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.
What luck to be able to speak to the author himself. Dying to know what your questions were- though I do know one of them, of course. I didn’t share your initial feeling about Charlie having emerged unscathed at the end. It seemed to me that even if he wouldn’t put it to himself so clearly, he was aware that he was tarnished by what he’d done. And Anna is beginning to bend a much more questioning eye on their relationship, weighing up what it’s going to cost her.
If you select the whited out words with your cursor you should be able to see them, Gert. I think, though, that they’re questions anyone would have. And you’re clearly a more perspicacious reader than I am. Or less prepared to swallow a narrator’s version of things
Aha. I’ll reflect on the other two.
What Gert, you couldn’t read the questions? Must be your computer. Or perhaps you should try another browser. Or wait, maybe you need special glasses!
Seriously, though, Jonathan, loved your write up. It’s great having the author present isn’t it. It’s interesting hearing what they intended and why they did what they did. It makes me wonder though about those who argue that the text should stand completely alone vs though who think other factors can be considered such as author intentions.
All I needed was a glass of Quealy Vineyard’s ‘East” (highly recommended for technological problems) and I was away. Yes, it would be great to be able to corner writers and question them, but on the other hand I do think the text should stand on its own merits.I certainly believe that about poetry. There’s nothing more maddening at a poetry reading than poets who insist on explaining the poems before they read them.
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Haha Gert. Yes, I largely agree with you. The insight writers provide can enhance the reading, but the work has to make sense on its own. Sometimes though I think a work needs two readings before you can honestly assess whether it comes together. If we can’t do that second reading and if the author can flesh out some issues in a way that we can “see” then I think that’s valid.
That’s such an interesting question – the death of the author and all that. In this case Richard as author could add to our understanding of the book in two ways – that’s apart from the interesting tales of its genesis and reception. First, he’d read it much more closely than any of us, so could remind us of key moments we might have missed or forgotten, like Anna hoping she wasn’t going to have an unnecessary confession. Second, in this book there’s a hugely significant offstage incident, the details of which are never revealed, but feel as if they could be deduced from various participants’ behaviour afterwards. While it was absolutely right that the novel made no revelations, it was very gratifying after the event to be told on condition of complete sekrissy the contents of two chapters that ended on the cutting room floor. I hope Richard puts the missing chapters up on the web with some kind of protection so you can’t read them until you’ve read the novel, and possibly given your own best guess about what happened
That’s what happens at the end of The Sopranos! So I don’t need to watch it after all lol.
Oh no! I should have put that in white as well! Is it eve safe to say that Laertes kills Hamlet in the end?
I was convinced that it would be all tied up neatly with the revelation that Francesca was pregnant to the coach. In a way I’m glad it didn’t.
I’m glad it didn’t go there too, Julian. Much as I wanted Richard to get his come-uppance, it’s a better book for having frustrated that desire