Richard McHugh, Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying (Viking 2015)
Before the meeting: This book made me realise how little of my reading is just for the fun of it. It’s a comedy of manners set in the world of business consultants, bank executives and corporate CEOs after the financial crisis. The first chapter introduces Charlie Anderson, a brilliant consultant whose life is just as he’d want it: a wife who is the love of his life, three wonderful daughters, a girlfriend with no strings attached, and a belief in cheerful deceit that keeps it all working. We just know things are going to go terribly wrong. And they do.
Charlie runs foul of every one of these women, plus a couple more, to excellent comic effect. The domestic relationships are beautifully evoked: in particular, I feel as if I know each of the three daughters (and am glad I only have sons!). It’s quite an achievement that even though we are made privy to the long and not terribly profound meditations of Charlie and his wife the story zings along. None of the narrative threads lead to anything much: we never find out what happened in a crucial offstage incident; a situation that looks as if it’s going to lead to major catastrophe evaporates without explanation; some actions taken with a great sense of jeopardy have no consequences at all. Maybe the point is that self-deceivers like Charlie get off scot-free, but it felt to me that, apart from a single stinging wordless moment at the end of the chapter before the epilogue, there’s just no pay-off: like a detective story where foreshadowed crimes don’t happen, and confession to real crimes go unpunished.
It’s an enjoyable ride all the same.
The meeting: Richard McHugh came to our meeting – he’s a friend of one of us. He arrived late, which, as someone said, gave us a chance to get all our slagging-off out of the way so we could be civil to the man himself. In the event, there wasn’t any slagging off as such, and the conversation wasn’t painfully civil. We all had a good time, including Richard. He said the three weeks doing publicity since the book was published had been hard work, and it was a pleasure to sit with a group of men who’d actually read the book, especially given that the general wisdom is that it’s mostly women who read fiction. (We were silent about the man in the room who had only reached the halfway point.) I had a list of questions, which I’ll put in white so as not to foist spoilers on you:
- Did Anna know about Charlie’s philandering?
- What actually happened at the barbecue?
- Why didn’t anything come of Charlie’s confession to the police?
It may be Richard’s first published novel, but he wasn’t naive enough to answer the questions outright. He replied to all of them with ‘What do you think?’, but then spoke interestingly. In particular, it turned out that one of the questions had been explicitly answered in an earlier version of the book. He told us what had been cut, and I think we all agreed that the novel worked better with those parts removed, but we were still glad to know the answer. Our own surmises had all been less interesting.
While I still feel the lack of pay-off is a frustrating element, my sense of the ending has changed. I had bought into the central character’s smug belief that he had come though the events of the novel unscathed, seeing the faint rumblings of disquiet around the edges as relatively insignificant. Now I think of it as more like the pleasant family gathering at the end of The Sopranos, where we know that men with machine guns are going to come out of the restaurant toilet and kill them all as soon as the show is over. Charlie doesn’t get his come-uppance in the novel, but the writing is on the wall.