The Numb Also Rises
By Max Dunbar.
My Biggest Lie, Luke Brown, Canongate 2014
‘Brown’s deliciously tricksy novel encourages its reader to pay attention to correspondences between art and life,’ the novelist Jenn Ashworth writes, reviewing this book in the Guardian. ‘Brown is unafraid to let contradictions lie side by side.’ Jenn’s recommendation was enough to make me curious about this debut by editor turned writer Luke Brown, and the cover is full of similar raves — ‘It’s rare to find writing so lucid and honest at once, and in a book where pages turn themselves,’ says DBC Pierre. ‘I loved this book! It is wickedly funny and razor sharp,’ gushes Catherine O’Flynn. Rarely, in my experience as a reader, has the hype been so wrong. My Biggest Lie is an awful book, and through it, you’re torn from hysterical laughter and wanting to hurl the fucking thing across the room.
The plot — such as it is — goes like this. Brown’s protagonist Liam Wilson is an ex-editor of a regional indie publisher who has hit the big time in London. He has fled to Buenos Aires after screwing up a long-term relationship, and after a chaotic night out during which his star writer, a man named Craig Bennett, has died of heart failure. Here I should explain that Luke Brown, the author, spent some years as senior editor at Tindal Street Press, probably the best independent publisher bar Canongate, where he published novels in the social realist tradition — some superb novels, some not so good ones too, but most of them dealing with poverty, exploitation and hard times in the Britain that the boom forgot. Well, after ten years or so Brown must have got fed up with all that, and My Biggest Lie embraces the glamour and intrigue of literary members-club London. ‘We had realised that we did like food, as long as it was food you could consume like drugs: we liked oysters — and had been necking them like tequila shots for the last half hour.’ ‘In the course of consumption we acquired two actresses and four missed calls from Bennett’s publicist, two from our mutual agent and one, worryingly, from my CEO.’ Cocaine! Mephedrone! Publicists! Actresses! Cocktails! Zing! Pow! There are writers, of course, who write about excess very well. Bret Easton Ellis, obviously. John Niven. Brown isn’t one of them. Check this line: ‘It was my fault. I’d always had something squirrelled away; I’d created expectations. (That euphemism: we were expected to drugs.)’ What does this mean? Why is it in brackets? Whenever Brown tries to write knowing, and stylish, he just sounds insipid.
That London sequence, unfortunately, is the high point of the novel. On arrival in Buenos Aires, Brown’s relationship to narrative momentum, never secure to begin with, collapses completely. The city itself is well described, but nothing actually happens. The reader has time to notice My Biggest Lie‘s multiple flaws as a book. The banal, mannered cod-philosophy:’Knowing how to dress themselves is one of the reasons why women are indubitably, objectively, more attractive than men, whatever one’s sexual preference’. The clunking dialogue: ‘It is one of the most popular deviancy among young women: their attraction to old men’. The zero-dimensional characters: Brown’s women are interchangeable add-ons — even the ex who his narrator mourns is barely a cipher. The publicity material compares this stuff to Philip Roth. Surely Lord Leveson should set guidelines down about such comparisons. Put it this way: if Russell Brand ever gets round to writing a literary novel, it will be like My Biggest Lie. Brown makes taking drugs sound boring.
I do understand that there are supposed to be big themes here — fatherhood and love and loss. But the characters are so indistinct that these never develop. Liam’s two father figures, Craig Bennett and James Cockburn (there is a ludicrous subplot about James Cockburn falling out of a window) are basically the same character. The names are wrong — they don’t sound like real people. As for love, you have to write about women as people to write a convincing love story, and Brown doesn’t. The only striking female character is the literary critic Olivia Klein, who could have become a decent foil to Brown’s protagonist if he had enough talent or motivation to develop Klein’s role. The title itself is meaningless. What is the biggest lie? Love? Art? Who knows, and after 273 pages of this, who cares? In an otherwise positive review, Jenn Ashworth concedes that ‘In the book Liam doesn’t reach a new level of understanding.’ As Liam says in one of the book’s many moments of lumbering bathos: ‘It is sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there are so many of us.’ But haven’t you heard? Being a dickhead’s cool!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 27th, 2014.