London And The South-East, by David Szalay (review)

David Szalay   London and the South-East  Jonathan Cape £12.99 pbk

Paul Rainey, 40, is in sales. He heads a team of bluffers, many of them inept at the dark grey art of flogging nothing for something. He spends his days on the phone, finagling adverts for a trade magazine which has no speakable circulation, no point, no purpose. When Paul isn’t trying to sell thin air, he’s smoking too much, drinking too much, eyeing a barmaid on whom he has a childish crush, or conducting meaningless banter with colleagues. Their favourite film is Glengarry Glen Ross, and their world a tawdry version of it, airless, bitter, a blur of petty recriminations.

          This is Szalay’s first novel, and startlingly good. Its strength is the way in which we are lugged into Paul’s deeply neurotic inner life, and persuaded to like him, even to connive with him as he toys with landing his firm and his fellow-workers in the lurch. Almost everything in Paul’s working life is shallow, and his relationship with his partner and her three children is obviously wobbly. What keeps us reading is our awareness that Paul knows all this, and that, in his dissatisfaction, there is an urge to escape.

          Because it’s set in 2004, before the ban on smoking in pubs, there is something oddly historical about the novel. You can taste the fag-ash, and see the smoke. And what is really striking about London and the South-East, although it’s a strange, unsatisfactory title, is the way in which this fug extends everywhere. Szalay captures a world in which there is a perpetual static in the background, in which the chunter of televisions and the noise of overhead aircraft drown out almost any meaningful conversation. But the novel still gets under the sweaty, sickly skin of its characters.

          London and the South-East could very easily have finished after the first two hundred pages, when there is a really clever nemesis. The second half of the novel, in which Paul finds himself at home in Hove, is less intense, more diffuse, taken up with a mildly complex plot involving skulduggery in the supermarket trade, and with infidelities in his relationship. It almost feels like a sequel. There’s a slightly underdeveloped sub-plot, too, about Paul’s stepson’s expertise at snooker. The second part is eventually, but a little uneasily yoked to the first.

          Nonetheless, this is a terrific debut, written in a present tense which flashes every so often into the past - a trick which might have been irritating, but which Szalay pulls off with confidence. London and the South-East is billed as in the genre of The Office, but the satire here is not paramount in the way this might suggest. What grips is the rhythmic intensity with which Paul’s consciousness is ravelled and unravelled, the energy with which his psychological state is explored. The tension is all in the central character, his highs and lows, his attempts to escape the numbness of indifference. He drowns; he surfaces; he gasps for air. It’s a tense and compelling read.


From The Independent