the Badgers Faber & Faber, London; 300 pp.; ISBN 978-1-4299-6719-8

This is a satirical novel that takes aim at a number of elements in contemporary English society. The story is based on the absurd premise that life in rural Devon might be interesting, and shows that even when that appears to be true, the reality is just shallow and thin.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first centres around the disappearance of a young girl in the small town of Hanmouth. The incident shocks the community but also allows class snobbery to give a full airing to its tatty linen. The sad individuals obsessed with surveillance and security have a field day, insisting that no one is safe without more cameras to watch over all, and baying for the blood of any registered sex offender.

We are also introduced to Miranda and Kenyon. She is a self-important and bossy academic (plenty of models there) while he is a civil servant who has found a snug hideaway in the system, but their pretensions are pushing them deep into debt. Their daughter Hettie is clearly unhinged, a fact to which they are utterly oblivious.

It turns out that the missing girl was deliberately ‘kidnapped’ by her mother’s ex, but he is found murdered and now no one has a clue where the girl has gone. The most vociferous critics of the police are – for a time – subdued.

In the second part of the novel, Hensher turns his irreverent eye on fat, hairy gay men. The self-deprecating humour is a nice touch. David’s parents have retired to Hanmouth and he has not fared well in their absence. He has a job writing mindless blurbs for mock-up novels to sell in the Chinese market, but you get the feeling that under the surface of nonsense there is a cri de coeur of romance trying to be heard. In order to save face with his parents, David convinces an Italian acquaintance, Mauro, to visit Hanmouth and pretend to be his boyfriend.

David’s parents are trying ever so hard to fit in and have a budding friendship with Sam and Harry, a gay couple who have a domesticated life occasionally spiced up by orgies with other men of like build – as many as will fit into their living room. The other couple that emerges in this part of the novel is Hettie (Miranda and Kenyon’s daughter) and Michael, the son of a visiting American academic. Hettie hasn’t been interested in boys to date (she’s 13), but is now doe-eyed for the transatlantic 15 year old.

David and Mauro attend a party put on by David’s parents, but Sam and Harry arrive with a drugged-up and loud mechanic who shocks the guests. David and Mauro leave and head for the orgy at Sam and Harry’s. The arrival of the other gay men in the streets of the small town outrages the busybodies of Neighbourhood Watch and gives them new cause for poking into other people’s lives. The orgy provides some high comedy but David remains a sad figure. On the way back to London the next day he binges on burgers, snorts cocaine in the toilets of a lay-by and ends up dead.

The final third of the story sees a number of loose ends tied up, but the march of the nazis in Neighbourhood Watch continues and, despite resistance by some of the locals, you know that they will triumph. Their branded package of loathing and vindictiveness is too closely allied with the interests of modern policing to fail.

Hettie finds some resolution and forgiveness for her past sins, both real and imagined, but Michael seems to be getting the message that she’s not the ideal partner. David’s parents are deep in grief for the loss of their son and reach out to Mauro, still under the illusion that he was David’s partner. However, they are mightily relieved when Mauro asks only a small token from them.

Miranda has pushed one too many causes one step too far and her university is now likely to fire her, though with a substantial severance package. Her husband Kenyon scores an extremely well paid job in the civil service, being the only one willing to take on the government’s dirty work. Thus, in modern England the mediocre and undeserving reap their rich rewards.

The kidnapped girl is found by an observant man coming to empty the septic tank of a remote cottage, but the man who has been holding her takes off and we are left not knowing if he will ever face retribution for what he has done. In the closing scene, we see Sam and Harry reject the opportunity for a small orgy and settle for a quiet night in front of the telly instead. Ah, England.

This is a long novel and there are many other characters and sub-plots. At times it feels unwieldy, though the action keeps moving at a good clip. None of the characters is explored in depth (a pre-requisite of satire?) and the relationships between people, even the settled couples, display little substance. No one really seems very interested in anyone else, and no one here is very interesting.

Since 2005, Hensher has been an academic teachingEnglish and creative writing, and the same period has marked a slow decline in his considerable ability to write compelling and complex prose. The novel consists of a very large number of short chapters, the divisions often unnecessary, and between the three parts he inserts two ‘Impromptus’. These are simply to remind us that there is an omniscient author at work (yes, that old trickery is still considered clever in academia) but they add no new dimension to our understanding, merely carrying the plot a bit further along. Hensher also indulges in some imagery that, while innovative, feels a little too contrived.

Some critics have compared this novel to the works of Kingsley Amis. Apparently they intended that as a compliment. Good satire is very hard to pull off. King of the Badgers doesn’t have the subtlety and depth of Jonathan Coe’s writing, but it is an amusing romp all the same and the story manages to skewer some pretensions of modern England in a satisfying way.

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