Killing the Messenger by Christopher Wallace

PrintE-mail Written by Kate Fathers

We interrupt your regularly scheduled review to bring you… politics.

Don’t let this stop you from reading. I’m not going on an ill-placed (because this is, after all, a book review column) diatribe about whatever is happening in Downing Street, about what politicians are and are not doing, about all that is wrong and what few things are right with government. This is not a soapbox. Or at least, not that kind of soapbox; rather, instead of the second volume of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I meant to give you, this month we have the best kind of politics: literary politics. A political thriller, to be precise.

As a holdover from my Masters degree, myself and three of my former classmates are working to put together a course anthology which will be published through Freight Design in Glasgow. During a meeting I was asked what every bookworm dreams of being asked: to read (and review) a book that hasn’t been released yet. Suffice it to say, my cheeks were protesting I was smiling so wide.

Launching on September 19th, Killing the Messenger is the second novel from Christopher Wallace, who won the 1988 Saltire First Book of the Year Award for The Pied Piper’s Poison. It’s a long-awaited book, the gap between this and his previous work something rarely seen from new writers. But if that was the time he needed to craft this, then I think it was well worth it. Other writers have compared the novel to The Thick of It, so says the press release, and I think it’s a valid comparison. It’s not a celebration of British politics; not something that instills a great sense of patriotism like so many American films and television shows would do in its place (The West Wing comes to mind). Instead it displays all of the flaws of the political world, the avarice and the selfishness (which I found was a huge theme), set starkly against a London sky. And of course, set against the motivations of its two primary characters.

Calum Begg is Malcolm Tucker with less creative swearing (mores the pity). He is driven and power hungry and has little loyalty to anyone save himself. He has hardly any family and nothing outside of his job at Harlequin, an ad agency. Well, except the Beatles, whose appearance gives us one of the few glimpses into Cal’s childhood and consequently propels him into a position as more than the two-dimensional character I had found him to be up until that point. The scene is surprisingly vivid, Cal leading Caroline, his coworker-turned-girlfriend, through his sparse apartment. You can see how utilitarian it is, bare white walls and what your mind conjures as IKEA furniture. And then, in the middle of one wall, Rubber Soul, the only thing that makes Cal’s flat a home instead of a place he keeps his unchanging wardrobe. At this point is also when we get a heavier description of the external world, which contributes to the addition of another dimension in Cal’s character. All of the chapters from Cal’s perspective are in first person, a first person so closely held that it’s like you’re sitting in his brain. Description of action and setting is sparse, but you know every thought that sweeps through Cal’s mind, which lets you hear the delightful name-calling and badmouthing he does throughout.

The rest of the novel is occupied by Dr Greig Hynd, a psychologist who finds himself an MP and hopelessly out of his depth. His chapters are written in third person, a refreshing change from wandering around Cal’s frustrated mind. Greig is, seemingly, everything Cal isn’t. He’s compassionate, he’s naïve, he is loyal to his co-workers who are loyal to him in return, and he has a wife and two children. He is more positive—more well-adjusted—and focused on others for the sake of making their lives better rather than caring only so that they can benefit him in some way. It is what motivates him to become an MP, this desire to help others have better mental health. He, effectively, wants to do what many politicians must want when they start out: to make the world a better place.

No desire has ever gone so unfulfilled.

Cal and Greig are two sides of the same coin, because for all of their differences they have similarities as well. Both find themselves elevated, Cal by the promise of what completing Greig’s—an MP’s—campaign will do for his career and Greig by becoming that MP; both find themselves involved with the group Sea of Tranquility, both want success, and both are sexually involved with co-workers. Reading them side by side, switching from one perspective to another, is almost like reading the “what if” of a single character. What if Cal was married when he got together with Catherine? What if Greig wasn’t so idealistic? Neither character is superior to the other, neither one turning into the hero or the villain because real life—and politics—isn’t so cut and dry.

