Who needs friends when you have clever and hapless brats to spend quarantine with? Naoise Dolan's Exciting Times, a comedy of (bad) manners short-changed by this pandemic, is so brilliantly executed it's a little too brilliant, and that is the only complaint I can think of.
This is Dolan's debut novel, sold at a seven-way auction and the author is already ticking all the boxes of literary stardom. A Dubliner still in her twenties who studied at Trinity and Oxford University, her voice has a polymathic quality of dazzle. (Unrelatedly, I just scanned her Twitter to see she describes herself as a "queer autistic novelist".)
The story is set among a group of young ex-pats living in Hong Kong, a will they/won't they, are they/aren't they love story of sorts between Ava, an offbeat Dubliner more interested in linguistics than people; Julian, a spoilt Etonian banker; and Edith, a Hong-Kong born lawyer who charms and disarms everybody.
Struggling to pay rent, Ava moves in with Julian and they have a nonchalant fling so coolly described it's almost irrelevant. "I wished Julian were married. It would make me a powerful person who could ruin his life," writes Ava. "I wanted other people to care about me more than I did about them."
When Julian goes to London on business, Ava meets the devastating and influential Edith, and they begin a furtive relationship.
To call it a love triangle would be a dumb-down. Coming-of-age love is told in technicolour, a whirlwind where young lives intersect with daily news, environmental apocalypse, the stock market, international politics, major referenda and basically anything else you can think of - including, unavoidably, the big books these kids have all read. Pretentiousness abounds - and we forgive the folly of youth.
Epistolary in the way everything is today, this is an account of love on the internet, with hilarious use of unsent drafts and an astute guide to Instagram stalking.
Indeed the story is so contemporary, the protagonist at one point even finds herself wearing a "mint green face mask" to prevent the spread of infection. "At lunch I googled and discovered the mask was likelier, if anything, to breed germs by trapping hot air."
Comparisons with another Irish author, Sally Rooney, have been discussed, though to reduce these two writers to one school seems a little unfair, as if there is only room for one brilliant Irish woman at a time.
The characters are acutely believable and part of Naoise Dolan's great skill is in making dislikeable types loveable. Ava is a "communist", she claims, then racks up expenses on her banker friend's credit card and lounges in Starbucks - though of course narrators aren't known for their reliability. While Julian is drawn with wicked humour and put-down. "I'm still not entirely sure you're not the guy in American Psycho," writes Ava. Edith in particular comes alive, immaculately dressed, working on her iPad at the theatre - "I was afraid I'd get something on her clothes, a piece of fluff or a stray hair". The sadness of her closet sexuality is keenly expressed. Holding Julian's hand in public was like "holding a museum pass, and holding hers was like holding a grenade".
A small world of entitlement is satirised. Boarding schooled bankers, Sloane rangers, even a Gonzaga boy - contrasted lovingly with Ava's eye-rolling mother on the phone from Dublin. There are tremendous pithy set pieces, like the scene in which Ava goes to visit Edith's rich family. "Mrs Zhang told Edith she was getting fat then ordered the maid to make us dumplings."
And there is real, thumping love at the heart of the book, even if it is never expressed without cynicism. When Ava buys an expensive Jo Malone candle after her first dates with Edith, she muses: "For her, I'd burn a candle worth four hours' pay to me, i.e. one-sixth of a day, thinking: the other five-sixths are there too if you want them".
In terms of a story, not a lot is at stake, since the plot hangs on Ava's betrayal of Julian, who doesn't appear to care a jot. For long passages, not much happens outside Ava's head. But that's also the reason you read on, to inhabit this exciting place and its restless observations and mordant wit.
The dialogue is shipshape, tight and as competitive as a game of table tennis on an Ivy League campus. Deadpan is used to assassinate characters in one blow: "Ralph's girlfriend Victoria was good at wearing clothes." To regain power over the powerful: "There was something Shakespearean about imperious men going down on you. The mighty have fallen." Or to draw the complexities of emotions. "At work I imagined nice things that might happen to me if I were a different person."
Here lies the problem, too. Banging lines follow banging lines. Your underlining pen destroys the pages.
"You never switch off, do you," Julian tells Ava at one point and he makes a good point. Every line is so unrelentingly clever, with so many quips, so many mental drum rolls it becomes pretty demanding. Does anyone really have such interesting friends, producing choice quotes at the rate most people say "em"? Not really. But it's hardly a serious criticism when a first novel offers too great an escape. With Exciting Times comes a rare and indeed exciting talent, a cacophony of our times, a treat for the socially distanced.