A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
At the beginning of this year, Luke Haines – Britpop’s eccentric genius, late of The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder, et al. – published Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall, a bitter and hilarious insider chronicle to which Tim Mitchell’s Truth and Lies in Murder Park makes a brilliant companion piece. Taking a completely different tack, Mitchell succeeds in the almost impossible task of rendering Haines acerbic, antagonistic, but always fascinating lyrical style in fiction.
Mitchell’s novel centres on Haines fictional mansion, Eastworth Hall, and takes the form of the diary of a writer invited there to write a book on Haines, but who instead finds himself in the middle of a world populated with characters and scenarios from Haines’ music. We quickly realise that he isn’t going to get the interview with Haines that he hopes for, and what seemed to be a simple assignment becomes something much more sinister.
From here we are deeply in Haines territory: showgirls and terrorists, murderers and victims, lost children and superior domestic staff, art and politics, truth and lies, are all paraded before the writer (and the reader) as Haines’ songs are dramatised in the grounds of the mansion. What starts as a kind of spectacle gradually becomes more and more real for the writer, until he becomes trapped in a confusing and nightmarish alternative reality, watched over by the belligerent ‘editor’.
It is a rich and varied literary playground which, for anyone with an interest in the material, is going to prove irresistibly attractive. Over 250 pages Mitchell takes us on a unique tour of Haines’ mind and there is not one point at which he loses the feel. If you like Haines, you are going to like this book.
Which is also part of the problem. This book is so consistently – one might say remorselessly – Hainesian that the general reader might not be able to tolerate it. Many of the decisions Mitchell takes as a writer are directed at establishing and maintaining atmosphere and mood and, if you don’t enjoy these aspects of the book, you’ll probably be unwilling to overlook the fact that the writing doesn’t give you a traditional reading experience. Mitchell shifts from fiction to fact and from narrative to journalistic style without much warning. At the end of every chapter the story is recapped from the editor’s perspective, explaining events and undermining the mystery of what we are being shown. The editor regularly tells us which songs the writer’s experiences represent, and while Mitchell is understandably keen to document his allusions, it takes the reader out of the fictional world, and is a hand-holding that risks patronising the book’s core market – people who might be expected to enjoy getting the allusions on their own.
That said, the editor, like the rest of the book, is well written and anyone reading this will not be disappointed by the quality of the writing. Mitchell’s prose is accomplished and, given the diversity of the material, he does a brilliant job of maintaining consistency. His history as a chronicler of musicians serves him well here, and while there is an occasional slide into the biographical, fact driven, completist, hero-worshipping anality that characterises the band book, this is undeniably a valuable addition to music literature, and something any fan of Haines should immediately pick up.
benben press 2009 250pp ISBN 13: 978-0955631948
Tim Mitchell has also written books on Jonathan Richman, John Cale and Television. You can find out more at www.timmitchell.org.uk
Alex Pheby’s first novel Grace is about a matricidal and delusional asylum escapee’s relationship with an orphan and her reclusive grandmother. It is available from Two Ravens Press. You can read Alex’s blog at The Story of the I.