That entire notion—the complexity of politics—is encapsulated by Sea of Tranquility. They are a key presence throughout the novel, hovering in everyone’s thoughts and dialogue even if the representatives of this group aren’t in the room. And that’s what they do, hover, never forming roots. When Cal (and consequently the reader) finally gets a glimpse of their headquarters they aren’t even unpacked, adding to this feeling, this lack of roots—of solidity. Greig is wary of them at first and Cal becomes more suspicious of them as the novel goes on, fueled by how nebulous this group leaves things. And why shouldn’t they be after they see what Sea of Tranquility can do?

They can, after all, manipulate people’s minds.

I’m not being facetious when I say that; Sea of Tranquility, using technology in the form of video, can manipulate the mind. We first see it at the beginning of the novel, when Greig uses their work during one of his presentations. It’s changed from when he first saw it, and already you can see a greater manipulation unfolding and marionette strings wind their way round Greig’s wrists and knees. At first he thinks it’s interesting, the swirls of colour and pulse of sound, but then he falters as “[a] hundred or more [people] reach[ed] out to him, only the force of those behind them preventing them from mounting the stage…Hysteria. Unmistakable, as frightening as it was fascinating.” The reaction of his colleague, Catherine, only adds to as she tells him

“‘[i]t was that…thing you insisted on playing…that bloody swirling loud thing. Makes me dizzy just to think about it…Plunging us all in darkness too…Disgraceful. […] You should be ashamed of hyping up our audience like that…This hysteria is not what I worked for. I don’t know where it’s going or meant to go or where it is in your mind that you want to go.’”

It’s rather frightening foreshadowing, because Greig is never certain in any action, always walking through sand that shifts beneath his feet and putting any trust in Sea of Tranquility doesn’t help him. He never knows what he wants or where he’s going or what the hell he’s doing. His marionette strings grow awfully tight.

The reaction of the crowd and Catherine isn’t the worst of it, of course. There’s the woman from the convention he presented at who attacks Greig in his office and there are the two Harlequin freelancers who end up in hospital after paying Sea of Tranquility a visit and watching their videos. It bleeds into Cal’s side of the novel, into Harlequin and the campaign they’re working on and eventually Cal goes to see them, and the reader is given a striking account of what Sea of Tranquility can do, and how dangerous they are.

Sea of Tranquility is, in essence, a manifestation of the dreams of every politician alive. They can send hundreds of people into raptures over Greig, like hypnotism, making people believe wholeheartedly in a cause or a group or a single person. Like Greig. Like the PM. It’s the perfect political tool, and who cares if a few people fall by the wayside, minds cracked by what they’ve seen? Use Sea of Tranquility and you never have to worry about not being elected again. You can make people love you no matter the scandal, can make them believe in any agenda or be supportive of any bill. It represents the ultimate selfishness of politics, the self-absorption that causes the people involved to put themselves first and their country second. And while, yes, politicians have to do something that make sure they are able to stay in office and consequently do the good that they have promised, are such extreme measures necessary? If the novel shows us anything it’s that goodness is an affectation, and 99% of governing is all about staying in your House seat.

Selfishness versus selflessness is a key theme of the novel. Wallace impresses upon his readers that politics is in and of itself a selfish profession couched in selfless language. Politicians promise to give of themselves, to do everything they can to make their country better, but when it comes down to it how the public perceives them and how their every action affects their image becomes their core focus instead of doing good. In the short time the novel covers, Greig barely does any governing, instead spending the majority of his time focused on subverting the scandal his affair causes. Like many politicians, Greig goes into politics with altruistic reasons, which unfortunately morph into the aforementioned selfish desire to keep himself in power, to the detriment of the cause he became an MP to promote. And in order to stay in power, Greig pushes aside any misgivings he and others have regarding Sea of Tranquility. While it’s understandable why Greig’s focus would shift, and it’s understandable why it needs to happen (I am, however, completely of the opinion that more would get done in government if the public gave less of a crap over what politicians were doing in their bedrooms), he is completely aware of what he’s doing and for that I found he had, for all his naïveté, transformed into a selfish character.

