Book review: Overtaken by Alexei Sayle



If this was an evening at home it would be a flukily good art-house movie, a favourite sitcom, a good conversation, tasty leftovers and kinky sex.

Cover

A photo of a clown-shaped toy, possibly one of those rubber-ish nightlights that glow from the inside when switched on. Slightly disconcerting but not scary, although it does rather catch the eye. The text is exactly the same as the Absolutely Fabulous script book text. Which is a little bit strange.

Plot

Kelvin is a successful builder in his thirties. He has five fun-lovin’, equally successful friends with whom he spends most social occasions. The last of these outings is a trip to a circus, called cirKuss. It turns out to be a sort of Eastern European deconstructive circus pastiche starring a beautiful ringleader called Florence. On the way home from cirKuss, all five of Kelvin’s friends are killed in a horrific car wreck by an unlicensed tip-truck driver named Sidney.

Kelvin goes a little mad. Then he goes on a date with Florence, falls in love, and plots his revenge on Sidney.

The good

Ah, I really enjoyed this. Sayle’s short stories were punchy and inventive, and I was very interested to see what he could do with a novel.
Well, like his short stories, this is unmistakeably contemporary, literate yet playful and occasionally very funny. His characters are drawn minimally (as often through action as words, even the narrator) but acutely well, and Sayle knows exactly when they need to surprise, and when they need to do what we fear they would. Florence and Sidney are particularly concrete creations - Sidney is so well observed that, like some of Terry Pratchett’s best characters (not that I’m comparing the two authors in any way!), he almost comes across as a stereotype, even though he actually isn’t, a fact that becomes evident if you try to sum him up in a book review. (In case you care, he’s an epically myopic and selfish working-class git who frames himself as a humble battler & perpetual victim of the world’s slings and arrows, when in fact he’s a greedy little arsehole who exists at the tolerance and frequent sacrifice of society and the people around him. Sayle seems to have a powerfully attractive hatred for men of this stripe – perhaps his ‘political years’ brought him into contact with one too many!)

The pacing is fast but not frenetic, and Sayle doesn’t waste a word; there were actually times when movie-like editing skipped ahead over things another writer could’ve got an easy chapter from, and I found myself wishing Sayle was a little more self-indulgent as the back of the book loomed all too quickly.

Thematically, I’m not too sure what was going on here. There were some simple summaries I could see (such as, as the name suggests, the idea that as humans, and particularly Western ones, we tend to assume that our default pace is the normal pace, and if said pace can continue indefinitely then it shall remain so. If something knocks us off course, then suddenly we might be in a position to notice that in actual fact everybody else is travelling at completely their own speed and it’s all a bit arbitrary, really. Kelvin’s friends, for instance, had a medianising effect on each other, so when they die he literally DOES lose part of himself – all his social “settings”, without regular counter-adjustment, not only lack fine tuning but also a reason to exist in the first place. There is also an inversive quality to a lot of the characters, which is revealed in different ways – I think he might be talking about how much our surroundings affect us, yet also how little they do at a fundamental level – if the carpet is whipped from under your feet you can instantly find yourself doing something apparently totally apposite to everything you thought of as your normal behaviour, yet it IS you – it’s your normal behaviour, in fact, which is not.) But that’s just me taking a stab. I’m sure there’s more going on here but to be honest I was having too much fun to have a really good rummage.

The bad

It never feels 100% real – not the characters and the action so much (they’re quite warped enough to pass muster – don’t worry about the circus, this aint magic realism), but there is a certain mood prevailing which suggests that normal rules have been suspended. If this was his intention, then fine, and it may be a characteristic of his style (it works perhaps better in short stories, where the normal rules almost always HAVE been suspended), but it can occasionally put a remove between the author and the action. This remove is often lined with humour, which is enjoyable, but when there’s dirty work afoot, for instance, it insulates us from a certain amount of impact.

It really could have been a little bit longer, dammit! Personally I would not have been able to resist fleshing out the five friends a bit more before the accident (they do pop up in flashbacks a lot, but always in service to the plot – as I said, Sayle is anything except self-indulgent), even knowing they would play very minor roles afterwards, if only to solidify Kelvin’s starting point, and also admittedly to try NOT to let the reader know what was going to happen next, to make the crash more horrific. You could also argue that the ending is a bit abrupt, although it does work.

Sayle’s weakest area in my mind (and I may have been more keenly aware of this after my last book above) is some clumsy-ish foreshadowing. It shits me when people say this but I saw the ending surprise coming (it happens), but to then have it “hinted” toward very unsubtly about two pages before it does is adding insult to injury. I’ve never been 100% sure why writers do this. Sure, I know it’s in the novel playbook, and I can see the value of laying a clue or two so as to provide verisimilitude (even though life usually lacks it, you can certainly hamstring a story with one too many coincidences), but some writers treat it like a competition to see who can give away as much of the surprise as possible before revealing it. This aint striptease fools! Half the joy of the cinematic twist finale is the sound an audience makes when they connect the dots THEMSELVES.

What I learnt…

That, if you want to block off major British roads for construction work of any kind for any length of time, the local councils are more than happy to allow this.



Title: Overtaken
Author: Alexei Sayle
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 0340767685
Year published: 2003
Pages: 288

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.