Tuesday 11 December 2018

Literary mystery gets mired in ethical quandaries

Fiction: The Executor, Blake Morrison, Chatto & Windus, hardback, 336 pages, €20.10

The Executor by Blake Morrison
The Executor by Blake Morrison

Lucy Scholes

Matt Holmes, a 40-something deputy literary editor at a national newspaper is the narrator of Blake Morrison's new novel The Executor. Matt's got one novel under his belt that didn't exactly set the world of letters on fire, but these days, what with a wife and young family, he's all but abandoned his writing.

Back in the day though, when he was studying for his Master of Fine Arts in America, he became friends with the poet Robert Pope - and despite the age difference between them (Pope is now 60) and the relationship having since "dwindled to an annual lunch and occasional emails," they've remained relatively close. It's during one of these get-togethers that the novel opens, with Pope asking Matt if he'll be his literary executor, when the time comes.

Assuming this won't be for a while yet, Matt agrees. A few months pass, during which time Matt thinks nothings of his promise, but then he hears that Pope has died.

There's a real charm to the early pages of the book, Morrison conjuring up Matt's day-to-day life, whether it's the workings of the newspaper's books pages or the rhythms of family life, in a way that makes the mundane exhilarating. As such, when the hint of a literary mystery begins to take root - in clearing out Pope's study, Matt finds a folder of previously unpublished poems that not only mark a departure from Pope's usual style and subject matter, but more problematically, hint at a very different life from that Pope apparently led - it makes sense to expect a certain degree of twists and turns. Strangely though, this is not the direction Morrison takes. If anything, the narrative slows right down as Matt becomes mired in ethical quandaries.

Grounded in the here and now - his newspaper raises the possibility of Matt turning PI to uncover the real Elena Ferrante, but then an Italian reporter gets there first; everyone's shocked by the Brexit vote; a character gets a dig in about the ill-fated Garden Bridge project - The Executor is a strange mixture of precision and bagginess. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Morrison is a delight to read, but I can't in all honestly say I was particularly enthralled by the story told here. For all the freshness of its contemporary detail, it felt unadventurous and all too familiar. Yet one can't escape the feeling that Morrison's not blind to these problems.

Pope, for example, is surprisingly woke for a man of his age and position: "I had my moment. No one wants to hear poems by white, middle-aged, middle-class Englishmen any more. We're dinosaurs. Doubly disadvantaged - male and pale. Quite right, too. We ruled the roost for too long. I wouldn't listen to someone like me either."

How can we not think of Morrison himself as we read these lines? The suggestion then is that perhaps there's more going on beneath the surface here than meets the eye.

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