The Works, by Joseph Connolly (review)


The Works    Joseph Connolly    Faber     £16.99            421pp


                        Joseph Connolly is a hectic writer. His speakers habitually tack off at tangents, crack open parentheses, and do not so much gild lilies as decorate them with infinitesimal detail. They like nothing better than a rant. You would not wish to be trapped in a lift with any of them. But they are usually entertainingly splenetic enough to grab the reader’s eyeballs and race them along the page.

                   The Works is much more ambitious than his previous seven novels. The Works in question are colossal, derelict printing works which the central character, Lucas Cage, has inherited from his hated father, a squillionaire property magnate. They are in fact all he is interested in inheriting, so that he can put in place his grand plan, one which is nebulous, fanciful and peculiar. He wants - with his partner, Alice - to save it from the bulldozers, and to start a community inside it. His methods of selection are not clear, either to Alice, or to the bizarre collection of individuals who colonise it. Is it just, as she hazards, a “Battersea Dog’s Home for people”?

                   Once Connolly has installed the reader and the recruits in The Works, he almost erases Lucas from the narrative. Lucas is as much an enigma to us as to them. They set about forming relationships, and busy themselves with their peccadilloes, fantasies, fetishes. The main inhabitant, Jamie, is a familiar Connolly figure, the feckless husband (to whom I didn’t warm, although he is provided with tragically comic memories of mean Christmases past). Connolly’s best invention is a couple, Mike and Oona, who are so addicted to the 1940s that they dress, eat, and conduct their sex lives as if the war was still taking place.

                   As for the (too many) others, they chunter constantly. They chunter so much that it’s frequently hard to see them, or to be sure, now and then, who is talking. Connolly has perfected a technique which switches characters in and out of past and present tense, and in and out of first and third person. His characters’ monologues veer from the witty and surreal to the tedious. It’s an old problem. When his characters are tedious, Connolly captures their tedium expertly. As writing, it has a cartwheeling genius. But there are times in The Works when the acrobatic language becomes frustrating to read - when your fingers itch to turn over two pages rather than one.

                   Connolly’s previous two novels, It Can’t Go On and S.O.S. are rowdier, funnier, but have less grand aspirations. The Works is obsessively interested in unravelling the fantasies of its characters, with exploring how people depend on each other, lie to each other. Make it through to the final hundred pages, and you will find Connolly turning worlds on their heads. Here we get to look inside Lucas (whose obsessions includes barn owls), and, more interestingly, Alice. This is the most powerful section of the novel by far, the prologue (which is brilliant) excepted. The discoveries and revelations in the home straight are riveting. They counter-balance some of the protracted, satirical banter in the earlier sections.

                   The Works is ultimately interested in greed, in selfish obsession. It shows off Connolly’s verbal glee, his relentless enjoyment of voices at full tilt. And in the monstrously loveable building, he offers readers a special treat.

From The Independent