Cal is affected by this selfishness as well. As I’ve said before, as the novel progresses Greig finds himself becoming more willing to accept Sea of Tranquility—less wary—while in the reverse Cal becomes more wary of it, to the point that he tries everything to cut Harlequin’s ties with them, including going behind his boss’ back. You could say that this is a selfless act, since without Sea of Tranquility the campaign may not succeed and the repercussions would likely be detrimental to Cal’s career, especially since he was the one to cut them loose. But there is something there, something in his desire for success in the campaign that leeches any altruism from his actions.

This sounds like a fairly depressing book so far, doesn’t it? But there is a bright spot in all of this, in the muddled world of grey area politics where no one is good and no one is bad and you hardly know who to root for. Hovering from their first appearance in the novel, the swatch of colour in the rain-soaked scenery, just like in Cal’s apartment, are the Beatles. They are our connection to what makes the characters (Cal especially) human. They remind us that they are human, for all of their faults, characters who despite the world they inhabit still have simple desires and comparatively simpler things, like family. For Cal, it’s his only non-Harlequin related interest, the thing his father believed in more than God. It’s his connection to his father as surely as it’s the reader’s connection to Cal’s past—to a time more easily explained and to a relationship that was, at least superficially, simpler. His dad loved the Beatles, therefore Cal loved them, therefore they loved each other. They are such a part of Cal’s life that after every mention song titles are woven into the text, just like the Beatles and all that they represent weave themselves through the story. Predominantly, I found that they acted as a replacement: “‘growing up with no religion, no ideology and having a gap that needs to be filled. Growing up without a mother’s love. The need to believe in something, and my father…gave us [the Beatles] to fill the gap’” Cal says, and even in his explanation there is proof of that belief, of his having taken their lyrics into himself like a communion. “Growing up with no religion”; Cal both calls upon the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and critiques them, because Cal grew up in the household Lennon’s song describes, and in the absence of possessions and religion substitutions were made. Whole theses can be written about whether or not society would be able to function without religion, if we would, in its absence, find something to worship in its place. For Cal, at least, that seems to be true.

There are only two albums named in the novel: Rubber Soul and Help. Rubber Soul is the first one, an album that pretty much encapsulates Cal’s entire character. He is the “Nowhere Man”, hardly anything tying him to London or Britain or even the planet except for Harlequin. The album is about absence, as is Cal’s life—the absence of his parents and his brother, of friends and romance and hobbies, of roots and aspirations. After listening to it, all I could think about was him, and frankly thought he should have just made Caroline listen to it when they first got together. It would have saved a lot of time.

Help functions, I think, more the way the song does rather than the album itself. John Lennon wrote it as an outcry, a plea he possibly couldn’t voice otherwise, and I think that is exactly what it is doing for Cal. He is screaming for assistance, assistance he won’t even ask for inside his own head, and when he puts up that poster it is the only way he can ask for assistance with complete honesty. The fact that he puts it up right before meeting Caroline, the one person who not only saw but vocalized what Cal’s job and lifestyle was doing to him, is a powerful moment. And it’s made even more powerful by what comes afterwards.

Aside from what the Beatles say about Cal, they also function on a larger scale. The messages that the Beatles displayed through their music, in all of their albums including the ones mentioned by name, are the messages that the characters in the novel have lost sight of, ones that they are promoting but only as an excuse to further hollow political careers. Friendship and love and peace are pounded down by greed and self-absorption, and even Greig’s ultimate goal—the reason for his position in Parliament—of positive mental health is overwhelmed by the political machine. But just like the Beatles lyrics themselves, their messages poke through, in the strength of Greig’s wife and in what Caroline tells Cal and, in the end, the moment of clarity when we see that Greig’s desire to help people hasn’t been completely crushed.

It is a wonderfully structured book, and for those of you who enjoy this genre I recommend it. And even for those who normally wouldn’t, like me, because this is such a startlingly real book. It takes you out of your comfort zone, dropping you into the mind of someone you sometimes want to shake and into a world full of jargon you may have to read twice to understand. It makes you think, not only about politics but also about some of the important things in life: family and friends and love, always love.

Love is all you need.

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