"What is truth?" asks the old Johnny Cash song. This philosophical question might also serve as the tagline for English novelist Sebastian Faulks' unusual new work, Engleby. Quite a departure from such burly wartime fictions as Charlotte Gray and Birdsong and certainly nothing like what we might expect from the new James Bond novel Faulks was recently commissioned to write by the Ian Fleming estate Engleby is the unreliable narrative of a madman. Or is it?It is clear from the start that Mike Engleby has a brilliant mind, but reading between the lines as he tells his own story, it is apparent that his version of things is highly subjective, not to say false. From unpromising working-class origins in the provincial city of Reading, he has been singled out as bright and sent to one of those British boarding schools where sadism among the boys is a given. Mike tells us he suffered his fair share of humiliation at the hands of some upperclassmen (not to mention his father). Happier at Cambridge University, he enjoys the boho student life of the early '70s. Or so he implies, in the flat, unemotional way that he chronicles all events. The fact that he chain-smokes, drinks to excess and pops Valium to get him through the more taxing social situations hints at less than paradise.
There is a girl, Jennifer Arkland, with whom Engleby is quite taken, and it is on her fate that the novel pivots. When Jen disappears one night after a party, Engleby is questioned by the police, but so are all the others in their circle. No one is charged with the abduction and presumed murder. Engleby graduates from college and heads to London, where he somewhat haphazardly finds work as a journalist. (One can't help wondering if Faulks, a former journalist himself, is suggesting that our man's talent for fabrication makes him well suited for a newspaper career.) For a time, all seems to be going quite well for Engleby, although he does suffer the occasional rage-filled panic attack. While he remains a loner for the most part, he begins to date, and eventually moves in with a woman he meets at work. But some might find it odd that he still has Jennifer's diary, which he stole from her room before she disappeared and has committed to memory.
Jennifer's decomposing corpse will eventually be found and Engleby's fortunes will change with its discovery. It is at this point that readers begin to get a real sense of the magnitude of Engleby's lies. But they may not be lies in the accepted sense, for despite his savant-like capacity to remember the smallest detail (and every word of that purloined diary), Engleby genuinely doesn't recall certain moments of his life including what happened the night Jennifer disappeared (or his possible involvement in a number of other violent crimes). Faulks manages to pull off something quite difficult in Engleby, creating an obviously disturbed character who is still compelling, if not sympathetic. But is there a larger point to the book? There appears to be more going on than just the psychological portrait of a possible killer. Faulks has laid the skin of his story over the framework of a social history of Britain during the last three decades of the 20th century, from glam rock to Margaret Thatcher to the wave of immigration from former Third World colonies. These references no doubt resonate more for the British reader who, like Engleby in the end, might feel a little left behind by these societal shifts. Americans, who experienced some of the same issues during this period, but in very different ways, may feel less of a connection to this abandonment of core British values.
So, for those of us on this side of the pond, Engleby must sink or swim on the strength of its depiction of a dangerous mind. For the most part it floats with grace. Faulks could have picked up the pace a bit (there's a repetition of information that serves the subtle shifts in Engleby's story, but it does tend to slow down the narrative), but there's really no way he could have improved upon Mike Engleby himself. At once chilling and funny, narcissistic and engaging, he joins a small literary pantheon of amoral, seductive antiheroes like Mr. Ripley and Hannibal Lecter, who fascinate us and draw us to them, in spite of the repulsion we might feel.
This month Robert Weibezahl celebrates his fifth anniversary as Well Read columnist.