If you asked me what cocktail of ingredients made up the novels of Jonathan Dee, I would say they were four parts Richard Yates, two parts postmodern hyperreal and the crusted salt around the rim would be a subtle sort of satire, that makes the reader wonder if the author might not actually be in dead earnest (but then again, surely not). This makes him, to my mind, a really interesting author, someone not afraid to let a few ideas loose in his narrative and put them on suicide watch. No he does not have ‘sympathetic’ characters and no, he is not one for uplifting enlightenment, but in my experience, being engaged intellectually in a novel makes those sorts of qualities recede into unimportance, and what he has to say about our contemporary culture is fascinating and necessary stuff.
Ah, I hear you cry, but what is the postmodern hyperreal? Do not dread the answer; it’s quite intriguing. Plato (not a good start, I know, but stick with me) was the first to recognise how easy it is to mistake an image for the real thing. Nowadays we are used to the idea that books, films, photographs etc, purport to ‘be’ reality, but they are a simulacrum. Well, the hyperreal is one step further, a model for reality where there is in fact no referent in the real world. Advertising is a very good case in point. Think of all those gorgeous supermodels sent to make women feel bad about themselves. They aren’t in fact ‘real’, but an effect of make-up, lighting and clever computer graphics. But the image they put across in our media-obsessed world is such a potent one that we measure ourselves against it, as it if were something we could actually attain. So the hyperreal is a place where we lose track of what’s real and what’s fantasy, as the two merge and melt into one another.
The first Jonathan Dee novel I read, Palladio, was all about the crazy world of advertising, and Dee did a brilliant job of playing with concepts of image and reality and what art might mean in a commercially dominated culture. The thing about his books I wholly appreciate is that the ideas are fully embedded in character and situation. You’re reading a story, not a philosophical tract, and one that is often very engaging. Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say you’re reading a story that is at heart allegorical. In his latest novel, A Thousand Pardons, he’s at it again with this question of image vs reality, only this time the issue in question is remorse and the worn-out dubious notion of the public apology.
The novel opens on a scene of marital crisis. Helen and Ben Armstead are in dire straits, hiding their visits to an unbearably smug couple’s counsellor beneath the veil of a ‘Date Night’ for their adopted Chinese daughter, Sara. When the councellor suggests they might find the practice of date nights helpful, they can only laugh hollowly. On this particular meeting, however, Ben suddenly falls apart and confesses the sickening boredom he feels in his life, the way its reliable sameness is suffocating him. Helen knows this is the end of their marriage, and that all she needs to do is wait. And indeed, before long Ben (a well-paid lawyer) has fallen in lust with a junior intern who will use her supposed victim status to destroy him, along with the drunk driving charge he acquires all by himself. Ben books into a detox clinic for an alcohol addiction he doesn’t have (but it looks better this way), and Helen is left with bad memories, unpaid debt and a sullen adolescent teen on her hands.
So she goes out and gets herself a job. She happens by chance on a struggling PR agency and discovers she has an unusual gift for the work. Her speciality is crisis management and her first case concerns the owner of a Chinese restaurant whose immigrant delivery workers are striking for a wage hike and back pay. The Chinese owner, clearly once an immigrant himself, feels utterly wronged, but Helen insists on a different approach:
”You will say that you are sorry,” Helen said. “You will not defend yourself. You will not contest any particular charge because contesting it is what allows people to keep talking about it. Without getting into specifics you will apologize, and ask your customers and the people of New York for forgiveness. And they will give it to you. They want to. People are quick to judge, Mr Chin, they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.”’
This proves to be an excellent strategy and Helen is soon deploying it everywhere. Dee has a lot of fun with the different problems that seek a PR solution, and never are the clients more outraged and more determined to avenge themselves than when they have actually been caught out doing something they shouldn’t. But Jonathan Dee isn’t writing a simplistic morality tale. Sometimes Helen’s clients are in all probability innocent, and they are made to apologise just the same, with the same positive results. And all of this plays out against the background of her collapsed marriage, in which pardon is never asked, nor granted, but something subtly shifts nevertheless. Perhaps because Ben is not simply putting forth a facile apology but is going through a long, slow process of penance instead. This is the sort of place where Dee is picking at the hyperreal – have we forgotten what a real apology looks like, preferring its perfectly simulated image?
The novel is full of instances of people doing wrong and trying to make it seem right, as part of an ongoing dilemma about public image. Fourteen-year-old Sara, for instance, the quintessentially disgruntled and hostile teenager, becomes caught up in the bad behaviour of almost-boyfriend, Cutter (the reviews I read seemed to think that Sara was the most ‘realistic’ of the characters, which I do hope is not true, or else, yikes for American teenhood). She longs to be seen as cool enough to be bad, whilst her real nature shrinks from the risk and anxiety. As the book develops so all the characters become drawn into the problems of a movie star, Hamilton Barth, in whom the problems of image have coalesced: he finds himself in crisis having lost his entire sense of self to his celluloid image.
If there’s a problem to Jonathan Dee’s novels, it’s that he doesn’t know how to end them; they were always explorations in the first place. Plus, if you read them as realism, then I don’t think they cohere. They have to be understood as allegorical, and the characters as concentrated essences of strange, new cultural traits. But I think he is one of the most interesting writers out there at the moment, and that the questions he asks about identity, image and reality are highly pertinent. I’ll certainly forgive him for having no ready answers.