My seat at the keyboard feels quite cold after this lengthy break from blogging – I missed you all! We have been a plague ship, as I mentioned before, and alas, I did not escape the flu/cold bug that my menfolk succumbed to, although I thought for one hubristic moment that I might. It was a bad one; Mister Litlove has been off work and on antibiotics for the first time in the 20 years I’ve known him. Thankfully I wasn’t as ill as him, but it gave me enough of a cotton wool head and sensation of general fragility that I was not inclined to think at all hard.
You may imagine, though, that I am moving rapidly through the blockbusters, if not quite the literary texts I wanted to accompany them. Several days ago now, I finished Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game and was instantly transported to my teenage years and the television adaptation, although I could only remember the very first part of the story. But perhaps that’s because the first part of the story is particularly memorable as it sees trailblazer and entrepreneur, Jamie McGregor, leaving behind his dour Scottish family for the promised land of the South African diamond fields.
No need for any kind of complex characterization, we’ve got a lot of plot to get through, so Sheldon’s characters are all blazing embodiments of one notable quality. Jamie is defined by a fierce, determined ambition to make oodles of money, and by his youthful naivety. In consequence, when he arrives at the mining town of Klipdrift, having nearly died en route (and keep count, his near-death experiences mount up alarmingly), he is instantly tricked by the town’s arch swindler, Solomon van der Merwe into signing a prospector’s contract in Afrikaans, which he can’t read. Unsurprisingly, the mule Solomon has sold him dies after the first day’s travel, but Jamie completes his arduous journey nevertheless (near-death experience no. 2) and by luck and inspiration, finds himself some diamonds. When he returns to Klipdrift, he doesn’t own half the land he’s marked out, as he expected, but earns only a miserly wage from the cunning van der Merwe. Furious, Jamie vows revenge, but van der Merwe is head honcho in this town and so he only gets himself badly beaten up and left to die (no. 3, with nasty vulture pecking scene).
Well, the point is Jamie’s determined, and so he joins forces with van der Merwe’s black servant, a man named Banda, who has his own axe to grind against van der Merwe. They fixate on a beach the Dutchman owns where you can pick huge diamonds straight off the sands. It’s guarded by armed guards in watchtowers with ferocious dogs, and surrounded by an evil reef that slashes boats to pieces. But Jamie’s determined to go there and persuades Banda that what they need is a raft, which will obviously solve all these problems by floating over said evil reef, and then providing the necessary transport home. Well, this part of the adventure involves more near-death experiences than I care to recount, but by the power of fictional narrative, that can make anything happen and frequently does, they get their loot, become rich and the path is clear for a more concerted plan of revenge.
If you are worried that I am giving away masses of spoilers, don’t be! This barely accounts for the first 100 pages out of almost 700, and there’s squidillions of plot left to go, not to mention another three generations of family to account for. Jamie has a daughter, Kate, who is in fact the book’s main protagonist (I was describing the first part of the story to my son who said in horror ‘You mean all of that is just back story?’), who is, yup, you’ve guessed it, determined and ambitious to the point of psychosis, although that’s okay as that’s what it takes to make a good businesswoman. She has a son, Tony, who wants to be an artist, which falls very flat indeed with a mother whose defining characteristic is a borderline personality disorder, but before more tragedy strikes, he manages to squeeze out twins! Yes! And of those twins, one is pure evil, and the other pure saintliness, and the remainder of the book traces the evil one’s attempts to kill the saintly one. And I can tell you all of this, still quite safe in the knowledge that if you read the book, you would have many and varied surprises in store.
Sidney Sheldon sets a cracking pace. The First World War passes in a chapter. Three years spent in a prisoner of war camp for Kate and her mother during the Boer War only warrants a paragraph. And you’ll understand that Sheldon has a taste for placing his characters in extremis. Nothing less than survival, or sanity, is usually at stake. It’s all very silly to the part of the brain that takes reality checks, and all very gripping to the part of the brain that indulges fantasies. But Sheldon does it well; his prose is not beautiful, but it’s exquisitely economical. He zooms his reader through the decades with ease and never ever leaves you bewildered or confused as to what’s happening, despite the myriad twists and turns of the plot.
But the thing about books I love is that they cannot help but tell the truth, even in the most implausible and fantastic of scenarios. Master of the Game was published in 1982, the start of the greatest era of selfish capitalism the world has ever known, and although the book quite possibly intends to stand as the exact opposite, it provides a startling indictment of the obsession with creating wealth. In Sheldon’s novel, his characters seek to be masters of the game because the only alternative is slavery. That’s the binary opposition across which the whole caboodle of plot is balanced; you win or you lose, you live in extreme wealth or you die in humiliating poverty. But once in a position of mastery, his characters become tyrants. It’s intriguing to note that there is no distinction between heroes and villains; his favoured protagonists commit a multitude of appalling crimes, although no judgement is ever passed. That’s because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely and Sheldon’s novel accepts this with an unnervingly straight face. The desire to be rich, and the advantages wealth brings lead only to an obsession with making more money that is heartless, blinkered and ultimately insane. That’s what this book really shows; the wild excessiveness of selfish capitalism, which is a timely reminder as we’ve got so used to looking at it, we don’t see the ugliness of its outline anymore. I’m not sure it’s the first thing every reader would retain from the novel, but it certainly struck me.
But please tell me you noticed the miracle that is the book cover image at the top of this post? I send huge thanks and hugs for fantastic computer support from dear blogging friends Stefanie, for the image, Jodie, for uploading photos (which I will do as soon as I’m up and about) and Teresa for twitter, where you will now also find me. Their explanations have been so clear that even I could follow them!